Just to have a laugh; or, On the Serious Fun of Art

I love reading interviews with Ai Weiwei (a name that roughly means Ai of the unknown what’s next). He reminds me, with both his work and his words, that work is best made of play.

Ai Weiwei’s work is serious play — pillars wrapped in life vests…until you realize the work is about all the refugees who have fled by boat, some to survive, some to die. A giant arch of bikes…that address the strict uniformity of some cultures. Ai is deadly earnest in his fun.

Robert Frost says it this way in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes yield one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

I never want to stray far in my work from that sense of work as play, and the idea of mortal stakes. Which is not to say I want to take myself so seriously and think my work is going to make any shred of difference in the world. But I think to some degree, I have to believe it might.

Or maybe just the fact that I’m doing the creative work I do is enough to make some kind of difference in some strange way to something like the universe’s energy field. To get REALLY woo woo and take-myself-serious-y on you.

I don’t know. Is this just me trying to justify my sitting here? I’ve done all kinds of work in my life thus far, a life that looked like what the culture expects — I got dressed, went to an office, did stuff, wrote memos, developed reports. Even when I worked at home, I helped other people do stuff that was similar. I had “a job,” of sorts. Now in this freefall lifestyle of making, I frequently feel culturally illegitimate.

But of the work I did in ten years of working for state government, not an iota still exists, except in the form of somebody’s bookshelf that might have a dusty copy of one of the major things I helped develop. Of the work I did in college admission, I doubt if anyone knows anything of what I did to help an individual or the process. So really, unless you’re doing groundbreaking research, advocacy, or saving someone’s life, is any of this work we all run around doing really “for mortal stakes”?

But don’t we need to believe we can make a difference? And don’t we need, for our own mortal sake, to take ourselves with a grain of salt, and don’t we need to have a little bit of fun every day? Yes. I say yes to that.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Ai said that if he stopped making art, he’d become a barber. When asked if he couldn’t mix art and barbering, he said, absolutely not. “You would never mix such a holy profession with art.”

It’s Thoreau, that gadfly, who gives me the last word and some poet-specific encouragement. He wrote: “The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving.” To that I’d add: and laughing.


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