Art is not so much the colors and shapes, the words and music that dazzle our senses; it is the persistent process of discovery that carried the work from the artist's hands into being and then on into our hands. So often what we admire in the artist is the skilled craftsmanship, the precision - the physical feat we are not able to accomplish. But the essence of the artist has more to do with the honesty and the strength of his desire to bring a personal discovery into a more universal focus - a vision, incidentally, which is almost by definition within the audience's grasp.
But we are a determinedly thing oriented society. The ultimate measure of success is ''results,'' rarely the process of their achievement. ''The bottom line'' (as people in the art of business and the business of art are so fond of saying) ''is the product.'' Whether that creation involves a sense of discovery is a secondary matter. There is a vital distinction between the crafting of an object and the artist's exploration that gave rise to it. The difference between the scores of technically proficient craftsmen and the true artist is often the difference between work that might highlight a living room and a canvas that can stimulate your imagination for a long stretch of years.
I learned something of the vast distinction between ''art'' and the ''artwork'' from an extraordinarily talented young artist I am fortunate enough to know as a friend. For the purpose of anonymity, I will call him ''Adam'' because it is not yet his desire to bring his work into the public marketplace. One afternoon, when I was visiting his home, I had the extreme pleasure of actually watching the artist in action during the white-hot moments of creativity. The painting he was working on was a dreamlike scene of a king on a hillside surveying his domain. The king-figure's arms were thrown open wide; his spikey crown seemed to hover above his head like a nimbus; strange plant life rose up exuberantly all around his feet. It was a glorious work, full of mystery and a sense of triumph. I could feel the artist's mood shifting as he added great blue-black rain clouds along the crests of the mountains. I was witnessing a war of spirits taking place there between the painter and the paints.
I must confess I was doubly interested in this particular painting because Adam had promised to make me a gift of it upon its completion. Already I had mentally hung the picture in a prominent spot on my living room wall where friends and visitors would be most entranced by its awesome power. I left the room for a minute to calm my own anticipation with a glass of ice water. Returning, I could see that Adam had stepped back from the painting for a long perspective. I stood beside him to offer my personal appreciation. But the painting had changed: the king was gone; the crown had vanished; even the trees, hills, and clouds had been obliterated by a furious screen of broad blue brushstrokes.
''Adam! What happened?''
Adam seemed stunned by the loud and anxious question. He answered calmly: ''It rained, that's all.''
This incident occurred two summers ago when Adam - then, aged four years - was in an early stage of his career. The realization of the tremendous gulf between our two perspectives still resounds in my memory. I had wanted a clear painted representation that would grace my walls and please the eye. The artist, on the other hand, was immersed in a heated discovery of color and image. It would have been unthinkable for him to have halted that process before the painting reached its ultimate conclusion. The difference was that Adam was left satisfied for the vigorous effort and I was left with broken expectations.
Ever since then, I have examined my own poems and stories in light of this process, questioning the motivation behind the work. Did I halt the poem at this point to provide the reader with a taste of suspense and obscurity - almost required elements of contemporary writing? Did I tailor the story here or there, avoiding this issue or skirting that subject so that the end-product would win an editor's approval? Was I as entranced by my subject and materials as Adam was with his? And did I carry on my experiment with as much passion, as much unselfconscious yearning to understand?
Adam is now six and his artistic endeavors have branched out to include drawing, clay sculpture, and poetry. One evening last weekend, Adam and I walked into the Square at night to see the street performers that fill every open space and store front with music, magic, acrobatics, and comic theater. There was a marvelous company of jugglers at work and Adam was especially taken with the young woman of the group. She performed with a twenty-foot length of silk and danced the cloth into vibrant kinetic designs around her and above her head. I shouldn't have been surprised when, a few days later, Adam arranged a special concert of his own work which, for lack of a better classification, I will call ''performance art.'' He had scrounged his own four-foot cloth streamer from his mother's ragbag and had designed an elaborate multi-media composition. It combined an intricate choreography (influenced by the young woman's street performance but filled with original and startling movements) with a musical setting of one of his favorite poems. As he chanted and danced himself into a controlled frenzy, he swirled his colored banner sculpting wonderous designs across the air. I was overwhelmed by the intensity of his concentration, the serious set of his eyes and the sudden bursts of laughter. And as the poem played out its story, I watched Adam's pennon describe picture after picture, each one appearing for an instant, then whipping into a new transformation. I saw a swallow gliding and a lightning bolt; I caught a glimpse of a crescent moon, a caterpillar, a broom-flying witch, ocean waves and a green throne. Some of the images were so effervescent, I wished I could freeze them for a moment to fully examine what they really were. But I could only set eyes on them before they vanished.
When Adam was exhausted and the program concluded, I found myself sharing his ecstatic fatigue. The driving force for Adam is a hunger to explore each new experience the world sets before him, and to lasso some small piece of that wonder into his personal realm. Though this is somewhat less than a formal aesthetic, I often use this young person's masterworks as a measure for my own artistic efforts. Harness the attentive eye and the skilled hand to the sort of whole-self engagement that Adam practices, and you will make art of your effort. Art is not the paint or clay or thin ribbon of cloth. Art is the thing that makes it all dance.