In the time since sharing my last post, I’ve read The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu by Sven Lindqvist, a book that directly interrogates this idea of escaping into art.
The story the book is named after goes as follows: Wu Tao-Tzu paints a mural on a wall. Upon completing the mural, he claps his hands and a door in the mural opens. Wu Tao-Tzu steps into the artwork and is never seen again.
A confession: I bought the book because it addresses the question of spending a life immersed in art but I noticed it in the bookshop and picked it up at all because of the mysterious front cover (which still baffles and intrigues me). And while I’m pleased to have read it, the book hasn’t had the effect on me I thought it might when I was a quarter of the way in. But it has left me with one thing to think about.
The The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu reads almost like a series of diary entries as Lindqvist comes to terms with how he feels about a life spent in art. At first, he agrees with Hesse’s arguments for art and finds the idea of stepping into it – for good, as Wu Tao-Tzu did – attractive. He wants to pursue these thoughts, and so he does, literally – travelling through Asia to help make up his mind. The outcome, however, is that he begins to believe the opposite – yes it’s attractive, but a life spent in art is delusional, immature, even cowardly. He takes what is, at its foundation, a philosophical approach based on the idea that an unexamined life is a life not worth living, and believes we must be ever-present. That, despite its horrors, we must not turn away, we must exist in the world.
I then thought of escapism in all its forms. Alcohol, drugs, anything in which you can forget yourself. What of the regular or even constant immersion in books or film or the ocean or your own narrow-minded beliefs – is there a difference if they’re all a turning away? And what does it mean for me if my desire to escape into art is different to what I do in reality, which is work and dip into art when I can?
I wonder if the holy books say of anything of art or if, at their time of writing, art as something different to aesthetics had not been conceptualised yet – if it came later, rising our of a need.
That’s all I can say about that; I’m being hurried away from my notebook and summoned for dessert, so I must leave these thoughts there.