Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Art of the Body: Past, Present and Future

I was on a great vacation recently in Greece--home of ancient civilizations and birthplace of incredible advances in art, culture, politics. Everywhere we went there were great ruins--and often statues--that still hold the time and place out of which they were birthed.

In particular, I was struck by the evolution of the statues: from stiff and cold distant-feeling bodies with hollow eyes depicting gods--known as Korie--to the eventual depiction of bodies that were human, with greater movement, expression and emotion. Over time, as the body became better known, the statues reflected that intimacy and that skill. There was a way of making sculpture seem as though it could move. Also, there was a shift away from a sense of the divine as stiff and inaccessible to more present, expressed even within human form.

A similar shift happened even in theater. At Epidaurus, outside of Athens, the theater is huge and sweeping in its size, built entirely of rock in a huge semi-circle above and surrounding the flat and open stage level below. Theater at Epidaurus was actually seen as a way that the gods could speak to patients who came to this special place seeking healing.

Initially, the human drama at Epidaurus was placed only in the sidelines, while the characters depicting gods spoke their wisdom about what was happening from the center of the stage. Eventually, however--especially as the Romans took over--the 'chorus' of gods was moved to the sidelines and the human action itself took center stage. Special effects were developed; theater was meant--as the sculpture--to more accurately depict and express itself through human life itself.

Of course this has been true more and more over time of our television and film. Even now we can look back at older film and television and find them outdated, too staged or 'unrealistic.' In fact, we've even taken things a step further: we've created 'reality television,' where the actual present reality of our experience itself is made into entertainment. More and more, art has moved from something removed from us to something quite familiar, something more and more about us and our lives. We've also gone from seeing our own bodies as something stiff and removed to something worthy of action, drama: of taking center stage.

It's interesting to consider what the next stage of our evolution in this relationship will be. To me, it seems that we know the form of our bodies very well: we've studied them, we depict them accurately, we watch them. But of course the next step is to actually attend to them, to listen to them, to begin to have a relationship with them. We can know and understand a thing from the outside for so long; then a deeper knowing begins to be necessary for evolution.

I wonder what might unfold in the future as we get to know our bodies and express that knowing more fully. I can imagine a world where we share the wisdom they have to teach us, where we talk with our doctors and healers about what we believe our bodies are saying through their symptoms and discomforts. It's also time for us to take a more artful look inside the world of our own skin to examine the nuances it wants to share, not just from the outside in but from the inside out.

What will be required to study this new art and way of being with the body? To do so, I think we have to begin to develop a repertoire, a familiarity with all the nuances and sensations within the body and the kind of information and feelings it contains. How do you know when you are hungry? Tired? When your energy feels slightly off? We are just beginning to learn this art and this language, one that--like any of the arts, like sculpture and film--will take time and attention to hone, cultivate and truly begin to master.

Ask yourself what steps you might take today to begin to know your body more intimately and thoughtfully. If you studied the art of your body, like any art, what would you learn from it? What kinds of things would it tell you? How would it teach you? How can you listen?

Think of yourself as out on a fieldtrip, or carrying a brush and some paints. Be willing to learn and let this art move through you. See how it informs your life to let your body and its language become more central, to let your body be more than a sculpture or a form and more like a living, breathing thing. What legacy of knowing, of body wisdom, would you most like to leave behind?