Michelangelo and Work
To know that you have as much as a fleeting thought in common with Michelangelo is to lift your spirit above the clouds to the sunshine of eternity. For me – a creator of a very much humbler level than the Maestro – to learn that he worked until he dropped at 89 is magic. In Michelangelo’s time 89 was indeed the brink of immortality. Today it’s an ‘oh, yes’; then it was majestic achievement.
Simon Callow has captured that achievement in his exceptionally brilliant article on Michelangelo: the most heroic toiler of the human race – The Telegraph 01Dec19.
For many, Old Age is not the pleasantest time of life. Physically you are crumbling. Your friends have got the wrong message and are falling off the twig before you gave them permission to. The memory can get tricky with promises of a vast anthology to represent a diligent life at one moment and doubt about where ‘B’ is on the keyboard at another. And yet, Michaelangelo persisted with a tenacity that belied his obsession about death ‘in a few weeks time’, and saw him struggling to complete masterpieces even greater than he had accomplished so far.
Apart from his innate genius, Michaelangelo had learnt that Work is not what most people think it is. He had his irritations of having to prove his identity to the bank who he was, after fifty years of banking with them, I am sure. Good plumbers were scarce in his time, too. His activity of producing heart-touching beauty was not Work to him. No man would have toiled for so long with such discomfort to paint the Sistine Chapel if it was. Or to produce his final masterpiece, the Pieta. When you see this you know that every chip of stone was for you, not exclusively but personally.
Easy to be devoted when what you produce is something so profoundly important, you may say. You’re right, Genius may be innate but it is Effort that makes it precious. So how do we relate ourselves to such a Master of creativity while keeping our feet firmly on the gravel of life? How can we reach that bliss of satisfaction that great Masters must feel when they unveil something that will last forever while all we disclose is a stumbling effort to be heard?
First of all, recognise what you make as first class top quality stuff. Don’t belittle it. You shame yourself when you do. I remember seeing something quite amusing in Santa Fe at an Art Fair. There was a sign by the roadside put up by the local council. “Please take your rubbish home.” Alongside it a stallholder had erected a homemade sign. It said “And please take our rubbish home too.” My laughter forgave what was a bad mistake on his part.
Second, learn to enjoy the effort. All effort has pain as part of the recipe. But it also has rewards. To know that it was your sweat, perseverance and doggedness that achieved what you have done is to appreciate the magic and beauty of the achievement. We are all top people and nothing can knock us down from that except ourselves.
Third, however humdrum the work we do, it can be done better, more precisely, more caringly. List the things you need to do to be more satisfied with your work. I’m not talking about higher wages or longer holidays. I’m talking about the extra effort that will make what you do a reason for your pride in doing it, not just in having done it.
Watch a team of shire horses pulling a plough across a field. There is no more beautiful sight than their effort to do a great job. Aim at Michaelangelo standard only. As Omar Khayyam says in his Rubaiyat “Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
It’s the only possible excuse for being human.
Keep me going while I’m busy;
keep me busy ‘till I go