The Impulse to Reach Out
A songwriter’s memoir reveals connections between Dharma Art and the creative work of a punk/rock musician
by Michelle Welch
I love finding Buddhist themes in unexpected places, most often in books that are otherwise unrelated to Buddhism. Recently I read The Art of Asking, a memoir by rock/punk singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer, which describes not just her life and career in music but also her artistic aesthetic. It’s in part an expansion on a TED Talk she gave (which I recommend if you want a 15-minute overview of the book), and it sums up the artistic impulse like this: artists want to reach out, to make connections with people, to be seen and let people know they see them, too.
Palmer admits in her memoir that she has, in fact, studied Buddhism, and some of her remarks make this apparent. At a yoga retreat she took part in an exercise where pairs of people simply looked at each other. “The thread echoed again and again: many people had never felt so seen by another person. Seen without walls, without judgment… just seen, acknowledged, accepted.” This desire for connection informs all art, according to Palmer: “The whole point of being an artist, I thought, was to be connected to people…. I knew the way to keep the fans happy was by staying present.” Not only is art about being present – a very Buddhist suggestion – it’s about accepting everything: “This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.” Everything is included.
I’m reminded of a dharma talk I heard that made reference to Chögyam Trungpa and his describing art as bodhisattva action. Dharma art is anything that brings people in touch with their humanity, this talk suggested, and nothing is more human than the desire for connection. Finding another artist who regards art in the same way is wonderful and inspiring to me.