3 Questions with Christopher Phillips
Philosopher and writer Christopher Phillips on serendipity, new perspectives, and getting out of a rut.
3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“Any career should be a
career of the arts.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
To live an artful life. I believe that any career should be a career of the arts. As a Socratic philosopher, not an artist in any traditional sense, I believe that we are all works in progress and depending on how we live right now, can give a whole new meaning to our past. And so I believe that if we look at our life as a career, and we look at the whole trajectory, we have the potential to transform ourselves at any given moment. If we’re open to new experiences, new perspectives. That’s what I believe.
My own experience – I lived a certain way until I was 38, when I decided to live according to that poem by Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which is about a sculpture that has decayed some, but the very last line of the poem is, “You must change your life.” And most people don’t do that during their mortal moment. They live a certain way, get in a certain rut, and almost reject any sort of change that might make them radically re-alter, re-design, or re-focus. And to me, there’s a combination of dread and thrill in doing that. If you do do that, it can really lead to some very serendipitous, beautifully unexpected things.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
One way, these days, is by having an extraordinarily creative six-year-old. She gets up in the morning and she wants to write a series of poems, or she wants to write a story with illustrations. She’s just a little bundle of creativity and it is a daily reminder of the fact that we should spend at least a goodly portion of our day doing something that is unique that says “I was here.” Whether it’s a poem read by you or another person, it doesn’t really matter to me at all – as long as there was something generated from within that brings out that creative element. Maybe just asking a question that you’re having trouble teasing out or articulating. I look at creativity in a wide sense like that. Or meditative moments that lead you to look at your everyday reality in a different way. Looking at it without that sort of fanatical or zealous sense that you always need to be accomplishing or doing something, or creating something and getting it out to people. Just celebrating the miraculous things about being here.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
It was when I was a little bit younger and one of my best friends committed suicide. She just despaired that she was never really going to be able to reach her higher aspirations. When that happened, it kind of exploded a lot of self-imposed barriers that I’d imposed on myself about what I could do with my life. And I never wanted to reach that moment. I was also at a moment in my life when I wasn’t living in any way that I found really meaningful and it took me several years to round a corner and take some risks again with my life.
But that was the pivotal moment where I had to at least ask myself, what do I have to do to make sure that I want to bounce out of bed and seize the day?
CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS is an American author and philosopher, and is the recipient of the Distinguished American Leadership Award and a Senior Fellow in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Phillips believes that the process of dialogue and the space of human interaction are good for us as individuals and essential for us as a society. This is especially pertinent today, when there are widening rifts between Americans, and when American culture is frequently perceived as exclusionary and self-involved. To this end, Phillips has founded Constitution Café and Democracy Cafe. Phillips’s newest project, Constitution Café, is a space dedicated to the Jeffersonian idea of freedom: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.