The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. James Davidson, ’20 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Honors Scholar, History and English, won Second Place for his essay, “When It Works,” in response to this prompt:

Does Art Matter?

When It Works

Twenty feet above a grey, concrete floor, two snow plow-like vehicles and the towering piles of waste they were forming, I saw art.

I was standing on the catwalk of the J.P. Mascaro and Sons waste management facility in southeastern Pennsylvania, watching lines of plastic bottles, scraps of packaging, flattened cereal boxes and torn grocery bags wind their way through miles of conveyer belts. The mess was sorted by human hands that darted in and out of the mix, the bodies protected with medical masks, hard hats, neon vests and kill switches. One worker caught my eye. He stood at the final sorting station, his wrists loose and shoulders relaxed, tossing paper to the left and plastic to the right with incredible speed, always accurate and never slowing. His simple movements were confident and smooth, everything deliberate but nothing tense. Trash flitted from either side of the belt like notes rising from a piano, the worker’s hands commanding the keys with a grace and firmness that kept me watching long after my tour group had moved along.

This is my favorite example of the beautiful dichotomy and constant presence of art. I saw a man in the midst of the perfect flow of creation—laser-focused, performing his task beautifully. At the same time I admired that which he was creating—the fast, efficient and mesmerizing system that put me in a sort of trance and inspires me every time I sort the green and brown bottles at home.

We often pigeonhole art as the paintings on the walls, the music in the air, or the books in our hands. The pleasure of absorbing a sunset watercolor, admiring a meticulously constructed sculpture, or applauding a life-capturing play is important and one of the highlights of human existence. Nothing compares to the sharp breath we take after reading a familiar poem or reflecting on a well-written film, and on a more subtle level, the miracles of efficiency that fill our seemingly mundane commutes and boredom. But these final products are often detached from the gorgeous process that ended with their final and complete beginning. We ignore the hours the production team spent in computer-lit rooms editing, writing and scrubbing a film when we add it to our Netflix queue, and rarely consider the pain it caused the writer—what Faulkner called the “agony and the sweat”—to express our feelings on once-blank pages.

These sentiments make the process of creation sound like a painful, Sisyphean struggle that is never really “worth it.” But anyone who has created anything knows that the frustration eventually gives way to a current of magic—the flow that psychologists tout as the key to productivity at work—what Alan Watts called doing a job beautifully. This mode of thinking, when distractions are erased and hands, heart and mind are humming in the same key, provides some of the most exciting moments of life when doubt is abandoned and we are free in passion.

This is why art matters—in creating it as well as consuming it, we are fully alive and engaged in a world that so often pulls us away from ourselves. In creating we find our tempo and place a paint-stained finger on a primordial pulse. We tap into our potential and are free to burn in focus, to bring forward parts of us that need to mended, explored, sharpened and shared in a direct, uninterrupted channel of truth. By allowing us to bring our own creative value into the world, art grounds us, allowing us to feel like worthy consumers and authors of something beautiful.

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