Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig is a rather special book. First published back in 1974, it has had a big impact on many artist’s lives. The book helps us learn how to recognize the existence and value of ‘quality’.

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

The background story is about a man and his son on a motorcycle trip across America. The author muses to himself as they travel and he focuses on the difference between two philosophical forces. Rational thought and romantic thought are examined. Rational analysis is what motorcycle maintenance is all about, while the parallel ‘Zen’ element is romantic.

But Robert Pirsig delves much further. Our motorcycle fan is able to enjoy mechanical and logical things, but he accepts that technology seems ugly and repulsive to a creative romantic. He shows that mechanical analysis can be emotionally felt, and be enjoyable, and revealing. The story reveals the conflict between classical philosophy and romantic philosophy.

He uncovers the two sides of the meta-philosophical partnership in a fascinating way. The book accepts the dichotomy that mechanics can be unpleasant and a tedious drudgery for some, whilst others find it enjoyable and pleasurable. But Robert Pirsig advocates finding a middle-ground, so both philosophies can work together.

As it so often does in the art world, it all depends on attitude.

Another dichotomy.

It was suggested in 1960 by psychobiologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger Sperry that the right hemisphere in a human brain is where creativity is born, and the left half is where rational analysis occurs. It has since been shown to be much more complex than that. Never-the-less, left brain activity is associated with mathematics, facts, logic and rationality. Whereas the right brain is associated with imagination, feelings, intuition, creativity, and visualization.


half brain diagram

For Artists this is important because…

To understand how to succeed as a professional artist, the concept of right-brain versus left-brain is a useful aid. Artists need to accept that they are good at right-brain creative activity. And that this sometimes means they have poor left-brain function.

Whilst some artists find accounts, record keeping, selling, and the art business distasteful, others can discover that it can be enjoyable. The result being survival as an artist, and actually enjoying the efficient use of good accountancy, record keeping, analysis, and selling. Therefore experiencing the all round ‘quality’ element in their art business.

So Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has a very relevant message to artists. The middle ground between rational and romantic philosophies is the same thing that can keep professional artists going. Plus the pairing of right brain creativity and left brain business sense. I believe that in the quest for ‘quality’ in an artist’s life we must embrace this fusion.


Previous articleAIDA is a secret, not an Egyptian opera
Colin Ruffell was born in 1939, then he was bombed, evacuated, educated, expelled, repatriated, married, bred, qualified and taught; until in 1965, aged 26, he became a professional artist. Since then he is proud and happy to have survived. He qualified from two Art Colleges in painting, design and printmaking, and the Open University in psychology and aesthetics, plus he has a reasonably clean driving license. He has founded, led or organised the following; Spectrum Studios, Artists in Action, Bayswater Road Artists Association, 9-Plus Artists Group, Buckingham Fine Art Ltd., Brighton Artists Workshop, European Fine Art Ltd., The Fine Art Trade Guild, The Fiveways Artists Group, and Crabfish Ltd.