Monday, February 9, 2009

the question of Truth

part the fifth (and last)
While I have been presenting some questions that relate specifically to the artist, these questions also relate to each one of us. We all need to establish who we are, and what we have been created for. We need to determine that we will embrace being a co-worker with God in fulfilling His purposes. And we need to discover who we can serve with those gifts and talents, and thereby honour God as we walk out our calling. This calling is not our job – it is reflected in our passions, and the things that stir our hearts to joy, to compassion and to sorrow. That calling shapes and informs everything we do, but always in relationship to others, whether God or the various communities we interact with (family, schoolmates, co-workers).

Ultimately, I believe that the calling of the artist (as well as every christian) is to proclaim Truth. The artist must engage the world as it is, and declare or reveal that which could, or should, be. The whole of existence is ours to explore and look at. There are myriad stories to be discovered and told. It is our responsibility and joy to say, “Look here! Look at this! What can we learn from this?”

I just want to declare Truth, and declare it well. Even better, I want to live it.

the question of community

part the fourth
At this point, we’ve established two very important things. We need to know who we are: artists called by God for a purpose. And we need to be faithful stewards – training and preparing and honing our skills, both technical and intellectual. Now what? As I’ve stated above, artists aren’t there to serve themselves, or to live for themselves. We have been called to serve a community, or communities. That is our “ministry”. That also means you have a responsibility. Take a look around you. Where can you serve? Where will you serve (because it really isn't optional)? Wherever you look you will see a need that you could address, whether through your skills or your work.

There is a reason so much contemporary creative work is alienating to people – it is alienated from community. At least, any community other than its own. While I enjoy a nice theoretical and conceptual puzzle every now and then, I have no illusions about the ability of such work to connect to the general population. If I want to connect and communicate something, I will have to make specific choices and take responsibility for what I make, how I present it, and to whom. It’s not a small thing to look outside your self and serve.

Further, the question of community is also important for artists as a tribe. Why do we often operate so independently? Why have we swallowed the lie of individualism and its isolating effects? How much stronger would we be if we learned to collaborate? If we learned to receive appropriate criticism and challenges from other artists? What if we were willing to be mentored and discipled and trained? What if it wasn’t about “me”?

the question of training

part the third
Once we have embraced the call of the artist, we must do something about it. The passage in Exodus speaks of Bezale’el being filled with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in all manner of workmanship. This is part of the training of the artist. To be honest, I’m tired of “potential”. Potential is wasted unless it has purpose and direction. For the artist, it means more than simply doing what you’ve always been good at, at remaining at a certain level of skill and achievement. This training involves developing basic skills within your medium. You need a practical knowledge of the facts of the materials you are using. Drawing for the visual artist. An awareness of grammar and how language functions for the writer. Flexibility and strength for the dancer. Imagination for everyone.

It doesn’t end with physical skills. There must also be a development of mental skills: imagination, critical thinking, and an awareness of the traditions and larger histories of your craft. In many ways, creativity is simply “knowing what to do”. That requires an inventory of options already in place. The more you know about your materials, your tradition, and other practitioners of your chosen art form, the more choices you have, and the more aware you will be of possibilities. There is nothing new under the sun. Relax. Which leads me to a related issue.

Self-expression is, in many ways, the Golden Calf for artists. The image we have of ourselves as artists can easily become an idol and shape who we are and how we respond to people, especially when it comes to our art. I’m not saying that artists don’t express something of themselves as part of their work. There has to be an investment of ourselves to say what we feel needs to be said, to communicate something with passion and direction. But self-expression can often become the end-all and be-all. It’s not really about entering into a conversation. It’s not about the viewer or reader – it’s about the artist. And to be honest, that's selfish. The problem is that we too often swallow the [romantic] idea of the artist as tortured emotional genius, and that self-expression is our reason for being. It is not.

Bezale’el is also noted as having a desire to teach (and therefore, to learn). This is an important aspect of the calling of the artist - this desire to teach, or encourage, and to sharpen other artists (and other people, for that matter). Personally, I love introducing fellow creatives to new artists, new ideas, and new vocabularies for their work. I love challenging them and questioning them and critiquing their work, and enjoy it when other artists do the same with me. Don’t be afraid of critique. Understand where those critiques come from and that they are not personal attacks. You are not your work.

the question of identity

part the second
The question of identity is the primary issue that we need to address. So many of the issues that we struggle with as artists would be solved if we would first address the question of identity. Look at the story of Bezale’el (and Aholiab) in Exodus 31.1-11 and 35.30-35. God knew these artists – he had called them by name - and what their skills and training were. He had prepared them for their task.

Primary for the artist (or any christian, for that matter) is the issue of knowing that you are a child of God, created by him for a specific purpose, with talents and abilities specific to that calling. In other words, find your voice. Tell your tale. No one else will, or can. If we know who we are in Christ, who we are as sons, as heirs, as co-workers, then many issues will have less power in our lives: rejection, criticism, insecurity. If we have confidence in what God has deposited in us, and the promises he has for us, then we are less likely to be so easily wounded. If we are maturing and growing in the knowledge of our role in the kingdom, we are less likely to be paralyzed by doubt and fear.

This isn’t to say that we don’t identify ourselves as artists; simply that being an artist isn’t what defines us. That being said, if we truly understand ourselves as being artists as a calling or a vocation, we should own that and embrace that and work that out. That means work and dedication. That means developing, and learning, and maturing.

on calling. or, the question of calling

i know it's been a while since i last posted -- i'm still trying to find a rhythm for this. i am posting an article i wrote for centered: thoughts on evangelical spiritual formation. the question (or questions) of calling is always on my mind. this essay poses some questions about calling, and addresses the calling of the artist particularly. i suppose it's a bit of a manifesto. i'd be interested in your responses, thoughts, challenges, quibbles or outright disagreements. heh. and so:

part the first
I am an artist.

There. I’ve said it.

Being an artist is a calling. I was an artist before I became a christian, and I will continue to be one. Now by artist, I don’t simply mean someone who is creative. We all carry the Imago Dei, therefore we are all created in the image of God, and as such, are creative. The calling of the artist is for a very specific application of that creativity. It is purposeful.

That calling is, of course, secondary to our calling as a christian. That call is our opportunity to enter into God’s grace and equipping. It involves an invitation, an offer of salvation, of deliverance, of relationship. It demands a response. I think it has something to do with sonship. I think that has something to do with the kingdom. I think it involves being part of a community, a tribe, a family, a body. There’s a call to salvation, a call to sanctification, a call to maturation. But basically, the call is to Christ. To be re-created in his image.

The language of calling can be confusing. We use calling to refer to ministry positions. These living gifts: apostle, prophet, evangelist or pastor/teacher have a role -- to prepare, and release, the people of God for service (or ministry). So perhaps the word calling confuses the issue. I would like to use “calling” to denote much the same thing as vocation. Or responsibility.

But that doesn’t address the calling of the artist (and by artist I will be referring to artists of all flavours and languages whether visual, textual, material or visceral) directly. Yes, our call is first to Christ, and his kingdom. And then we are to fulfill the role he has for us within his kingdom. But how do we do that? Here are some questions that may provide some direction.