Monday, February 11, 2013

Leading as Artist, "What's Love got to do with it?"


Remember that song from the 80's or 90's, "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

        Yeah, well, it makes about as great an introduction as any to this reflection. I could ask other questions, I suppose. Certainly this is a continuing exploration of the notion (and series) of what it means to lead as an artist.

        What does it look like for an artist to serve others, to serve the community? I suppose I first have to answer what I very naturally would ask of anyone else asking that question, and that is, "why even ask the question in the first place?"

        There is a growing sense in me that God is desiring to take art outside the walls of the church, and I am trying to understand what that looks like. I think there is a growing trend of seeing God taking the Church outside the walls of the church. Examples of this are seen in the City of Austin manager, in the wake of Katrina and other recent storms,  approaching the Christian community and asking them to develop some disaster preparedness contingencies to better serve the community. We see also several churches reaching out to the community in the form of being a water stop on the course of a large marathon, hosting a pet rescue event in a local park, opening the doors of a church building to the usage by a neighboring school for a pageant too large for the small assembly hall to hold.

          So what does this look like for the artists within a church body?

         One on very grand and simple, and grandly simple level, this is to ask what the interaction of Christian Art is with the world, both Christendom and Pagan. For what it is worth I think that question, by virtue of its formulating and categorizing bears certain implicit presuppositions which provide an ultimately unsatisfying framework (upon which answers are un-satisfyingly forced to fit).

      The increasingly more pertinent question, "How shall we then live," (for the Christian artist) is really asking, "how do we love with our art?" Of course we also may ask, "whom do we love with our art?"


      So, to set up a buoy or two by which to triangulate our position in this morass of conceptual ambiguity (or, the befuddled outward processing of an blind intellectual tour guide) : this then is how that city will know we are God's disciples, by the love we have for one another. Another buoy may be the encouragement to live godly and quiet lives that others may see our good works and praise the Father in heaven. Still another buoy may be the simple exhortation to live separate, "called-out" and holy lives.  Throw in a few other ideas from the Beatitudes, and the exhortation concerning bearing one another's burdens, then throw in the greatest two commandments (to love the Lord our God with all our hearts/strength/sould/mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves), and then maybe throw in the exhortation to love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly, and we could triangulate ourselves even in deep, 3- dimensional space.

      Not meaning to jump the gun but this sounds a lot like formulating an ethic for how the Christian artist is to conduct themselves, and maybe it is, but that reductionist-bent in me I am trying not to give into. 

      So whom do we love? God and Man. How do we love? With faith, hope, fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control). How do we do it with art? Hmmmm. How do we do it outside the church? Double hmmmmm.

      A potter who buys his own studio and opens it up to non-Christian and Christian alike, an artist who buys her own gallery / printmaking shop and opens it up the same way, these are models of artists being in the community. In the respective studios each artist is able to love upon other artist, to invite them into dialogue if not directly about God then about the things of God (like love, kindness, mercy, justice, humility). A church which invites other churches and artists to collaborate upon a publicly viewable art installation during a city-wide festival, that is being out there. 

      By way of analogy I bring up the Christian police officer, as she is called to model God in the arena of the city police department, and to partner with officers whom are Christian but of different denominational congregations. This is the heart of the "Authentic Faith Community" Movement, as (I understand it) expressed by Justin Christopher, of Campus Renewal Ministries. The core concept being that we are to form communities within our "spheres of influence", made up of sincere, spiritually- seeking individuals with whom we model the life and love of Christ. I would personally add the essential component of living out Christian life together with other Christians within that community, for that community to be able to witness the love for one another and the good deeds (which lead to praising the Father in Heaven). 

     Sure, it is great to have an arts program at the local congregational body and building where we come together for corporate worship. I am not advocating a dispersal of congregations, nor a dispersal of the artist crowd from a particular congregation. Likewise, I am not advocating against a congregational body made up of only artists - or of officers, or health-care professionals, or of (you fill in the demographic). 

      At the end of the day, I don't have a hard and fast definition of what "artists outside the church" looks like. I am even open to wagering the answer lies in the deeper question of the relationship of Christian art to non-Christian art (damnable question it is), and in the question of the nature of Art itself. I said I would wager, but that is because I am not a betting man, and I don't know a good bet when I see one - or when I don't, for that matter.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Leading as an Artist, the Walk and Art

"How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"

      That is perhaps one of the two most repeated and well known lyrics of Pink Floyd's album, "The Wall." Who knew when they penned those lyrics or sang those verses they were offering the greatest statement on living as a Christian artist even made. Really. Who knew, indeed? Cheekiness aside, it is more than just a metaphor, say, for the marriage of craft and talent. Theis necessary relationship, as metaphor - despite it being one Pink Floyd was (quite arguably) mocking - actually speaks to the relationship between being an artist and the life of following Christ.

      In my last installment of this series, Leading as an Artist, I made the claim that the relationship between being an artist and growing as a Christian is akin to the spousal relationship, and that through a marriage of purposes and aims in living for God, essentially, we carry out the basic strategy of leadership: modeling to others what you most want to build into them. Now, as a married man, my reaction is to bellow from the deepest places of my guts (in like fashion of every protagonist from ever war movie I have seen), "KEEP YOU HEAD DOWN!!! DUCK AND COVER, DUCK AND COVER!!!!" Immediately I want to tread lightly, and have an arsenal of chocolate stashed all over the house, you know, just in case I step in "it" - again. 

     Marriage humor not withstanding, the relationship between growing as an artist and growing as a follower of Christ is truly a one-flesh form of relationship. Growing in skill and craft alone will not source our work with emotional or spiritual depth. As artists we have to love God, love the subject of our work, love our audience, love our fellow artists and our congregational body (especially non-artists). To love any of these, even the least of these, through or as we create, means we must love as God loves. How can we love if we do not know and grow in knowledge of how he first loved us; how can we cultivate the fruit of the spirit (love especially, but also joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control) if we are not "remaining in the vine" and allowing the "word to remain in us"? We can not know, as writers, the pains and triumphs, the joys and the fears of our characters without knowing those experiences ourselves; we can not, as painters, paint with emotional resonance if we are unconnected to our emotional experience; we can not, as sculptors, sculpt beauty if we are so hardened to God that we do not know His heart.

     We can not, as artists, love our audience if we do not, as little Christ followers, have the same compassion for the masses as Christ - those masses like sheep without a shepherd as Christ saw them when He looked out upon Jerusalem. Our work can not convey the evidence of things hoped for, the substance of things not seen if we are not walking in submitted communion and hearing the Word of God daily. Many times, as Christian artists, we will need to shed our outer garments of the spotlight and performance, donning towels of servanthood, and washing the feet of other artists, and sometimes not even artists. How can we mourn with those that mourn (especially through or with our work as artists) if we do not mourn or rejoice as people? If we pray not for others, nor do we bless them as Christ followers, if we cultivate no disciplines against the "cravings of the flesh", how would we expect to pray through our work, or deny selfish impulses in our execution?

      Likewise, much growth as an artist and as a Christ follower must occur through the submitted yielding of our vision and effort as artist to the Holy Spirit, laying our piece on the alter like Abraham laid Isaac, being willing to sacrifice our beloved creation (to the point of laying it's precious toddler neck on the chopping block and swinging the ax like there is no tomorrow); or, like Christ giving himself over to the cross, being willing to be vulnerable to congregational body which may well flog us and crucify us, "not knowing what they do". Sometimes even the process of developing our craft can challenge growth in us not just as artists but as Christ followers.

      By embracing this "one flesh" dynamic the artist erases, for themselves, the distinction and compartmentalization between how we are created to function in the world and how we exist within the body. Thus it is me model such a one-flesh living for the Body. Interestingly enough, this is the one area where the artist reflects back to God in the presence of men by virtue of life not art - and this a model of only one (but a very specific one) aspect of creation as it was meant to be: making their very lives to function as art. The doctor, the police officer, the simple laborer, when walking out the way they were created to be, are doing just as the artist does. Yet it is the office of artist which allows us to stand in contrast to all that suggesting there is a place for the compartmentalization life and spiritual walk. (Note: the difference for, say, the officer is that in embracing the one flesh relationship between officer and Christ follower, the officer is modeling to their peers, i.e. other officers and community.... and possibly the perps.)

Leading as an Artist, Series Overview

     They say that each writer ever only writes one work, and everything else following is just an iteration of the one work - and my essay series on "Leading as an Artist" is no exception. "They" may very well be bats-n-the-belfry crazy, and I don't know why we would listen to them (not having any idea, after all, who "they" are), but it certainly seems the entirety of issues keep re-appearing each time singular facets of leading are explored. The perennial re-emergence of issues is not an insignificant phenomenon.

      What it means to lead as an artist - how we orient ourselves to the notions of leadership and of being an artist, what we understand of being created in the image of a creator God (and bearing the creative stamp), the relationship between Christian art and the non-Christian world, the artist and the prophetic - in essence, is a set of perennial dynamics around which this phenomenon coalesces.

    Simply expressed, the closer we as artist come to know our Lord and savior, the wider and deeper our field of understanding is both for what it is we do as artists and what it means to be an artist following Christ. As we grow our understanding grows, we mature. It is no different for any person with a unique calling who is following Christ: the particular calling qualifies the manifestation of Christ in our personal part of God's grand meta-narrative, that story of His bringing glory to Himself through the redemption of Man. The term "artist" qualifies our walk in a unique way, providing context and semantic to the discussion of our walk.

      Big words, big concepts. It also means that the question of leading will likely never be answered fully on this side of Heaven, as now see as though through a mirror darkly, and then we will see face to face. What we can say is that leading is walking in increasing submission to Christ, growing in our spiritual man. In reciprocal, feed-back fashion we should expect growing closer to Christ will cause us to grow as an artist leader. I am not so sure it is that easy.

      Being an artist is a matter of both talent and discipline/ training. It is intentional, and it is process. The relationship between being an artist and growing as a Christian is akin to the spousal relationship: it is give and take between the two ways of being; it is laying down of life and submission of one to another; it is one loving the other for the others good, and the looking towards the completed work of Christ in the other. It is a one-flesh type relationship. It also may need a few good counseling sessions, and it may have a whole lot of nice intimate moments. It is productive and reproductive. What it is not is a dichotomous, bifurcated set of two distinct elements, some spiritual split-personality.

      Thus it is we see the nature of leading as an artist - through a marriage of purposes and aims in living for God - is modeling God in His Holy, Trinitarian-complete, whole perfection self, as well as casting for men a vision for living less compartmentalizing (of the areas of daily life and worship). We show men how daily life and worship are not separate, distinct "sides" to life. In this way we lead as we lead. We can neither separate any element of leading as an artist and discuss it alone as we could discuss a husband separate and abstract from his relationship to his spouse.

      On one final, ancillary note: The reason why I don't think the artist is a prophet is very specific. Yes, the artist has a prophetic-like voice, but (s)he does not have a prophetic office. The artist has an office of encourager (in the faith) maybe, and / or the office of worshipper. The artist, by virtue of his/her work, reflects back to God in the presence of men the truth of God, and the truth about God as it exists within God's creation, that creation bearing out the stamp of God. Arguably it is the original intent of God (or the divergence from from the intent) which the artist shows, and not (as prophets show) the particular will of God for His chosen people to His people in the current historical context. The prophet expresses God to men, while the artist expresses God to God in the presence of men. It is not a simply dichotomy, and the reality is nuanced.