Art Without Success

“His father, who was at first ashamed, and now is coming round, because success is much easier to understand than Art.”
- Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela, p. 302

The dictionary application on my computer defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” It goes on to clarify, “the attainment of popularity or profit” such as “the success of his play.”

On the whole, we think of “the attainment of popularity or profit” when we think of success. My art is successful when my book is published (then read by a certain amount of people) or my painting hangs in a gallery or my play is produced (and receives rave reviews). I’ve arrived, we think.

And perhaps this isn’t so wrong. We create (in part, at least) because we want to communicate. David Brown said, “Art is great to the extent that it has power to communicate and evoke particular ideas.” It’s part of our Imago Dei, this communication, which shares a root with the word community. We want to know and be known. We want to share these ideas in common.

But what happens when a book is never published or a painting never seen or a play never produced? Does this mean it is unsuccessful, that we are unsuccessful? If our art never attains popularity or profit, did it fail to accomplish an aim or purpose?

We get around this by talking in noble terms: I create to glorify God. I write because I must. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Good, wonderful. So we should. But what do those statements mean? So we succeed if God is glorified in our art-making. Our writing succeeds simply because we wrote because we must, and we write, therefore we are. Or something like that. When I noodle on these thoughts, they slip through my fingers wet and elusive.

Not to say these aren’t ideal goals, and sure I like the mysterious aspiration of the whole thing–God’s glory, personal understanding and fulfillment and achievement of my very humanity–but when I have an hour a day to write and I daily fight to sit before keyboard rather than nap or read or knit, I need something more meaty.

So I consider these notions of success and art and communication and why I write, why I tape open my eyes and type. What is my aim and purpose? How do I specifically glorify God or become more human in my writing?

If I say I write because it makes me more human, or because I must, I can easily argue that so would a nap (my husband might argue that the nap would moreso make me human again). If I’m writing for myself only, some sort of fulfillment, not only am I selfish for how it, in times, takes away from my family (even if it does make me happier, whatever that means), but I also then can relegate it to the role of hobby. I write when it suits me, not in a way that diligently seeks to improve craft and art. I write therapeutically, not in a way that risks rejection (which does not make me happy) or seeks to go beyond my own immediate experience.

So, no, I do not write merely for myself. I do not write merely because it makes me happy. I knit for these reasons.

Neither can I write for “the attainment of popularity or profit,” in part because those terms in themselves need clarification (how much profit? how many Twitter followers make you popular?), in part because to make this an aim is to never fulfill the aim, but mostly because it’s incongruent with Jesus’ ministry. You know, the whole “despised and rejected by man” bit.

Of course, beyond the “despised and rejected” is the “every knee shall bow,” and the premise that when Christ comes into his glory, he will honor those who honored him. Which brings me back around that nebulous cause of writing for God’s glory, which often looks like weakness and foolishness this side of “every knee shall bow.”

The subject of God’s glory and how he glorifies himself and what glorifies him is too vast to explore in any depth here, but this struck me as Chris and I prayed with Keegan the other night:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

In the simplest form, God glorifies himself by revealing himself and bringing about his kingdom on earth. For those of you who have been paying attention, I happen to have been studying that very thing through Luke and Acts recently.

Enter “ah-ha” moment.

Undergirding all else–my writing, my wifing, my parenting, my friending–I am a Christian, and I live to glorify God, which means everything I do–my writing, my wifing, my parenting, my friending–must do the same. The question becomes: how does my art contribute toward his work of restoring and re-creating humanity, and indeed all of creation? How does it reveal God? How does it image humanity and his work in humanity?

Which brings me to this: I write, in part, for the sake of beauty (which sounds to some like “art for the sake of art” except that “art for the sake of art” has art as its highest goal rather than God’s glory); I write, in part, to reveal the nature of creation and humanity in all of its beauty and corruptness; I write, in part, to restore humanity and creation.

To some, as aforementioned, this may look like foolishness and weakness. It may look unsuccessful–unknown and unprofitable. But God didn’t promise me success according to the world’s eyes–a book deal, a bestseller, a second home in the Bahamas, thousands of Twitter followers and blog subscribers. I work trusting him to use my writing as he will. I work toward the “well done, good and faithful servant.” Occasionally he treats me to glimpses of this: a reader who came across my short story in a journal and feels less alone, a weary traveler who read an article and felt refreshed, a cynic who saw something in my writing that challenged him to view his faith in a crisp way.

These may or may not be the marks of success. I may or may not know of them. But I tape my eyes open because I write for God’s glory, and that demands the wearying work of excellence and beauty and honesty. This is my aim.


  1. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful. I needed to hear that today.

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