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.

The Post I Don’t Want to Write

It’s been seven years. Seven years since my midlife meltdown twenty years too early, my life and identity crisis. I had just graduated from seminary, where I had studied to go on the mission field.

Except I didn’t go on the mission field.

I stayed in a Dallas suburb to marry Chris, a decision I’ve never regretted. I have only to look at my sexy, caring husband and our beautiful son to dispel what might encroach.

But no regrets doesn’t preclude pain and confusion, for what should I do now, in this suburban land in the middle of the Bible belt? Over the following year, I worked through this question, and I became a writer. I’ve told the story before, so I won’t rehash the details now.

Last night, the pain and confusion revisited me. What am I doing in this suburban land, lush with prosperity, glut with churches? Months of spiritual emptiness culminated after discussions last night between my husband, his sister, her husband, and myself about the possibility of opening a franchise business.

Two things scissored at the frays of my life: what does this business have to do with our pursuit of the kingdom of God? and what do I, as an artist, have to offer?

Let me leave behind the first question for now except to say that I believe business to be an important aspect to God’s kingdom work on earth. To be discussed later.

We move on to the second question, then. My husband is a brilliant businessman, an entrepreneur exuding ideas, a strategist extraordinaire. My sister-in-law knows people and knows sales. My brother-in-law can manage people and businesses like nobody’s business. Their assets form a trifecta not to be taken lightly.

Then there’s me, the trained musician and theologian, the writer, the artist who daydreams in left field as the baseball rolls by. What do I have to offer this business?

Last night, this question broadened: what do I have to offer God, our family, our church, our community? Or, more significantly, what am I offering? After years of toiling and thousands upon thousands of words, I continue to write in relative obscurity. In addition, our recent life change has limited my writing time and my publication pursuits (i.e. the business side of my writing).

Don’t get me wrong: Keegan brings a plethora of joy into my life. I adore motherhood more than I expected. Watching his fascination with life itself reminds me of the care our Creator put into forming this world for us.

But I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the person I set out to be, and I couldn’t help but wonder what use my words are in this life.

My own writing came back to haunt me. After the tears cleared, I came to my computer this morning to find a note from Laura Boggess letting me know that The High Calling was reprinting an article I’d written for Curator Magazine about art I’d discovered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. This art was created by the persecuted in ghettos, hiding, and concentration camps. What use did such art have? What audience did they seek? I wrote: “They found a power in art separate from functional services.”

I chuckle at the irony. What use do my words have? Perhaps to remind me a year and a half later that the pursuit of beauty and truth is in itself a worthy task.

And so, today, I pick up pencil, I take to paper, and I return to my work while Keegan naps. Unuseful? Perhaps. But important all the same. May I glorify God with this work.

(P.S. You can read the article at The High Calling here.)

Art House Blog: A Fondue Feast

My post, A Fondue Feast, is up today at Art House America’s blog.

A taste:

Artists play communal fugues. We take a theme sounded by one and invert it, reverse it, transpose it. We play with this theme, echoing it and transforming it. We mark it with our unique personalities and cultures, then hand it on to the next artist.

Read the rest here.

Finding the Familiar

“Most of all the cooking in the world is comfort food. It is food designed to remind us of familiar things, to connect us with our personal histories and our communities and our families.”
- John Lanchester, “Incredible Edibles” in The New Yorker (March 21, 2011)

I came across this passage in an article the other day describing modern food. Of course, the article went on to say how modern food these days deviates from the familiar, but the point stands: we seek the familiar. It reminds us that we belong, that we are loved, that we are known.

Several years ago, my husband asked me why I write. I answered, “So that others won’t feel alone.” A year or so later, I came across the C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone.” Perhaps I’d read the quote before and subconsciously connected it to why I write. Perhaps it’s a common sentiment that many recognize.

As writers, we’re told to find the fresh–a fresh voice, a fresh angle, a fresh take. This is true. The world would be bored by the same old story told over and over again.

But the world also longs to hear the same old story told over and over again. We long for the comfort of the known–to know that the hero wins and how, to know that Elizabeth ends up with Darcy or that it is in Romeo and Juliet’s death that their families reconcile. How many times can I watch When Harry Met Sally? Or read Anne of Green Gables? Yesterday, I read “Childhood Lost,” a poem by blogging friend Eric Swalberg. It broke my heart because I sensed the familiar–an emotion of fleeting time on which I’ve been meditating since Keegan’s birth.

Part of the job of the artist is to reveal humanity, and this requires creating things in such a way that the audience sees things from a different perspective. But even as we do this, we invoke the familiar so that the audience says, yes, I know this house, this family, that girl. And in knowing our characters, the audience knows that they, too, are known.

In this familiarity is life itself. It is more than Google stats or page counts or number of comments. These may tell us we are popular (or not so popular) for a moment, but they’re ecclesiastical. It is not a belonging that lasts. When we write words to page, paint oils to canvas, strike keys on piano, the timelessness of our creations is not in the masses, in the bestsellers or high bids. It is how we resonate with one another, connect, communicate, commune, if only with an individual. And in this type of familiarity, we find the unique, the fresh–how my mom wields spices for her pumpkin pie recipe, how my neighbor cares for his roses, how my son sleeps with the same expression his father sleeps with. Hollywood’s bland worlds and practiced anti-accents ultimately fail us. Mass marketed fruit paintings may look pretty on our walls, but they don’t touch us. Commercial jingles may move us to consume, but they don’t move us to create.

So today, I write about the rose-tender in my neighborhood, the cloves in my mother’s pumpkin pie, the sleep of my son, offering my familiar that you might find yours. And in this way, art again creates community.

Forging Yourself

“Modigliani might have done stronger work in painting if he weren’t driven to forge a signature look–to make a name for himself, as his time ran short.”

- Peter Schjeldahl, “Long Faces” in The New Yorker

As I read this bit in a an article about Modigliani a couple of weeks ago, two questions came to mind:

  1. Are we more concerned with our legacy than with the work itself?
  2. Are we more concerned with our brand than with taking risks?

This speaks to the relationship of the artist with his audience and how much the artist is concerned with or writes for a particular audience.

(Side note, just this morning, I read in Amy Inspired by Bethany Pierce a section where the protagonist–also a writer–asks this question.)

I don’t mean to say that we should ignore the good people in the marketing department or fight editors (who, most likely, want to help you write the best story you can). It doesn’t mean becoming obscure for the sake of obscurity and weirdness. After all, if art is the revelation of truth, then on some level, it is a communication; it is communal.

But art is dangerous.

Later in the article, Mr. Schjedahl writes that Modigliani is one of the most forged artists in the world. His style and “stock-in-trade imagery” (or “logo-like motif”) gives us a series of works in which Modigliani “practically faked himself.”

I’ve come across this in artists and authors–one work is exactly like all of their others. At some point, they stop taking risks. They stop delving into humanity. They stop asking questions because they found something that worked. But is it wrong when they’ve found something that resonated with a particular audience? Or has the audience merely become complacent with the artist?

At the heart of this may be the question of pride (at least for the artist–I won’t deal with the possible complacency of the audience here). If I write in order to make a name for myself, if I write for my own glory (or legacy), then that limits my art. Fear of disapproval may keep me from exploring truth in my art. But the other side can step in as well. If, in order to protect ourselves–our pride–we use obscurity and esoterism (it’s okay; I can make up words–I’m a writer) to purposefully distance ourselves from audiences (or a particular audience) so that we reject the audience before the audience can reject us (I broke up with you first!), then that, too, can limit our art.

As we all suspected, no one answer exists to these questions. The relationship of art, the artist, and the audience changes from artist to artist and even within an artist’s own oeuvre. I believe my Christianity informs how I practice this and even frees me to explore more deeply without concern as to my own legacy. After all, it’s about God’s glory, not mine. As I focus on the questions in my art, I can trust God to do with the end product what he will. (I’m not saying I do a good job of this. I’m saying I can trust him with that. The ability to do something and the practice of that ability are two different subjects.)

While many within and without the Christian faith critique how Christianity limits our art, in this area, we can look to how it gives us more freedom.

The Master’s Artist: The Communication and Community of Art

Recently I’ve become fascinated with the etymological link between communication and community, specifically with how this plays out in the realm of art.

Why do I write? Why do I offer up my writings into the world-at-large?

I explore these questions in my latest Master’s Artist post:

Through art, I respond to God and his movement in his creation at large and in me specifically.

And then I set this response, this discovery, out into the world.

Isn’t this part of the human existence, too? This vulnerability, this desire to be known and to know others through my art. Tertullian said that the essence of personhood is the ability to communicate. The art we create is not a dead artifact upon its completion. It invites the response and engagement of others.

Read the rest of The Communication and Community of Art.

The Master's Artist: Risky Business

Today’s post at The Master’s Artist reflects on my recent completion of my rough draft and my intention and work on the revisions.

"Art is discovery. In the rough draft, I work through the characters’
emotions (as well as my own). I answer the questions: How does my
character feel about and react to all these things? How do I feel about
these ideas? In the rough draft, I discover meanings and muck through
what it means to be human. But if I stop there, my work stays in the
realm of self-expression, of emotionalism, and possibly,
horror-of-horrors, sentimentalism. I might even attempt to manipulate
or stimulate the observer so that she feels the same way I do about all
this mess."

Read the rest of Risky Business.

Rowan Williams on the Process of Art-Making

"Art, whether Christian or not, can’t properly begin with a message and then seek for a vehicle. Its roots lie, rather, in the single story or metaphor or configuration of sound or shape which requires attention and development from the artist. In the process of that development, we find meanings we had not suspected, but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand; whereas creative activity opens up what we did not understand and perhaps will not fully understand even when the actual work of creation is done. That is why the artist is never the sole or even the best judge of the work, which rightly and properly escapes into the interpretative field of its public."

- Rowan Williams

The Master's Artist: Feast or Fallow

What does it mean that I’m an artist? Does–and how so, then–does my art define me? And if it defines me, what framework do I use when I work in obscurity and when I work in fame?

A comment Sandra McCracken made at a recent Art House Dallas lunch got me thinking about this very thing. So, of course, I blogged about it.

"Our society, still in the haze of Romantic fallout, views artists as
"other-than," as specially inspired, bohemian, eccentric. Often, we
gladly take up this mantle. And often, aspects may fit. We may have
different schedules than, say, a lawyer. We don’t mind using the
descriptor "eccentric" as an excuse to wear or do what we want.

But in all honestly, this mantle also burdens our spirituality.
Happily defined by our art, it engulfs us so that our identity, rather
than in Christ (a common identity to all believers), becomes in art.
Our hope, our persona, our self-presentation, even our view of our
meaning in the world is caught up by the success of our art. More than
this, we put ourselves into our work. Tread lightly, that’s me on the

Read the rest at The Master’s Artist: Feast or Fallow.


The Master's Artist: The Glimmer of the Other

I’m up at The Master’s Artist today reflecting on an artist’s work from an art festival my husband and I attended a couple of weekends ago.

A glimpse:

"The artist photographed mundane, even dead, objects–weeds, grass, dead
branches. He zoomed in until you could barely identify the original
subject. Before he printed his photographs, he prepared the canvas by
painting it with a glimmery, shining substance. When you viewed the
dead and mundane, the glimmer of the other shone through, giving the
ordinary something beautiful and extraordinary, imparting something of
the essence of life."

Read The Glimmer of the Other.
Renew Now