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 Loneliness of Art, Or At Least of Writing, Or At Least of My Writing

Growing up, I loved being sent to my room (though I hated the idea of being punished, of being accused of being wrong, or should I say, of being wrong though I maintained–and even believed–I was right, and I often slammed my door to make this–my innocence, my rage at the injustice of it all–known). I loved being sent to my room because I could be alone with my books.

Some days, as much as I adore my son and playing with him, I want to spend the day alone. Me and my books and my writing and possibly my knitting when I need to think about a story and let it ruminate for a period. On the weekends, I’ll come up with errands that Chris needs to run with Keegan so I can have the house to myself if even for half an hour. (If I send him to Fry’s for a cable, I’m golden.) I’m not the type who likes to write at cafes or pubs. I want my quiet office, no music, just me and the characters and the words.

In other words, I love my alone time (which is not actually alone time since I spend it with so many friends, er, characters).

And yet even as I crave alone time, I sometimes feel lonely.

picture by Brice Ambrosiak via flickr // You can tell this isn't me because her nails are done.

In elementary school, I started a writer’s club (and named it Writer’s Block, of all things, because I had no concept of not being able to write but considered writer’s block to be a block of writers). I loved my alone time with my characters, listening to their stories and recording them, stories about whales and princess heroes and murder mysteries on exotic sixth-grade class cruises. But then I wanted to be with other writers, to share my stories and hear theirs. (We also set out to sell our stories, aware at such a young age of the desire to communicate our art.)

Creation thrives on aloneness, but loneliness haunts me.

This is the nature of art: working alone. I sit alone at my computer typing (and deleting) words in the quietness of my office. I love this alone time.

After I write, I want to go to a pub (because that seems to be where writers gather) and talk to other fiction writers about writing and stories. I want to read their stories. I want them to read mine and give me feedback.

These days, I miss that pub. I miss the Writer’s Block.

I’ve shared a drink at this pub with other fiction writers at times, a particular conference where I connected with kindred spirits, periods of time where another writer and I exchanged work, or an actual drink with a writer at an actual pub. I envy those in MFA programs who gather with other authors. I envy those who have critique partners with whom they regularly exchange work and words.

But I suppose this is what art is sometimes–creation in the absence of community. I consider my closest friends and realize how few of them have read my stories, and that makes me feel unknown in some way. They have some idea that I write, that I’ve been occasionally published, but they don’t know what this really means, they don’t know about the toil over words and the stories that come out on the page.

Last night I said to Chris, “Is it worth it? Is it worth not napping when I’m so tired and I just want to lie down when Keegan sleeps but I can’t because of these stories, because I have to write? Is it worth giving up so many little things when I don’t even know if another word I write will get published, another story, if I’ll ever get a book deal, if I’ll ever even write a novel again?” But the words sounded forced because I know it’s worth it, and I know I won’t stop writing even if it means loneliness and unknownness because at the same time it means being known in some way if only by myself or by my characters or by the God who sees everything, including my little stories.

And this is where things get meta because then I realize that the stories that come out on the page, so unknown by so many of my friends, are about this unknownness, and this eases the loneliness of it all.

So here I sit at my desk, half-dreaming of returning to the hippo I’m knitting for the New Little One (to match the giraffe I knitted for Keegan when he was born), typing the first words of a short story though I know I should really be editing the other story that still needs so much work but I just can’t help myself because this new story is about buttons, and lately I’m enamored by buttons (meaning the kinds on clothes, not the kind you push on machines or on people to rile them up, though I’m good at that too, just ask Chris). And I pray, please God, please send a fiction writer my way, a kindred spirit with whom I can regularly exchange work (I know some kindred spirits but life demands have gotten in the way of regular exchanges, and I understand this).

In the meantime, I write.

Magic and Craft: Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing 2012

Chimamanda Adichie said fiction is magic and craft. This sums up not only fiction (and indeed all of art) but also the Festival of Faith and Writing.

I attended because I think Jonathan Safran Foer takes risks with the form of fiction that few take and because I’m slightly in love with Chimamanda Adichie. I couldn’t wait to hear them speak about their writing and, specifically, their writing process. I was not disappointed.

They challenged me and encouraged me to play, experiment, take risks, and yes, fail. Art reflects life, and since life changes, so should art. We have freedom in this. We have freedom in the stories we tell and how we choose to tell the stories. Once we learn and understand the rules, we have freedom to bend and even break them, to see what works in this global yet fragmented society. Safran Foer quoted John Ashbury’s famous essay, “The Invisible Avant-Garde”: “Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful.”

As a music major, I fell in love with experimental and modern music, sometimes with the beauty of the project itself, and sometimes just with the risk and the ideas and, yes, even the failings of the attempts. Over the past several years, I’ve learned more about avant-garde and experimental art through a friend sharing her love of it with me, through reading books about it, such as God in the Gallery by Daniel A. Siedell, and, most of all, through going to museums and immersing myself in the art. And the more I’ve learned about this and other forms of modern art, the more I’ve come to understand its relationship to life, and the more I’ve come to understand it, the more I’ve come to love it. I’ve also wondered–and it was gratifying to hear Safran Foer chat about this very thing–why does literature seem behind visual art and music when it comes to experimentation in order to reflect life?

Now, I leave this conference excited about the possibilities of experimentation, not for the sake of experimentation, but for the sake of stretching myself and my readers. For we do this in the service of humanity. As Adichie reminded us, we create meaning and radical truth to remind ourselves and others of what it means to be human. We enter into the conversation of humanity through literature because life is always changing and yet unchanging.

I don’t know how experimental I’ll be. Heck, I don’t even know what experimentation means for me yet. But I want to see what I can do. I want to see what magic I can conjure while playing with craft. Perhaps playing for me will be a minor thing, or perhaps it will be drastic. But I hope it means something that is both personal and global (meaning, reflecting my love of cultural studies, not necessarily something that will resonate with the whole world–I’m not that delusional yet), something that holds together tension and resolution, something that is intimate and small and echoing.

I confess: I am afraid. I fear failure. I fear not being good enough for the grand ideas in my head. I fear looking the fool. But I remember what someone once said about Miles Davis when he was a rookie, that he was brilliant but he didn’t yet have the chops. Or what Picasso said: “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it.”

I do not claim the brilliance of Davis or Picasso, but I can pattern my artistic endeavors after them, striving, striving, striving, in the face of failure.


My Son, the Artist

The music plays, and Keegan dances. He dances to Tchaikovsky and Veggie Tales. He dances to jazz and to Kid’s Praise. He dances to his maracas. He dances to the jingles on his toys. He dances to the motor of the blender and to the click of the refridgerator.

To Keegan, everyday sounds aren’t random noises; they’re music. And music calls for dancing.

Perhaps influenced by John Cage (best known for his 4’33” piece) or the composers of musique concrete, Keegan rejoices in the sounds around him. Or perhaps he hears the praise of the trees clapping their hands, the mountains and hills bursting forth in song for their Creator.

And I learn from my son that being an artist isn’t just about the craft we practice. It isn’t just in words on page, paint on canvas, notes on staff. Being an artist is a way of life. It influences how we see the world around us and how we respond to it. It consumes our waking up and going to bed.

Being an artist means recognizing the music and story and beauty of everyday life, of seeing how God takes the ashes of our pain and uses them to sculpt new life. It means participating in God’s redemption of his people and his earth.

While words on page are fewer these days than in my past life, I am artist. I dance to the music around me. I tell stories to my son. I make beautiful the space in which my family walks.

I am artist.

The Master’s Artist: The Particular Sadness of Art

Prepared to write about how art is communal, a disappointing experience with art and the community I love made me think instead about how art can sometimes rent us apart. But all is not lost, for this is community–beautiful and hurtful–and so, this is art.

Afterwards, as we cleaned dishes and wrapped up the particularly sad lemon cake, my friend and I wondered how you can talk about something so personal without it being personal, without it hurting when you disagree on something that reaches so deeply inside of you, winding into the labyrinth of your hopes and fears and weirdness.

Read the rest of the post at The Particular Sadness of Art.

I’m Still Here

“Maybe I’m not a blogger anymore,” I told Chris. Maybe it was time to give up writing these posts, reading blogs about writing and art and beautiful ordinary life so that I could write and create and live beautiful ordinary. Yes, I thought, this is the time for that.

Except the next night I cried myself to sleep, wondering what’s happened to me, wondering if I still have thoughts on writing and art and the beautiful ordinary, if I still have stories to tell, or if I just exist in this space. The following morning, after a 5:00AM feeding, I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I came to my computer, and I opened these collecting blog posts in my reader, and I meandered. I read about writing and art and the beautiful ordinary, and I found a space for those things I’m still passionate about. Then I jotted down a few thoughts, interacting with these writers, stimulated by their wonderings and wanderings.

When Keegan awoke a couple of hours later, greeting me with a smile, I gathered him in my arms, ready to spend the day playing with him.

I’m still here. I’m still me, and I’m still blogging.

The Master’s Artist: A Cloud of Witnesses

Writing is work done alone–just you and your characters. Even with the chaos of life encroaching on writing time, when it’s time to pen a story, I sit at desk in silence. And most of us write in general obscurity. The New York Times Bestseller’s list doesn’t include our books. The New Yorker doesn’t regularly print our short stories. Agents and publishers and readers don’t email us daily, anxious for our next story. (If you checked yes to any of the above, go away and gloat somewhere else.)

But God reminds us that we are not alone.

I’m up at The Master’s Artist today noodling on some thoughts about art and A Cloud of Witnesses.

The Master’s Artist: When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

Don’t miss it! I blogged two days in a row!

I’m up today at The Master’s Artist, blogging a sort of variation on yesterday’s theme: When Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, or thoughts on the artist and identity.

Art House: “Searching for Wildflowers”

A few weeks ago, a group of local artists met at my house. We had read Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible to discuss it, but mostly, we gathered to connect. Artists need artists (set to “People” with Barbra Streisand; we’re the luckiest people, you know).

I wrote a reflection piece on that event and on Schaeffer’s essay, and that piece is up today on Art House America.

Read “Art House Local: Searching for Wildflowers.”

At some point, I will actually blog here again. In fact, I have an idea for a post (yay, Heather!), but for those craving my words (indulge me), I’m still writing.

The Master’s Artist: Doxology

I’ve reread the two essays included in the booklet, Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer. Good timing. Before, I read it more intellectually, philosophically. This time, words of comfort refreshed my desert soul: God sees me. God sees my art.

Lately, I’ve been writing in relative silence. I may be relatively unknown to the world, to agents and publishers and readers, but I am not unknown to God. In this space of being known, I’m free to create as doxology.

I write because, like Paul, who interrupts his theological treatise to the Romans with a song of praise, I cannot help but to respond to God with art…The search for beauty becomes doxology to God.

Read the rest of Doxology at The Master’s Artist.
Renew Now