Where does my identity lie? As a Christian, our response to this question most often finds its way sounding something like; “My identity rests in Christ, he is my source and perfecter.” Now this common response is somewhat sterile. Rarely could Christians, with a clear conscious, make a statement about Christ being the sole source of there identity. Though our desire often is for Christ to be the sole benefactor of our affections and source of our identity, this just isn’t the case.
There are so many voices surrounding us telling us who we already are, and what we should become, and often they are quite convincing. They tell us: you are your occupation; you are your gifting; you are your possessions; you are who you know; your identity is placed in what others say or think about you. These voices are loud and often cause us to lose sight of our true identity in Christ. That unflappable constant, that will never change–that first love that reached down from heaven before there was time and called us his beloved child.
Art and Self
The Christian artist holds an acute awareness of this crisis of identity. Through the process of art making and his or her act of creation their identity can often fall into the shadow of the curse Henri Nouwen puts it this way; “The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing” (Life of the Beloved 97).
Creatives in general create because it is essential to their well being. Their acts of creation can be found as both an act or worship and a personal way to work out their struggles and wrestle through thoughts. Because of the introspective nature of most artists work, each piece produced by artists has their personal imprints on them. Their art is, in a way, a reflection of them.
Art stands set apart from other forms of calling or occupation. “The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin the work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze” (Bayless, and Orland 95). It is through such vulnerability that the artist differs from the carpenter. When we give birth to a new piece of art, we are giving a public audience complete liberty to praise or critique the depths of our being. Though they are often critiquing the work itself they are indirectly speaking into the core of our emotions, struggles, pains and joys. This can be a very disarming and vulnerable position to be in, but is something that the artist has to accept as an occupational hazard.
At the start of each piece the Christian artist often holds to a few convictions. First: he is an artist. This recognition isn’t saying that his identity lies in what he does, but is more so declaring the image of God that he sees in himself daily. Inspiration comes from many places and the Christian artist will often admit that these gifts and talents he has are far from his own. Being aware of how much he lacks and seeing evidence of this all around him, he knows that he cannot claim these ideas as if they originated from within himself solely. “If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own” (L’Engle 67).
Art work and the artist in general can often be perceived as sublime, subjective and even dark and depressing. For an artist to be truthful and honest with his work he has to remain true to himself. This blatant honesty that is found in a lot of art is often the reason the Church had its guard up when addressing it. True art is honest to life and life is dirty and dark, but also is filled with hope and a confidence that there is light begging to reveal itself. For an artist to be honest he must portray these dark areas of our despair and be truthful in regards to our own depravity. This honesty and transparency is not often accepted openly but surely has the potential to profoundly move people towards a deeper place with their walks with the Lord.
Art carries with it a unique ability to disarm its viewer. It tears down the person’s defenses and forces them to stare face to face with the human condition and the reality and truth in their own life.
Artists need to recognize the beauty in their struggle, the strength in their weakness, their hope in despair. When we allow the truth of our identity–that we are the beloved children of God–to hold us to keep us grounded, then the weakness and insecurity, inevitable to humanity, can be fleshed out in our work and actually bring forth life and strength. “In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness may appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it” (Nouwen “Return of the Prodigal” 35). It is the life of Christ and his perfection that gives us the liberty and freedom to experience hope in our disparity and strength in our weakness.
Art as Testimony
The trouble that transparency and openness within the Christian community is that it often can snowball into an indirect source of our own pride. The way that art is used as a form of testimony in the Christian context gives way for it to feed our own narcism. Though in our hearts we may intend at the at the start of each work to offer up our testimonies or artwork as an act of edification, it can easily turn into something different entirely.
The critiques and praises that we receive in the unveiling of each piece of art can do wonders to us internally. It can simultaneously destroy us and give us reason to press on.
The Cycle of Praise
We create a piece with hopes to glorify God and edify others, and many times do see the intended result of our efforts. We receive praise and encouragement from our friends and family, who say to some capacity that our work has moved them our caused them to think. We can rest in this affirmation of our artistic identity and resounding encouragement, believing that we hold purpose and meaning in this life and have a reason to exist. Then we begin our next piece of work and something is looming over us. In the back of our mind stands this unspoken voice and hidden pressure. These voices tell us; “This next piece must be better than the last,” “They are expecting a certain level of excellence from me and I must live up to their expectations,” “They have a need for me to make something because I’m important and I can’t let them down.”
So quickly has this pure desire to create for the glorification of our Father turned into a competition with self and a struggle to earn the affirmation we so much desire and need. When we get to this place, not only are we affected spiritually but our art suffers as well. “…Courting approval even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts, – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work” (Bayless, and Orland 47). Our art is given its strength by our willingness to remain true to ourself. Once we hand over the thing that makes our work uniquely our own to our audience, it loses its strength.
Our audience now has a say on our identity. If in this competition with self we fail, or the piece we’re creating isn’t accepted by those we are presenting it to, then the bottom begins to drop out and our identity starts to displace. We have drifted farther away from that first love that called us the beloved and have sought approval and affirmation elsewhere. We have moved into a distant country and become isolated and lonely. We become lost and confused, and end up doing a number or things. We either return to where we began and start over, or we push these thoughts and feelings aside as continue to creating without ever giving thought to what this means for you spiritually, or we simply stop creating and repress these feelings by remaining isolated in order to protect us from ourselves. In my opinion we shouldn’t retreat from who we are. At the beginning of all things we held in confidence that we were created in the image of a creative God and fashioned in his likeness. We held a belief that we were artists and that this was a good thing. We shouldn’t retreat from our call to create but rather struggle and toil though this process and journey. “The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations, or to despair money, prestige, or success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it” (Nouwen “Life of the Beloved” 130).
Art-making & Sanctification
As I have been working through my thoughts on this issue of humility in the act of creation, I have come to the realization that some profound parallels can be seen in the process of art making with the act of sanctification. The orthodox definition of sanctification speaks of it as the process of being made holy only through the merits and justification of Jesus Christ through the works of the Holy Spirit. This process of art making that the Christian artist experiences is something that I come face to face with everyday. It’s a process that is symbolic of this journey back to God. I am constantly needing reminded of the love and sacrifice that God has provided for me and I am constantly having to be drawn towards home. This journey towards being made holy through justification in Christ is reflected vividly when the artist, after searching for affirmation of his identity, crawls back to that first love where he’s held in the arms of the beloved. “The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey towards the full realization of our humanity” (Nouwen, “Life of the Beloved” 96).
I have come to realize that every time I search for this love and affirmation that I desire I move farther away from my Father who, before there was time, God called me the beloved. “The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life” (Nouwen, “Name of Jesus” 30). We have been made aware of this perfect love that unconditionally opens its arms to us, and yet we are constantly striving to prove and be affirmed of our self worth elsewhere.
The Journey Home
There is a pervasive thought that trickles into the mind of the artist once he has recognized his lostness and begun this return journey home. It is the idea that you will, either now, or at some other point arrive. While this is a hope of us all, it can also become a place where contentment doesn’t exist. As much as I desire to return home into the arms of the beloved and never leave, I need to be aware that I’m prone to turn and run away from his loving embrace time and time again. “The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the kingdom. That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist – the purpose of the work, be it story of music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet towards home” (L’Engle 194). This journey home, this journey towards sanctification in Christ, is just that, a journey. One who’s end will come only when we have been called out of this world and into the living presence of God. It’s something we eagerly await, but until that days comes we must struggle through this and allow ourselves to come in contact with and be reminded of that first unconditional love of the Father’s.
While my thoughts here are mainly pointed towards the way the Christian artist receives the praise and affirmation he’s given, I’ve recently been looking at this from another angle. I believe the responsibility of the Christian artist is to remain humble in the act of creation, and work towards being able to offer his work solely for the glorification of the Father and the advancement of his kingdom. However, what responsibility lies in the viewer, the consumer of these works of art? Is he or she completely innocent when they offer there praise up after viewing the artist’s display? My answer to this question comes in two parts. First, never should the viewer of art withhold his offering of praise in regards to the art in hopes of not making the artist stumble. Nouwen says that; “There warnings and advice are well intended. In fact, they can be a limited expression of a divine unlimited love” (Return of the Prodigal 41). The viewers praise shouldn’t be viewed as something that is negative, but rather, something that is seeking to affirm that artist’s identity in God’s eyes. My second thought is this, just because the viewer shouldn’t withhold praise for the artist’s sake does not mean that he shouldn’t filter what it is he is saying. I believe when an artist lays himself bare to his audience that viewer is placed with the responsibility to offer praise in which the the artists identity in Christ is affirmed or simply offer thanks for presenting a piece in which, you, as the viewer could resonate with. Often, viewers of art don’t give much thought into what went into each piece before they respond to the artist with a petty compliment that doesn’t hold much meaning. These comments such as; “That was awesome,” “You did a really great job,” “You’re so talented,” don’t help the artist further understand the piece nor point him towards the image of Christ that is seen in him. By flippantly offering praise without really reflecting fully on the piece it’s not only a disservice to the artist but is taking away from the potential value that it could offer you. As the viewer, allow the art to effect you and remove this idea in your mind that you’re some outside recipient that has no need to commit to the piece. A majority of the time the art that you’re viewing is screaming loudly about the life you live and you don’t allow yourself to be effected by it. There is a duel responsibility in the presentation of art making by both the artist and the viewer. The artist needs to diligently receive compliments and praise of his work while always reminding himself of the first love, the love that keeps him grounded. The viewer holds the responsibility to carefully respond to the art in a manner that recognizes the image of Christ in the artist and gives thought into how the art is potentially speaking into their life personally.
An Artist’s Plea
As an artist, where does this leave us? It seems as if, in this journey back towards wholeness, we could continue repeating the same mistakes over and over. Continually distancing ourselves from the beloved and that voice that declares His unconditional love. In this personal battle with our own pride and self righteousness what options do we have? My suggestion, is that all through out the creation process we continually get on our knees and desperately ask God that he saves you from yourself. We do this in hopes that we will move closer to home, and closer to being able to say that we are offering our art solely for the glorification of our King and the advancement of his kingdom.