Doing Art

During film school I worked in the digital production lab on campus. Tours of the college would come through, and my boss would tell each group of eager-eyed prospectives exactly what we were about: “If you can think of anything else you could possibly do other than film—please, please, please, go do that!Go to another school, get a four-year degree in physics or finance, become a well-educated audience member and we will gladly take your $10.75 along the way . . .”

At this point, you could tell from the relieved look on some parents faces how thankful they were for the reality check in their son or daughter's life. They, after all, only wanted for their child to be successful with a steady income, which clearly requires a bankable degree. So can we cut this art school crap, please.

“...but, if you're sick,” he continued, “because everyone who comes to this school and succeeds has the sickness, that film is the only way of life. You must be willing to, no, you must long to eat, breathe and sleep film, to work 14-16 hours a day, forfeit sleep altogether, and fight through the battle to bring your finished film to a jaded audience in hopes that someone other than your parents can appreciate it.”

You could hear the whimpers. Dreams crushed. He was an intimidating man, a former Hollywood producer speaking from experience—that film demands your all. And, over the next several years, how to reconcile what he had said with my faith would become a crucial issue. (And for me, the next several years were spent learning how to reconcile what he had said with my faith, and I would like to spend this and a few subsequent articles exploring why these issues are so critical to us as Christians in the arts.)

I had a friend get miffed at her husband one time because he introduced her, “This is my wife, Michelle,” when she considered herself “Michelle,” a person first, and then a wife. Such distinctions were important to her and the same should be true for believers working in the arts.

Living in New York, I'll often meet someone new at a gallery opening and our conversation will start something like this: “Hi, I'm George, I'm an artist. What do you do?” The problem this time is not the order, but that people take something they do (“I paint,” “I work at a bank,” “I practice homosexuality”) and turn it into an identity. It's elemental to their world view, a presupposition that colors everything else, and the foundation for how they live. People build every aspect of their lives around their identity.

Go to any university, and you can tell almost instantly which students define themselves as artists; their clothing is often eclectic and over-hyped, their demeanor either sullen Sylvia Plath, “Woe is me. I must be depressed to create great art,” or manic ADD, “Look at me. See how cool I am for being an artist.” They're in love with being artists before they're committed to creating art.

The focus, however, should always be on the art first. We should come to the act of creation with reverence rather than ego, and the discipline of a practiced craft rather than pain as our muse, trusting the process for inspiration rather than waiting for it to show up.

Most importantly, we create art, because like anything else, it is our calling, discovered by revelation rather than choice. Our commitment as believers is to follow and glorify our Maker, who set out all our days before us and planned these good works for us before we were born. Obedience, then, means following the path He calls us to, wherever it leads.

Thankfully, God has put desires in our hearts and talents in our hands for a reason, these things are not arbitrary, the great artist designed us with intention. But we also can't assume how He plans to work them out or that this one task of art is what He has called us to forever. At every step we must listen for His leading.

So if our identity is grounded in God and all that He is to us, the mentality of tortured artist falls away as we seek to magnify Him with our work and with our lives, a fragrant offering from the overflow of our hearts. Joy becomes the catalyst, rather than pain, and God gets the glory.

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