A brief answer to the perennial question
Many theories have been offered about what art is and about the best way to make it; in my own life and work I have found art to be a process of discovery and response. Making art is a way of seeing new things and relating experience to others. Man is bombarded daily with experiences that constitute the human condition; art is a way of giving him an opportunity to pause and make sense of life, one experience at a time. For the artist, making art is a way of taking the raw materials of life and discovering their deeper significance. Art is the process by which man distills information into understanding.
Facts into understanding
We live in the information age. Never before have we had so much access to so many facts. Our generation has more information readily available to it than any that has come before. High school students know more about the structure of the atom and DNA than the scientist who first pioneered models for these basic building blocks of life. I do not mean that high school students are as intelligent as the past’s leading minds, only that they have more facts available. If facts alone were capable of inspiring change and improvement, then society should be improving and growing closer to perfection. However, mankind remains wallowing in sin because information is not the same as understanding. We can keep cramming facts and trivia into our heads until we feel gorged on brilliance, but it will not make us wise. Art channels the facts and observable reality of the world into a transcendent significance that causes conviction and change in people. Art does not save, and alone cannot effect reform; it is, however, a more suitable vehicle for changing hearts precisely because it aims at the heart.
Art transforms facts into understanding because it sees beyond the appearance and is able to draw connections between objects and see the metaphors in creation. As Dorothy Sayers realizes in her book The Mind of the Maker, “all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.” It seems the more real and the more important the object, the more we are dependent on metaphor and analogy to understand it. Our knowledge of God, who completely exceeds our ability to imagine Him, is completely contingent on metaphor. The only way we can come to any picture of who He is or what He is like is by comparing Him to the things He has given us to know. Father, King, Shepherd, etc. are all images that we can grasp, and God is gracious enough to make Himself known in such feeble, halting metaphors. Thus art is the path to understanding. It opens our eyes, and helps us to see the world, and the more metaphors we familiarize ourselves with, the better we can come to knowledge of ourselves, the world, and God.
Metaphors are important in arriving at understanding, but the vehicle those metaphors are presented in is also of paramount importance. As Flannery O’Conner says in her book Mystery and Manners, “There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it… in art, the way of saying a thing becomes a part of what is said.” The way something is expressed is the primary source of new revelation. Because we know so much, we take information for granted. It takes a well worded poem or a good piece of art to force us to consider the implications of what we know. An example would be lines from Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock,” which takes our cursory awareness of mortality and challenges the way we live with that knowledge. “Though you may forget your way to the temple,/ there is one who remembers the way to your door./ Life you may evade, but death you shall not” (157). The music of Eliot’s lines, his careful word choice, etc. are all matters of presentation, matters of art making. They force the reader to consider anew information he already possesses. Francis Schaeffer points out that any idea can be given strength if it is presented through artistic means rather than a simple statement of the facts. The vehicle is what is capable of startling the mind into considering something in a fresh way.
“Backwards into the future”
In Refractions, Makoto Fujimura speaks about, “walking backwards into the future.” Understanding the past is essential to moving forward. Developing a personal aesthetic is been a process of respecting the traditions and rules of past generations and trusting that originality and innovation will come. Those rules and traditions grew out of generation after generation of intellectuals and artists determining the forms and vehicles that communicate effectively to man. There is a reason certain chord progressions sound good to the ear and why certain ways of presenting poetry aid or hinder its interpretation. Many people have successfully broken the rules to better communicate their meaning, but they understood the rule well enough to know what breaking it would do. Fighting against tradition for the sake of originality or to join avant-garde movements will almost always result in failure. Progress can only be progress if it has grown out of an understanding of history; once cannot change what one does not know.
The Bible does not have much to say about art—that is, didactic chapters describing the arts as we have come to know them—but it is full of examples of poetry, story, visual art, performance art, etc. The Bible itself is the most widely read piece of literature in human history. That alone should justify the urge of man, who is made in the image of God, to write. He is following the example of his creator.
The writers of the Bible were called to write with their own voices and were inspired by God to write an inerrant work, the majority of which is made up of story and poetry. Within that story are examples of artists, writers, performers, and musicians, all of whom were real people called by directly by God to be artists. For example, Bezalel, the craftsman who oversaw the building of the tabernacle, was “filled with the Spirit of God, with the ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs” (Ex. 31:3-4). His skill was given through God’s spirit. This is one of the first examples in the Bible of a man being filled with the Spirit of God. David was a prolific poet, and Solomon built the temple, the finest work of architecture in the world at the time. Jesus taught primarily through parables, which where much like today’s short stories. There is clearly a precedent for man’s artistic endeavors in scripture, as well as a call to excellence in all that we do, “doing it as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23).
Those who have learned to see
The journey to becoming an artist is a journey of learning to see. Writing and drawing both require a keen vision. Flannery O’Conner says that what artists do is to look at the world with all of their senses so as to perceive as much meaning as possible. Artists sensitize themselves to the web of connections that binds God’s ordered universe. They are honing their ability to see life as a metaphor for higher reality. Man should pursue the artist’s path, not because he has something important to say, but because only through trying to describe the world do important realizations come. Making art refines the act of seeing by distilling and focusing it. For example, if I am bothered by a particular family dynamic, then I write a poem about it. The act of distilling a situation into the language of poetry leads me to a better understanding. Another example would be my visual fasciation with mechanical and highly detailed objects. When I draw them, I am forced to look closer, to meditate on the objects. By doing do, I not only create drawings that reflect my own response, I begin to better understand my own fascination.
For an artist to impart that sight, it is not enough that he tell what he has discovered. He must be able to help the viewer or reader have the same experience that he too may better see. It is not enough to tell someone how much you enjoyed a piece of cake; if you want him to understand what you feel you must give them their own piece of cake. Letting the audience experience what the artist felt is far more important than relating sentiments about the experience. Fujimura quotes C.S. Lewis saying, “We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it, the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
A classic example of relating feelings rather than imparting experience is found in love poetry. Every English professor knows that love poetry is a fatal trap destined to destroy all would-be poets, because a poet in love is filled with violent and beautiful emotion. His feelings seem important to him and to demand some vehicle of release. Shakespeare’s sonnets, which the poet was made to study in high school, suddenly make sense. Language is the means by which the poet will confess his love and devotion. Perhaps the girl will find his efforts endearing, and her admiration will cause him to believe he has written something eloquent and moving. He shares it with his English professor, beaming with pride. The professor is now faced with the challenge of how to gently break the news to the young man that he is not in fact on the cusp of poetic greatness. The problem with the poem is that it is about how the poet feels. No one desires to read a poem describing, in flowery language gleaned from a hasty look at a thesaurus, a man’s raging passions and desire for the most beautiful of women. As O’Conner so eloquently sums up, “Fiction writing [art] is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things” (93). The poet needs to show us this woman and the things about her that inspired the violent love he feels for her. Perhaps if he describes her attributes rather than his feelings, the reader will understand and share his emotions.
Process or didactic?
The approach to making art can be divided into two basic categories; didactic and process-driven art. Art and writing is rarely completely one or the other, but these categories describe the vision of the artist as he begins his work.
Didactic art is not always bad, but it’s hard to do right. Writings, illustrations, dances, etc. where the moral or “point” is paramount, fall more in the realm of propaganda than art. Bumper stickers, graphic design, proverbs, fables, etc. use the techniques and virtues of what some call high art to accomplish their goal: the communication of a specific message. Art, too, seeks to communicate a message, but its “point” is found through experiencing the work. As O’Conner said when someone asked her what one of her stories meant, “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one … You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”
Many people feel that art is a code to be puzzled out like a riddle. The Critique Handbook says, “Art is at its best when it can be experienced on several different levels rather than ‘gotten,’ like the punch line of a joke. The experience of a complex work of art involves the perception of a complex structure of some kind, rather than an instantaneous reading.” Art is not something that can be encompassed by a brief explanation. One might be able to sum up a work with a phrase like, “that piece is about women’s rights.” However, if “women’s rights” is the extent of the meaning, the piece is polemic rather than artistic.
That being said, there are tasteful and effective ways to make didactic art. For instance, Ariana-Boussard-Reifel cut out every word of a white supremacist book individually, imposing the doctrine of color-based segregation on a book. The artist communicates her point by demonstrating it literally in her actions. This is in keeping with much of the biblical traditions of performance art used by the prophets. God often instructed the prophets to preform visual examples, calling the people’s attention to truth.
Despite the validity and effectiveness of this approach, I have learned to take a more process-based approach to creating art. One identifying factor of a writer/artist who works through process is a lack of a clear ending point. The artist discovers much of what he wishes to say as he works. He allows meaning to arise from his materials. Flannery O’Conner is an example of a writer whose work is full of symbols and meaning, even though when she begins writing she does not assign allegorical significance to every item she describes. She reports accurately and responds to what she sees around her and from this process, meaning emerges. Robert Frost says, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The poet starts writing because he delights in the world, and when he has finished his poem, he arrives at wisdom.
Why do I make art?
Every artist should ask himself, “Why do I make art?” My answer would be that I desire to see the world, to understand its order, to be moved by its mysteries, and to use it, along with the word of God, to comprehend my role and relationship to creation and creator. I do not want to live a life deadened to the world around me, insensitive to the meaning and significance of an ordered creation. The process-based approach to art is a way for me take the raw materials of experience and observation and distill them into knowledge and understanding.
I am still new to the urges of the poetic impulse. Though it is similar in many ways to making visual art, many of its complexities and subtleties still elude me. To understand the world, God, and my fellow man through art, I use poetry to focus chaotic thoughts and reduce my ideas to their essentials and to get at the heart of a situation. In many ways, I write poetry the same way I make a detailed, technical drawing. My drawings start with a fragment of an image or composition from which I develop a pencil drawing outlining the composition in more detail. I then revisit the drawing with pen and ink several times, creating details and textures in response to the form. The process of writing poetry goes in much the same manner. An experience or thought stands out as good material for a poem, usually in conjunction with a form or metaphor conducive for its expression. I write down my ideas in rough form, like faint pencil lines. I then structure the idea into a chosen traditional form or one of my own making, much like outlining the basic composition in ink. At this point, the ideas are still rough and lack unified details. I then try to develop the ideas through specific details, finding the exact words to fit the impulse and form of the poem.
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
By coming to earth in physical body to die for his creation, Jesus affirmed the importance and worth of material reality and our time on earth. There is eternal life after death for those who believe, and Heaven is where all will be made right, but God clearly has a purpose for this life, and art is a way of processing this world’s experience and discovering a transcendent meaning. Jesus says in John 10:10 that He came that “we may have life and have it abundantly.” Art is a way of having that abundant life. For those of us who make art, it is a way of developing keen perception and truly seeing God’s creation. For the viewer, it is a way of being still and seeing one facet of life at a time and sharing in the experience and revelation of those who have worked hard in order to learn to see more fully.