Certainly there are many answers to “what is an artist”, but I have been considering my own definition over the past year. Perhaps I should re-frame the question, “what SHOULD an artist be?” There are many things an artist can become, but what can we Christ-followers expect from an artist?
I suggest that artists should be, what I like to call, “enablers”. Table-setters, facilitators, representatives… In other words, artists should enable others to live life in a fuller manner. We should enable deeper emotions, enable wider understanding of the metaphysical, and enable a desire for justice. Artists should be the bridge between existence and experience. Artists should not be the experience themselves, but rather be the tool by which others engage life. Artists are not the meal, but they set the table for a feast to happen. Practically, what does this look like? Matthew 25 gives us a glimpse into that.
Matthew 25 is certainly about much more than the arts, but if we apply it to the life of an artist specifically, I think we gain some valuable insight. Specifically, I see six things in Matthew 25 that show us how to set the table.
1 - Art Is About Patience
For most of my artistic career I have been frustrated. You cannot count the hours I have put into perfecting my craft only to be discouraged with the final outcome at the end of the day. The cry of, “how long oh Lord” is heard from many artists as they battle dismay at working towards, but never reaching, their vision. When Jesus says, “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”, it reminds us to be patient in our craft. Good art takes time. It does not happen over night. It took me 10 years to finally feel like I had made something worth making. Just like the bridal party, we need to be patient and keep our lamps full of oil, because often our best work comes as a surprise.
2 - The Equal Talent Myth
Walt Disney wants everyone to think that we can do anything we set our mind on. Culture says we all have infinite potential if we can just tap into it. There are two problems with this. One, reality just does not corroborate this myth. I will never be able to sing like Freddie Mercury. No matter how hard I try, it’ll never happen. Jesus said, “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.” Reality is that some people have more talent than me, and that is okay.
Two, this way of thinking robs us of the ability to celebrate mediocrity. When Jesus says, “well done, good and faithful servant.” he wants us to celebrate even the small things, regardless if someone else has more talent. If I believe that I -could- be as good as Freddie Mercury, every time I do not sing like him (which is always), I will feel like I have failed. If I can recognize that I have been given less talent than Freddie, then I can celebrate the small things that I do. The myth of equal talents robs you of joy.
3 - Art Is An Investment
Jesus said, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.” he reminds us that art, like anything else, is an investment. You need to work at it, and more importantly, having less talent is no excuse to not invest it. Artists often have the attitude that, “If I’m not the best, what’s the point?” We eliminate our possibilities before we even try. Even though I will never be the best, it does not give me the excuse to not develop and refine the talents I do have.
Rather than particulars, art then becomes about faithfulness. Jesus said, “For everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” Christ wants us to faithfully invest in the talent he has given us. He does not care if we make as much as our neighbor so long as we respect the gift he has blessed us with. There is no excuse for hiding.
4 - Art Is For Others
It is tempting to do art for yourself only. When we fear what others think, we often end up doing “art for art’s sake”. I do not think this is a legitimate philosophy for a Christ-follower. Jesus said, “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” God blesses us with talents for the sake of others. To invest only for yourself, or only for investment sake is contradictory to the heart of God.
If artists saw themselves as “enablers”, it would be easier to serve the “least of these”. We are surrounded by the poor in spirit, the emotionally handicap, the ignorant, the selfish, the insecure, the fearful, the depressed, the questioning, the arrogant… these people need art. When artists invest in these kinds of people, they will see great returns.
5 - Art Is A Sacrifice
It is no easy thing to serve the needy in this world, and art is no different. Artists often like to live in porcelain towers, but the best art comes from those who enter into the mess. Jesus talks about the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. It is hard work to serve these people. Being an enabler means letting people walk on you and suffering with the sufferers. How can we serve and represent those who hurt unless we also hurt?
6 - Art Is For A Reward
So if art is difficult, monotonous, awkward, costly and unfair, why would anyone do it? We often do it for the love of others, or if we are lucky, money. But both these things are futile, or in the words of Solomon, “meaningless”. Jesus says, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We do art in order to inherit the kingdom. Let me say that again, the reason we do art is because Christ promises us to reward our hard work with his perfect kingdom. We do art because we know we will eventually inherit perfect joy and countless blessings.
Here on earth, we do art to enable the suffering people around us to also see and inherit the kingdom. When we enable the emotionally needy, fearful, and hopeless people around us to hope in the kingdom, we make Christ look glorious. This is the ultimate art, to live in such way as to make the person of God incarnate appear magnificent to those around us.