Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Christian Artist: Innovation

One of the strangest things for a Christian artist in today's culture is the apparent conflict between the popular conception of what constitutes innovation in art, and what it means to respond to the Spirit in the works one creates.

I think that in some circles, "creative" and "innovative" has been conflated with "transgressive." The more shocking a thing is to society, the more it defies the norms, the more innovative it must be, and the more of a work of art it must be. In this school of thought, the last thing you would want would be to come across as seeming tradition-bound, or adhering to more ancient schools of art or being informed by a set of morals that affects what you are willing or unwilling to produce. And if that is really what it takes to produce something of artistic merit...well, the devout Christian artist, musician, or writer is in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, whether all recognize it or not, I don't believe creativity and innovation have anything to do with transgressiveness. That may be found in some creative works (whether we like those works or not), but transgressiveness has absolutely no bearing on one's technical merits, and if its intention is simply destructive, rather than done in a spirit of love...then I think it does little to nourish the spirit of those who interact with it in any way except perhaps in the sense of seeming to validate one's anger.

There is a time for transgressiveness--and that is when an injustice is being done to others. We as Christians are to be responsive to that, not to stand for it when others are being belittled or otherwise trodden upon. In our compassion the time may come to defy the norms of the society we live in, as it did for William Wilberforce and others who eventually extinguished slavery in the West. Where the social norm is one of cruelty and coldness, this is a case where a "transgression" is very much appropriate, if done with restraint and love. (My previous blog post has more to say on distinguishing the difference between true righteous anger and a worldly anger.) This is something the Christian artist can and should play a part in.

But if rule violation for its own sake, or for the sake of belittling Christianity, its principles, or cruelty to anyone is the kind of transgressiveness in question...I do not believe this is the way a Christian artist should comport him- or herself. And if there are any who might see a Christian's work as being of lesser worth for lack of these characteristics, then that is an acceptable price.

With that said...what is creativity for the Christian artist? I think that in the Bible we see many examples of it, both from the writers who were given truths and had to find a way to convey them so that we could understand them and connect with them, and from Jesus Himself, who used fictional stories--parables--to illustrate His own points. We can put language or colors or notes together in innovative ways exercise our abilities on time-tested, traditional ways, as Orthodox iconographers do. We may not all use the same sorts of disciplines as an iconographer does, but we can take from them a reminder to keep God first in all our creative ways. For in our creative spirit we are very much revealing how we are made in our Father's image, and our work should reflect this truth.

Innovation is possible for a Christian. Artists like Dostoyevsky and Bach certainly broke new ground in their fields, and exercised tremendous creativity...but they did it for the glory of God. If you have been given the gift to do something that really is new, I believe this should be encouraged. There are few forms of art that are in and of themselves un-Christian. In music, for instance, there used to be the idea that certain tones were the "devil's chord." Why the occurrence of two notes that happen to have two particular frequencies together would be inherently evil I do not understand. Nor do I find genres of music inherently evil...heavy metal has been done and done well by Christians like Becoming the Archetype or Stryper (how could I NOT mention Stryper?). Rap, too. The only thing I would see as inherently degrading would be the sort of "art" that requires one to debase oneself as an absolute condition of performing that art.

Pardon a moment of crassness here, but this is why "Christian pole dancing" had better never, ever happen.

There is another facet of this I would like to mention. To some artists, the only art worthy of consideration is that done with no boundaries. Yet it is my experience that to write within certain constraints can itself be an exercise in creativity, just of a different kind. This is why if someone does want to adhere to very traditional forms or archetypes, I will never, ever look down on that sort of art--one only has to look harder, and then the soul and Spirit of the artist becomes evident. Other Christian artists may go down paths less trod, but if still guided by the Spirit, I believe we should be very careful not to be dismissive just because they may have chosen a form that we are not as comfortable using, if that form is not inherently degrading.

So to my fellow Christian writers and artists, I would say that you have no reason to fear that your faith means your creativity is any less than that of anyone else. What matters is if, in your work, you are providing a little window to God's kingdom for us here on Earth. And that is enough.

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