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Hey, Artists: You Don’t Need to Justify Your Desire to Make Things

In Sputnik circles, some things go without saying: but occasionally, we ought to clarify those ‘unsaid’ things for people’s benefit. One of those is that artists don’t need to justify their desire to make things.

We’re taking you at face value. We take your artistry seriously, in and of itself. Some of you may shrug, but we so often have conversations with artists who feel the need to place their art in a ‘worthier’ context, like social justice, mental health, worship, or of course, evangelism. The conversations at our gatherings so often seem to revolve around permission.

I fully endorse having a good framework behind our art. But maybe we need a mental palette-cleanser from time to time: to be reminded that art is a human good, and that it has a function without being pseudo-spiritualized.

Art is a Simple Good

On one very simple level, as Christians we are free to enjoy making art. Think of it like food: God has created a vast map of gastronomic variety, and we’re free to combine things, roast things, explore things and to enjoy the delicious outcomes. He didn’t have to make food to be good; it could have just been functional. Similarly, there is a vast spectrum of visual and sonic possibility in our world, and God allows us to mess around with sound and light and enjoy the outcomes, simply because they are good.

Our favourite Scottish hyperrealist painter Ally Gordon puts it like this:

Creativity is the first thing God chooses to record about his character: “In the beginning God created” (Gen 1:1)… From the beginning God is interested in the aesthetic dimensions of living, declaring that the trees are not only “good for food” but first, “pleasing to the eye” (Gen 2:9).

As those made in God’s image, the act of good creativity is merely a very human experience and the artist should not feel a need to justify his art by scribbling bible verses in the bottom right hand corner of her painting or crow-barring a gospel message into his script.

And like anything that is good, art is good for sharing – or as Ally puts it in Beyond Air Guitar, “gifts are given for communal benefit and not just for individuals”. It seems to me a fitting part of the Christian life, to make things that deepen our experience of God’s creation, and share them with people. I was avoiding saying ‘beauty’ here; but, assuming we see beauty as more than a superficial aestheticism, it is a good thing to bring out the beauty and the mystery of life. Not just a good thing – it’s part of our call to stewardship of the world.

Yes, if we concentrated on this to the detriment of all else in our life, it might be unhealthy. Yes, art can be much more than this too. Yes, we will have other things we’re hoping to provoke or accomplish through our art. But on the other hand, we can take simple joy in making, the same way you can take joy in eating (and sharing) food that you’ve cooked, or grown.

Art has a Function Already

So the act of good creativity is a very human experience. And if you put humans together in the same space, the fruit of that human creativity is culture. We don’t even have to try to make it; we just can’t help ourselves. Practical needs lead to cooperation, and then BOOM: dancing, football, metaphysics, whisky, architecture. These things are all our way of figuring out what we mean to each other, rituals of belonging, a yearning for the oneness of the Godhead; our way of digging deeper into this weird thing called existence, and community.

Some churches love to talk about being counter-cultural, drawing the battle lines between us – the exiles – and ‘the culture’. But those lines can be incredibly unhelpful, too, because we are part of our culture, no matter what we do. Culture isn’t a top-down, passive enterprise. It’s the sound of neighbourhoods, of contribution and collaboration and compromise. And we are not outside observers. If we dislike what we see in our culture, we are complicit.

Good creativity is a very human experience; and culture is simply the fruit of human community.

No group of humans alive has ever not made culture, even when the immediate needs are still pressing, if cave paintings are anything to go by. Culture, and art, is far from peripheral. After all, ‘belonging’ is bang in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and in practical terms, that means shared culture. Dutch art historian and jazz critic Hans Rookmaaker puts it this way in the spectacularly on-the-nose Art Needs No Justification:

Just as plumbing is totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it, so art fulfils an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things… even without our noticing it.

If we need to talk about the function of art, it already has one. What art means to us is not really found in the individual maker, the auteur or the prophetic genius. It’s found in the receiving of art, in the shared cultural experience. There may well be a ‘message’ that comes through it, but that is not in the artist’s control. As Rookmaaker puts it, “even the best art makes for bad preaching.” I might equally say, good preaching makes for bad art.

Art Works, No Matter How Small

At most Sputnik events, aside from those who are longing for permission, we also meet people who have discounted their own gifts altogether, or feel they don’t know how to pick up their craft again, or who are discouraged that pursuing art won’t lead to worthwhile success.

Many of us set high standards for ourselves, ultimately doing nothing rather than risking something mediocre. Maybe we’re aware that, if there are elements of Christian faith in our work, we won’t be taken seriously in the wider world unless we’re ferociously good.

Sputnik exists for these people, who want to pursue excellence in their craft. But sometimes we need to ditch the weighty expectations and loosen ourselves up to just create. Making culture is what we do. The only ‘wrong’ way to approach art is to not make it, or to keep it entirely to yourself.

I keep coming back to the food analogy, but you don’t stop cooking food just because you won’t get a full-time chef gig out of it. Don’t deny yourself the joy of making, and don’t deny other people the chance to be blessed by it. Even if it’s just for your friends, even if it’s never commercially viable, art does what it’s been created to do: it announces we’re alive, it expresses joy in God’s creation, and it reminds us we belong to each other.