A good friend of mine, a fellow musician, often remarks that musicians are “flaky.” He’s not referring to all musicians or all artists, I think, but to a particular kind of person who seems more often to be found in the arts than elsewhere. We probably know the type: they’re here one moment, seem invested in this or that, and then the next moment they’re nowhere to be found; they never seem to be able to stay at a church, at a job, or in a relationship for any length of time. “What’s the matter with these artists anyway?”
I think we do them a disservice if we simply write them off as unwilling to endure anything that requires work. Indeed, any dedicated artist will tell you that his or her work requires sometimes extreme intensity of dedication and can be downright painful (Ach, Schmerz!). I can already hear cries of “What do you mean we’re not dedicated?!”—followed here and there by a half-whispered, “If only you knew…”
I think we also underestimate our friends if we assume merely that they are so used to “following their heart” in their occupation that they apply the same practice in life regardless of how capricious their metaphorical pulmonary apparatus may be.
I think, rather, that the curse of the artist may in fact stem from his/her greatest blessing. The kind of person drawn to creative pursuits seems to see a world beyond the world. One person looks and sees trees, but another sees The Forest; one person is trying to figure out where the best place to bridge the creek is, while another is pondering through what strange and beautiful lands this River has flowed down from its mysterious source beyond the watching of the world. You get the idea: this “artistic” personality is utterly captivated by a sense of transcendent yet almost secret beauty, elusive though vast and powerful beyond comprehension, hidden though permeating the world as we know it. It speaks of something ultimate, something that is very close to meaning itself, something that seems to be what he was made for, something worth giving her life to.
If God has indeed created the world so as to bear his fingerprint, we will perceive something of God in all we see and will naturally resonate with those aspects that correspond to what we most desire. For example, in nature we might sense something of the great story of the world: a world aching and longing for beauties lost, but yet permeated by a perhaps scarcely audible undertone of hope: the hope against which our brokenness is indeed brokenness. We have sensed this awesome “something” in nature: we know it’s there; we have practically seen it. No wonder we would be inclined to look for ultimate fulfillment to nature. Or art.
Or relationship. If myth is any indication, the poets among us have sensed that the wonders of the natural world somehow resonate with the object of romantic desire: there seems to him to be something of the feminine bound up in the transcendent strain of nature’s song; it seems to promise that, at least in the realm of possibility, this transcendence may be found in Woman. Hence the dryads, nyads, etc., that in some form are nearly universal in mythology.
In short, the world-beyond-the-world in which the artist lives promises the longed-for oneness in relationship, the longed-for transcendence in community, the longed-for meaning in occupation, and so forth.
The problem is that the closer we look at nature itself, the more it looks like collections of carbon and chemical reactions. The more we subject the art we love to the microscope, the more we can (unconvincingly) explain away its wonders as “merely” this sort of brush-stroke or chord-progression. And the more we look at the actual people with whom we might live in relationship, the more we start to fear that relationships might be simply a macabre game of “pick your brokenness.”
And so we shrink back in disgust and disillusionment and hesitate to commit ourselves to anything. Wise folk will urge us to be “realistic.” But to the artist, idealism is in a sense realistic, because s/he has perceived this ideal world with a sense as sharp as physical sight. So then we naturally ask whether it is all just a cruel illusion.
And I think it is not. The created world (in its broader sense—that is, the “world-beyond-the-world”) may indeed resonate with the community we desire because God is communal in His own triune nature. The created world may indeed resonate with the masculine to the woman or even with the feminine to the man, since its Creator is Someone whose image is reflected jointly in male and female and we are bound to resonate particularly to those strains to which God has tuned our ears.
But we must be careful not to mistake the window for the thing beyond. Because we see the transcendence of God through the panes of the world He has made, we very easily conflate the perceived existence of perfection and transcendence (in God) with the panes through which we perceive them (relationship, community, creativity, etc.) and so assume that these created things can offer what is only to be found in God Himself.
But for our “artistic” friends, the key is to understand that this realization does not mean that relationship, community, creativity, etc. are banished from the sphere of the transcendent. Far from it! But we will be disappointed if we assume the transcendent is intrinsic to them: we will be disillusioned with church after church, date after date, job after job, and will never allow ourselves to commit to anything. Instead, we need to recognize that as representatives of Christ and agents of His redemption, it is our job to seek out the wonders and beauties of God and his wide world and to strive to bring these beauties into the communities, relationships, and occupations to which God has brought us, instead of waiting for our communities, relationships, and occupations to spontaneously produce beauties and wonders on their own. Adam and Eve were put in the garden to cultivate it, not to judge its quality by how well-tilled the soil was.
But still our artist-friend might rejoin, “So you’re saying that God is what I’m really longing for. I get that—and I know it’s the right answer. But I just don’t see it.” Of course you don’t. In this life, we walk by faith, not by sight. But just as the invisible God gave the world an image of Himself in the creation of humanity, so God has represented this now-invisible reality to us through visible things like the Church, marriage, community, occupation, and so many other spheres of human life. Like ourselves, they are broken and flawed. If we look to them for transcendence, they will disappoint. They are indeed mundane—and artists tend to fear the mundane. But in a strange way, that mundaneness is the very thing that can lend them a transcendent glory when we stop looking to them as the source of transcendence: when we are in Christ, the transcendent beauty and wonder of God’s love are poured into these mundane jars of clay, and they become incarnational, reflecting the true Incarnation that took place when God himself became “tabernacled” among us in flesh. And this incarnational upside-down-ness is precisely how the humble King conquers the artist’s heart, because through it He points all paths to Himself and thus to glory: after all, the less mundane our communities, marriages, occupations, etc., the more truly they reflect the surpassing greatness of God (and certainly this is what we strive toward); yet the more mundane they are, the more their sustenance through the love and power of God proves to be something truly transcendent. There is glory all around: “You hem me in, behind and before… If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:5, 8)! How true it is that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) Now that is something to captivate the artist’s soul!