In the West the creative impulse has come to reside, for the most part, in the space between the artist and his world. By “world” I mean all that is outside what Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” connection. That world can be urban or rural, it can be empty of people or can be a street full of Manhattenites. The people are not intrinsic.
I’m not talking about the subject or content of his pictures. Rather, I’m asking the artist “why?” “Why do you draw? What holds your inner gaze as you work? Who do you draw for? What actual person with a name?”
My thesis is that art is one of God’s languages for friendship. Art is for delighting our friends with loving gifts. The creative impulse was placed by God into the space between me and the particular people I love, not just between me and my general world. My direct metaphysical gaze is on my friend; the sunset, which may be the intense focus of my physical gaze as I paint, is in my peripheral metaphysical vision.
If this is true then it highlights the deep alienation in the classic dilemma of the Western artist, “art or life”. Many artists have said they must either be lonely or fail as an artist. Writers also struggle to work without neglecting their loved ones. And many have subsumed everything to their art. So, we get the the Western archetypal image of the ascetic artist, starving, abandoning his wife and children — emotionally if not literally. The cliche is often completed by alcoholism and suicide.
There are lots of Christian books comparing the artist and the Creator. So much is true, but incomplete, if we just stop somewhere in the first week of Genesis. God made many beautiful things as he made the natural world, but it was all building to a point, and that point was not accomplished even on the seventh day, but was accomplished the day He came to visit the garden and talk with His friends in the cool of the trees. What was it all for? For His friends.
So, to take the contemplative gaze of God as we imagine it, with Him looking from above at the beauty of the natural world…to take this gaze as the normal vision of the artist, looking at God’s creation and then creating in joyful response — this is all true, but not true enough. To get this far, but no more, is nothing more than a mental construct to justify to the “Christian artist” — stupid phrase — why he’s spending all that time painting or songwriting. To get only this far is to build a seed of alienation into our imagination, even as we read the first 2 chapters of Genesis. God, at that moment, could very well have been tortured by the beautiful emptiness.
The nature-culture distinction is not what I’m talking about. You can be fascinated by people and still be isolated. You can see them as just objects of art, which is fine, but they are in an “I-it” relationship to you. They are like trees, walking.
“I-it” is still alienation from the world, which is all around me — people and trees — that is not in a specific friendship with me. “It” does not respond back in a loving friendship. This lack of a full personal response is in and of itself enough to distort art, like a man getting dressed in front of a dark mirror.
As Christians, we believe the alienation between us and the world will be overcome at the Eschaton. Not yet. And art, or creativity, in and of itself, does not overcome alienation. Not here. The trees and sunset don’t appreciate the work.
Other people do respond back, and there is a conversation that is possible, called love. Love takes infinite forms, can be spoken in infinite ways, and drawings, paintings, songs, poems, are all words and sentences in this conversation which is the only healing of alienation.
The creative impulse was placed by God into the space between me and the people I love, not just into some general space between me and a beautiful scene or item. The shift from the one to the other is simple laziness, because it is much easier to live in an “I-it” relationship than an “I-Thou”. “I-Thou”, love, is the hardest experience. In fact, it is impossible without grace. Art is not.
This is all very well…what does it mean for life? It is barbed with flesh: if you feel yourself even slightly torn between “your art” — stupid phrase — and your life, admit that you are alienated, and not special. You have a burden and no way to discharge it without becoming more inhuman in the effort.
The good news is that love heals all alienations. Make something for someone you love. Forget about your style, your vision, your calling, your work, or whatever other phrase you’ve made up to justify your solipsism, and just make something pretty that will delight the specific person you give it to.
Which means you start out with your friend in mind. Don’t start with a sunset or a melody you like, then at the end give it away — no, not good enough. Pick the person first, and make something from beginning to end designed only to delight that person. All your talents will be subsumed. He who would save his life must fall into the ground and die.
There is nothing wrong with responding to the beauty of the natural world, of course. Why would we not? But the point is that when you see the light flash on the ash leaf, what is your burden at that precise moment when you see as an artist? Your burden is to share what you are seeing with an actual person you know, in a way that they can see it too. It is a burden of friendship, as opposed to just the need to manipulate your media to achieve an end consistent with what you see in isolation. Of course, the first includes the second.
Then, do it over and over, re-defining the space the you work in as that interpersonal space only. The reaction to your first gift will then become the first response in this new conversation. Then you’ll respond with another gift, born of the response to your first, and so on. (This means you cannot plan your work very far in advance, nor have any real idea what direction your art will go in, any more than you can be sure what any specific conversation is going to do. What fun!)
Your static isolated vision of the world — wonderful and talented though you might be — will not be what your talent is arranged around, but instead you will arrange your talent around delighting your friend, your son or daughter, your wife.