“Culture making requires shared goods. Culture making is people (plural) making something of the world – it is never a solitary affair. Only artifacts that leave the solitude of their inventors’ studios and imaginations can move the horizons of possibility and become the raw material for more culture making. Until an artifact is shared, it is not culture. In the pithy words attributed to Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs when his engineers were tempted to put off the release date of the first Macintosh: “Real artists ship”. Jobs was willing to flatter his engineers, with their attention to detail and passion for perfection, by calling them artists – but he also was calling them back to the fundamental requirement of every software developer, to “ship” a working product to a wider public.”
– Culture Making, Andy Crouch.
I have pretty much spent my entire life trying to figure out what a real artist does. I am slowly coming to believe that to a far larger extent than people are willing to admit, we are all artists. It comes with the territory of bearing the image of God – an undeniable aspect of the Imago Dei. I’m not just playing with definitions here – every kindergartner, given a crayon, can, and will, draw. There is something wonderful about children’s drawings – Quentin Blake, the distinguished British illustrator, once had to produce drawings of dinosaur machines that a young boy would have drawn as part of a picture book. He was pleased when a critic praised them as being “so good they could almost have been drawn by a four-year-old”.
Now, I remember being frustrated when I made those very charming drawings as a child. I suspect most of the time, it isn’t a child’s project to produce something cute. They are all trying to be accurate, and are infuriated that their chubby hands are unable to draw something that looks more like the real world. At least, that’s how I felt. Also, there is that tiresome insistence on the part of kindergarten teachers that drawing is an intrinsic part of childhood. So we try, try, and try again. But time passes, and as our skills improve, as drawing class becomes more advanced, and eventually dropped out of the curriculum, most adults give up the original project of mimicking the real world, leaving it to the “real artists” to master perspective, light, shade, and these days, high concepts, while they relegate themselves to the vast majority of people who “don’t understand art”. Just as insistent as the kindergarten’s philosophy is the adult world’s message that drawing ends with childhood – anyone who stubbornly continues to pursue it into adulthood is considered mad, or at the very least, childish, selfish and foolish.
As I’ve been traveling around, I was surprised and saddened by how many people I met who confidently, and even proudly, said that they hadn’t the least interest in poetry or art. I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising, considering how alienating high culture is and all the economic barriers to entry that prevent most people from appreciating it, but these same people take lovely photographs, write carefully crafted sermons, listen to rap and pop music, look at their children’s drawings and say, “that’s a good picture”. Just as everyone can create art, everyone knows what they like. Which makes everybody an art critic, whether they realize it or not. And sure, taste is individual. But that doesn’t make it unimportant. And it doesn’t make it any more or less valid than the individual taste of the accredited “taste-makers” of the world. In fact we would do well to be warned with Jesus’ parable of the talents: if you have ten talents, you have ten talents’ worth of responsibility; if you have five, you had better make use of that five, and not go around whining that somebody else has ten; if you have one talent (and notice: no one has zero talents. If you think you have zero talents, you’re probably behaving like the guy with one talent), the worst possible thing you could ever do is go bury it under the ground and expect no one to notice.
This discovery – that everyone is creative, that everyone makes art, makes artifacts, makes things which have an intentional, visible effect on the world – has in turn freed me, a person who recognizes art-making as part of her vocation. For the longest time, and particularly in the accolade-driven economy of Harvard, I felt under continual pressure to please critics. To please professors, to please peers, to be published in all the “right” publications, to be reviewed, to be praised. The last thing on my mind, of course, was to please God. And for about three miserable years at Harvard, my previously prolific spring of writing dried up completely. I was so worried about my poetry’s quality that I second-guessed every word, scratched out every stanza I put to paper. It was like being so well-trained in taxonomy that you didn’t want to get a pet anymore, just in case it had a maladjusted bladder. I know it’s a bit of cliche, but it was really true for me.
I was suffering from paralyzing performance anxiety. I did all sorts of things to validate myself in my own eyes – I started dressing like an artist, talking like an artist, hanging out with other people whom I thought were “legit” artists. But somehow I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, and it didn’t help that I wasn’t producing any art anymore. My credentials as an artist, while gleaming, began to mask an increasingly hollow soul. One of the problems was my need to be the best. I would either be the best at something, or I wouldn’t be it at all. Everyone who was good at what I was doing became a threat. And everyone seemed so much better than me! Slowly I came to conclude that I wasn’t an artist. That seemed a bit more comforting. I decided maybe I was something else – an editor, or a critic, or maybe a potential literary agent in the making. But not an artist. It seemed increasingly unbearable. There was nothing I wanted more to do than to make art, and yet it seemed that God had closed the portals of my creativity. I got mad at Him. I thought it was His fault for misleading me my whole life.
Then I realized something: I didn’t have to be the best. If my writing could move just one person, decenter them for a moment, make them look at the world with fresh eyes, tilt the world just a little off-kilter, I would have done something worthwhile. I stopped worrying about publishing my poetry. Right about then, I realized that a friend who was being baptized might like a small collection of things I had written, so I made a chapbook for her as a baptism gift. She loved it, and I have never had so grateful a recipient of my poetry before in my whole life. It didn’t matter anymore whether or not I was a real artist – I had shipped. It had been delivered. It was an audience of one, but I knew that the joy that had been generated within me was greater than for any poem I had had published anywhere else, no matter how broad the audience or what the critics thought. It was the best reward ever.