David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book Art & Fear, suggest that the artist needs two things from their audience: acceptance and approval. They assert, “acceptance means having your work counted as the real thing; approval means having people like it.” In other words, we crave the acceptance of our critics and peers and opinion leaders to validate our work. And we crave the approval of others to validate us.
I think this is normal for any artist, to seek not only approval but also acceptance. We ask ourselves the deep questions of being. Does what I do have merit? Am I touching people with my song, my book, my poem, my painting? Is there some significance to my work, beyond my own skewed self-perceptions? Is there some significance to me? These are all valid and deeply felt questions that strike at the very heart of who we are and what we do as artists.
A friend of mine recently wrote to me about a songwriting collaboration experience she had: “It is always cool to have someone else love your music and add their talents to it. I felt like a writer last night even though I write constantly. It was great to hear others say, ‘that is fantastic!'”
I have talked often about how art is a dialogue. On one level, there is an interchange between the artist through the art to the audience. And this interchange, though it may take many forms in different media, is dialogical. For performance artists like musicians or dancers, the audience is in front of you, and the interchange is immediate. For others, such as filmmakers or writers or painters, the interchange is not often as immediate though it is just as important. The dialogue also extends vertically, as God speaks to the artist and the audience through the art, and we as artists can put a smile on God’s face through our artistic expressions as well.
Imagine That has been out a few months now, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. There have been a number of very positive reviews from websites, worship forums, blogs, web radio, and even magazines like Worship Leader and Christian Musician. There have also been a good number of positive comments from readers, who have left their thoughts on my website, bookseller sites, and even in e-mails directed to me.
Both of these have been simultaneously uplifting and humbling. Uplifting in that it feels good to receive the validation of artists, peers, and critics. Humbling in that there are a great number of people out there who are trying to figure out—in deeply personal and specific ways—how to make sense of God’s enigmatic calling for them as artists. Some of these people have been deeply hurt by the church. Some have even thought about giving up on the church. It is humbling that I’ve been a catalyst for some things that God is doing in the hearts of artists I don’t even know.
What I am grappling with now is how I am affected by the response of peers and critics. And interestingly, I find that Christian musicians, authors, and other artists pretty much never talk about the elephant in the room: Their pride.
For me personally, the challenge is receiving the approval of the readers and the acceptance of the critics, without letting myself believe I’m all that and a bag of chips. Because mixed into all the very positive book reviews and affirmations is this dark and ugly feeding of my own ego. As artists, we have a predisposition to do this in positive and negative ways. But as artists who follow Christ, we are called to something better, deeper, higher. So we must all pay very close attention to such things, and expose them to the Light. This is the thing I am learning and re-learning now.
So far, I don’t think it has gone to my head. For one thing, I continue to try to be aware of my stuff, and hold myself accountable to others. And of course, I guess I’d have to actually make a profit before I can get too prideful. Most importantly, I continue to remind myself that ultimately true validation comes only from God and God alone.
As Christian artists, we must never forget that.