Lately, I’ve noticed a number of people starting creative arts groups. For example, there’s a group of creative writers who want to get together to critique and encourage one another. There is a group of visual artists who meet monthly to network and talk deeply about their art and their faith. There’s a group of songwriters who come together regularly to share their songs and sometimes co-write together. There’s a local church that has started a monthly art space where artists of all kinds can come and share their art, and another church that is intending to have a regular artist fellowship. And I’ve been invited to a few new FaceBook groups who want to share thoughts and blogs on the arts and on worship. I think this trend is quite encouraging, as the dialogue of faith and the arts becomes a more natural part of the evangelical church.
There are a lot of advantages to joining one of these groups. In the context of Christian community, artists can find encouragement, constructive criticism, discipleship, affirmation, and acceptance. However, there are a variety of pitfalls that happen when you attempt this. After all, we are humans, and we all carry the baggage and ego and myopia of humanity within us.
Art is so many things: On one edge of the spectrum, it is a deeply personal expression of the self and a way in which we interpret and recreate the world God made. As artists, we intend to express the human condition and seek to make sense out of it. On the other edge, art can be a self-promoting, self-gratifying, self-anesthetizing thing that feeds one’s ego and false-self. Of course, that’s not who we aspire to be.
So when we get together with other artists within the format of a cooperative group like a writer’s collective, songwriter group, or arts guild, there is this dance that ends up happening, where everyone tries to find their place, minimize criticism, manage appearance, and promote oneself (without appearing to self-promote). This is natural and human. And quite imperfect.
I’d like to suggest a few rules of engagement for helping creative arts groups function. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it does come from experience.
• Remember Who You Are In Christ. It goes without saying that our art is an expression of our truest self, and in that way, our fingerprints are all over what we create. At the same time, our identity, (i.e,, who we really are), shouldn’t be tied to our work. Although my art is my personal expression, I’ve learned that my ability to write is not tied to my true identity, which is in Christ. In other words, our art should be a reflection of our identity in Christ, not that our Christian identity should spring from our art.
The idea that artists attach their identity to what they do is normal, but not necessarily healthy. Consider the painter who attaches their identity to what they do. If they create a great painting and everyone likes it, then they their self-worth soars. But if they create a painting no one likes, then their self-worth crumbles. The painter becomes driven by the need for approval and acceptance, and their self-worth is continually in flux. This is in contrast to the artist whose identity is in Christ alone. They consider a great well-received painting as an expression of themself and a gift from God, but they think no higher of themselves (nor lower if their painting fails). That is because their identity as a child of God is paramount and secure.
To truly understand this is to free oneself from those feelings of jealosy, inadequacy, envy, self-loathing, etc. Of course, this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. However, knowing this allows one to receive both criticism and accolades in a Christ-like manner, as well as keep a Kingdom perspective in all you do. In other words, take God seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
• All Criticism Must be Christ-Centered. If you’re in a group that encourages mutual criticism (and you should be), make sure that your constructive criticisms are truthful, grace-filled, and Christ-centered. Your goal—when constructive criticism is solicited from others—should always be to encourage someone toward Christ-likeness and really great art (in that order). So be truthful, but be gracious.
There is a flip side. Often times, an artist’s request for constructive criticism is actually a plea for affirmation. Many people really don’t want to know what others think of them; they simply want people to affirm what they already think of themselves. As Christians living in community with other artists, your request for criticism really must be honest in that you are willing to accept the truthful feedback of your peers. And it is worth it—iron sharpens iron.
There is also the category of unsolicited criticism. I find this often in the comment section of blogs, where people who really have little understanding of the subject or knowledge of the author, will feel free to share their often negative opinions about any given subject. The anonymity of these blogs seems to give people permission to be rude, spiteful, and verbose. In a word: Don’t.
• Don’t Use the Group Primarily to Promote Yourself. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to promote yourself appropriately as an artist. But don’t use your arts group primarily for this purpose. We have a tendency to hide behind our “Christianity” in our self-promotion. I am so very tired of people who post FaceBook requests for prayer when all they are really doing is advertising or thinly-veiled bragging. (For example, “Please pray for me as my band plays the main stage in front of 5000 people at Super-Duper Christian Conference tonight.”) If you really want to be truthful with your art, you need to put away the image management and the veiled self-promotion.
Here’s a good way to avoid this. Promote others.
• Remember That our Art is a Byproduct of our Spiritual Growth. As an artist, one’s primary goal should not be the affirmation of one’s work. While we all crave the affirmation and respect of our peers, our primary goal should really be spiritual growth. We need to pay close attention to how we are growing our souls through our art. Our artistry should then be the byproduct of our spiritual formation in Christ. This is an extremely important and foundational principle that all Christ-following artists should understand. I should know, it’s taken me 20 years to get it!
• Let People Into Your Life. Some artists have a tendency to be loners. They paint alone in their lofts, compose alone in their bedroom studios, write alone at their computers. But being alone is not God’s intention for us. He created us for community, to be with Him and to be with others. If you are a part of an artist group, make it a point to engage personally and fully. Collaborate on arts projects. Share coffee and ideas. Co-write songs together. Know and be known, artistically, personally, and spiritually. Be the church to one another.