The Risk of Art

Tightrope Walkerrisk |risk|: noun. A situation involving exposure to danger.

What is the role of risk in the arts? Is what we do as artists “dangerous”?

As artists, we are given the opportunity to risk in many ways. We risk commercially, in that there are always internal and external pressures to be profitable, and we typically must finance ourselves in our work to some degree. We risk artistically, in that art that stands out as unique and exceptional requires that we make stylistic choices that can deviate from acceptability. We also risk our audience, for they have unspoken expectations upon us, expectations to entertain and to perform to their preconceived liking—for we love the adoration of our audience more than we care to admit. We risk being misunderstood, as artists typically battle the demons of acceptance and approval, while still maintaining our vision for our art. And we risk spiritually, in that the choices we make as artists often are accompanied by decisions to compromise our personal integrity, our morals, and even our vision for our art. These risks are both complex and entangled, both highly specific to our art and to our selves.

Risk is no new thing to artists. A 26-year-old Michelangelo risked his reputation and career on a politically vexing and immensely massive block of marble locals called “the Giant.” It was through Michelangelo’s craftsmanship and vision that the huge stone became the iconic Renaissance sculpture, “David.” Experimental painters in the late 1800s, including Monet and Renoir, suffered incessant criticism and ridicule from the established French academics of their day. Originally dubbed “impressionism” as a derisive term, this style and movement would only later became more widely recognized and applauded. In 1965, Bob Dylan was nearly booed off the stage when he unveiled a new electric, rock-influenced sound to his devoted folk audience. Ironically, Dylan was simply expressing the voice of change with the musical instruments which characterized that change. Thomas Langmann sold his home and borrowed from relatives in order to finance this crazy idea of a film, a silent black-and-white movie set in the late 1920s. His 2011 release, “The Artist,” went on to win three Golden Globes and five Academy Awards. Even today, artists around the world are being persecuted with harassment, imprisonment, and torture because their art is in response to “oppression, injustice, and despotism.” Indeed, art can be a dangerous thing.

And artists of faith are not immune to this as well. T.S. Eliot was spurned by some critics when his poetry began to reflect his conversion to orthodox Christianity. Long-haired Christian musicians in the 1970s were ridiculed and rebuked for their use of guitars and drums in the church (a pretty laughable thought in this day and age). Evangelicals continue to have a love/hate relationship with the super group U2, and specifically with their spiritual frontman, Bono. And though this is a relatively small thing, I myself remember instances where, as a Christian playing jazz fusion in the early 1990s, church audiences would actually turn their backs on us.

But maybe the better question might be, what are the consequences of not risking in our art? When we play it safe and minimize risk, what can be the result? We can be ignored. We can cocoon ourselves, either physically in our studios or metaphorically in our Christian subculture, our holy huddles. We can produce art that is cliche and mediocre and derivative. We can be dishonest with ourselves. We can spend a lot of time saying nothing.

What are the risks you are taking as an artist? Are you developing new techniques? Are you seeking new audiences, or seeking to speak to them in new ways? Are you pushing the artificial boundaries of your disciplines or genres? Are you taking some financial risks? Are you seeking to say something worth saying? Are you using your art to champion a cause or speak Truth to the world?

Reply to this blog and I’ll share some of the things you, as an artist of faith, are doing. I can’t wait to hear from you.

[Note: To view the sequel to this blog post, where I describe a baker’s dozen worth of artists who are walking into risk, please click the link to the blog post, “Risky Business.”]

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15 thoughts on “The Risk of Art

  1. I’m writing a Christian modern-day fantasy series with swords, magic, the whole shebang. It’s not an allegory, so I get not breaks there. It’s Christians who have the actual Bible in the fantasy world and living it out as it applies to their supernatural existence.
    Christians don’t like magic if it’s not allegory, but I want to use it to give Christians some exciting material to read in a genre Christianity has barely touched outside of Narnia, and to show how human, yet powerful true Christians are.

  2. Thank you for an excellent post, Manuel! My creative ventures take risks at nearly every turn. I risk ridicule by creating much of my art publicly. Letting the world see my creative process lays all of my flaws on the table because every mistake is seen as I make them. There is no possible way to put on a flawless facade when your viewers watch you correct your errors live! I enjoy creating this way because is forces me to accept the fact that I’m not perfect and will always have room to grow.

    Every Sunday is a lesson in prayer and listening for the Holy Spirit because I interpret the day’s message in a visual form with complete spontaneity. The only prior knowledge I have for the theme our pastor will focus upon is the scripture included in the morning flier and a possible clue from our series title. I must be patient and listen to for the Holy Spirit to guide my pencil (usually by throwing an image into the front of my mind) and the keep the communication lines open as I draw to create the drawing so that is most effectively communicates the message it has to share.

    I run the risk of failing to complete my work by forcing myself to put the piece down by the end of the service where I pull inspiration. Drawing under time constraints (20-30 min in the case of my interpretive drawings) forces me to prioritize detail and subject matter within the drawing as the image is conceived. It also keeps me on my toes to listen for key words in the message that signal we’re close to the musicians returning for a closing song!

    Last, when I do take time to re-create a spontaneous image (or set of images) into a large scale piece, I stretch myself to use new materials and new processes. My last piece, ‘Steadfast’ combined tempra and acrylic paints in an experiment that spawned from a lack of preparedness on my part (I failed to purchase enough primary acrylics to obtain the colors I needed, so I used some tempra I had on the shelf as my under-painting). The result was quite positive! The piece I’m working on currently is diving into creating a dirt paste as my medium to paint with and testing the resiliency of canvas by purposely cutting a hole using a serrated knife. The dirt mixture is working well so far, but tearing a hole in the canvas will be the last step. I’m anxious to share how it turns out!

  3. Thank you, Manuel! This popped up at such a perfect moment in time. At the moment I feel that I’m risking it all serving Christ, and yet my art has been nearly at a standstill, overwhelmed by the busyness of all that I am doing to make a difference. I’ve been agonizing about how to tie it all together, and while this post doesn’t give me the whole picture, God has been showing me the pieces, and this challenge (and that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?) – yes, this challenge – is exactly what I needed to have the courage to be bold, to actually SAY something. Looking at the examples you’ve shown, it clicks that if I’m going to lay it on the line, if I’m going to sacrifice everything (which I already am) – then (literally) – for the love of Christ – I’m going to SAY something.

    I don’t know if this will work, trying to post a url here, but if it doesn’t, I have a painting I know you’ll appreciate on my ‘prints’ page. Yes, it’s time to make waves. Thank you!
    http://joykieffer.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/piccaso-knockoff.jpg?w=500&h=425

  4. I’ve read and reread this post several times. There’s so much in it that resonates. You are so right…to be an artist is to live a life of risk. I wouldn’t want it any other way. You’re last two paragraphs were sobering. I’ve had seasons when I didn’t risk…and they have been the most dissatisfying and numbing moments in my life. I’d rather risk and find myself wrestling with all that it means to be an artist (and an artist of faith at that!) than to live a life of mediocrity and nothingness. When I allow myself to risk, to feel, to be all present in my artmaking, to collaborate with God and with others (to create in community and fight the instinct to isolate), to let my work speak meaning and passion and depth (even if it’s not what I think it “should” say, but rather allow it to say what it “needs” to say), when I dive in deep and let the art take me to new places (giving myself room to experiment, to learn, to go beyond), when I allow myself to be a catalyst for creative hearts…when I allow myself to risk, I live adventure…I’m alive…and I’m being who I was created to be.

  5. Maybe a better question would be how haven’t I risked as an artist… I love landscapes and nature and choose that as my subject, and that’s probably the safest thing I do. I create with mixed media and do things most people haven’t seen and many can’t categorize, making it harder to sell. I’m constantly risking financially, though I can’t afford to push those boundaries too far… I’ve experimented in new techniques and have a surplus of assemblage art right now. Oh and now I’m exploring imagery that can be challenging & easily misunderstood: dead birds and small animal skulls paired with nests and butterflies and flowers. I just constantly pray that since the spirit has given me this vision, that God will provide. And then I think I sound like a crazy artist…

  6. Even through fear of someone seeing that I don’t write well I’m going to leave a post. I am an artist/ co founder of a, now defunct, art gallery here in Idaho. I realized early on, that to sell art I had to create sellable art. Art that is safe and beautiful. It frustrated and bored me. It didn’t have much meaning and it didn’t push my boundaries. I stopped painting all together because I didn’t feel that what I was producing was significant or had intrinsic value, and my prayer began to be that I would someday create with the intent of bringing glory to God, not just in the images of the paintings but by engaging with HIM and with the souls of others. In doing that I had to dialog with the Creator, which brought me down a path of healing not only within my own self but with people I came in contact with. Abuse victims, the handicapped, and shut-ins started showing up at my proverbial door to paint. When I started painting again it wasn’t with the intent of creating sellable art, it was to bring some sort of camaraderie between myself and the viewer or fellow artist by sharing what was REALLY inside, exposing my heart and yet bringing value to others by giving them hope. I began to paint in a freer more impressionistic way. The communication between myself and my Creator led me to produce WITH Him and to give up fear of risk because He wanted to claim the responsibility for the success or failure of the work. I’m not saying this is for everybody but for me this is what brought me out of fear of trying new things. I couldn’t be a failure if the outcome was about the journey, because now there was meaning behind it. If we are risking by experimenting with different styles, tools, mediums (even hearts), and we play in the joy He has given us and participates in with us, then nothing is lost. It’s all good. There will be successes and yes some losses too, but the successes are where you’ll find your joy. There are no successes without loss. The successes are what set you apart from most others and bring you value. Most of this is about the journey anyway. How we got there. So enjoy the process, going outside our perceived abilities, RISK and GROW…. or keep producing safe sellable art and you won’t find your full potential. It’s a hard concept to explain but here it is in my jumbled words.

  7. Hi, I live in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and attend Causeway Coast Vineyard. I was forwarded this blog from Lisa Martin from Vineyard, Boise.
    So what risks am I taking? Today I had to make a choice between being safe and applying for a teaching post or digging in to continue my dream in developing my arts ministry. People think I need to play safe and go for the security of a $55,000 job. I believe God is calling me to paint. I am a Kingdom Risk Taker. As I believe in him the risk will be all worth it. Keith Stynes

  8. Risk is a four letter word that is a manifestation of the four letter F-word… Fear. If you were to graph Fear vs. Risk, I’m guessing you would see Risk declining as Fear increases, up to a Fear threshold where Risk would sharply increase. I live in the knee of that curve. High fear and low to moderate risk. This is my spiritual battleground. A battleground that ironically can breed inspiring art, if Fear allows it!

  9. Risk heightens perception and performance. As a personal example, I remember the adrenaline rush of ‘nerves’ the first times I led worship. After the first chord though I lost the fear of failure and instead moved forward with an intensity that wouldn’t have been there without the risk. After leading many times I don’t have that same sense of risk, because I am experienced enough now that the only risk is that it can become perfunctory.

    I think artists have an inherent desire, even a call, to explore the limits, push the false or unnecessary boundaries. This edginess increases their need for humility and teachability, deep relationships with accountability, and a greater love of holiness than of innovation. Otherwise they can move past safe boundaries into harm and sin.

  10. The concept of risk also makes it necessary that we expect, even encourage, artists to fail sometimes – to create the environment where greatness can eventually be achieved. Does the worship band just fall apart half way through a difficult key or tempo change? Laugh it off and congratulate them for trying. Does a speaker make a flubbed attempt at storytelling or poetry in their message? Thank them, and encourage them that they will get it right some day and it will be transformative.

    If we kill all who risk and fail, we won’t ever have any who risk and succeed. In fact, this I think is why so many popular musicians started in churches, but then turned to the world. They hit the limits and were discouraged, rather than encouraged, in their nature to explore and extend their craft.

  11. Wow Manuel, I am moved by your words and inspired by the countless stories of other artists who have journeyed before us and taken huge risks in their art. I completely resonate with your description of the unique challenges we have as artists to truly follow that voice of calling within, and respond to it, no matter the cost. I am never more fully alive or fully living in the kingdom, as I am when I am creating out of that response.

    I have struggled for years with the art I wanted to do vs the art the world was convincing me I needed to do. As I have stepped out of my comfort and risked in my art, I have found a loving, grace filled God, embracing me and whispering in my ear ” trust me in this”. The excitement of knowing I am listening to the right voice inspires me in my art.

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