The Risk of Art

risk |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?

I’d love to hear about some of the ways you are risking. Please share in the comments.

[This is a repost from my blog from May 2013. I recently read it again and it spoke to me in a quite different way, so I thought I would share it again.]

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