social media and art | the shape of us

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

Social media’s pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, last week I highlighted what social media is, and this week, I will highlight two results: what social media requires, identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Requires: A Profile

You have a profile; you are a user (the drug language is ironic for reasons we’ll introduce below). From the brief bio of Facebook and abbreviated resume of LinkedIn to the emoji-laden About Me of Instagram, profiles are the digital expressions of ourselves within these virtual worlds masquerade as real life. Maybe you didn’t grow up with video games, but, thanks to social media, you’ve since created your own avatar. Some networks attempt verification (are you who you say you are? A picture is worth…Twitter’s blue check-mark), although those just try to quench the death hoaxes. Once you’re online, with that thoughtless or thoughtful name, the rest is just marketing, self-expression, and curation.

Take a look at your favorite Instagram feed. Chances are, it has a visual or aesthetic theme that probably involved advance planning. Again, we encounter the juxtaposition of unlimited opportunities in a limited medium. Our profile creations allow us to choose unique expressions of ourselves, but doing so demands only certain iterations. Is your profile truly how you see yourself, or how you think others see yourself, or how you would like others to see yourself?

Imagine choosing one outfit that you had to wear for the rest of your life. What’s the criteria? Do you go with the dressy suit you last wore at your aunt’s funeral, or the business casual from that wedding last summer? The flowered Easter wrap or your favorite t-shirt dress with the cool pockets? Is the truest representation of yourself these things? If “hours spent wearing” is the designation, your profile pic would be you in your favorite sweatpants and the shirt from a college you didn’t attend (with Netflix in front of your face and your phone firmly in-hand).

I might be exaggerating, but the point remains: we choose what parts of us the world sees. Sometimes that profile is true, and sometimes we put the real portrait behind a fingerprint lock or on a private playlist. While our profiles can contain truth, it raises the question: is it true if it is incomplete? With a tip of the hat to philosophy, is completeness a necessary attribute of truth?

We can discuss more about honesty and art under the second response, but for now, let’s establish this: social media does not cause lying. It does facilitate it. It doesn’t plant liars so much as provide the soil for them to grow. This response is directly corollary to our first identifying characteristic: the digital nature of social media creates a two-dimensional world in which we do not need to be whole persons. Just as our artistic expressions become flattened by bytes and video streams, so do our whole selves. Our avatars and bios can be more wish-fulfillment than actuality.

We lie on more than just our dating profiles and driver’s licenses, and it isn’t just for the sake of self-protection or privacy. The selective choices and pieces of our lives that we display to the world in our profiles is a strength we take comfort in, for there is power in a veiled face. Whether we consciously identify if an artistic consumption fits with our aesthetic or peruse our tagged pictures to cull the badly incriminating ones, we are trimming our lives into profiles of our own making.

Regarding the art we create and consume, Picasso once described art as the lie that tells us the truth. Chaim Potok fictionally declared art as truth, and I would posit that they spoke of the same thing. Honesty to an artistic vision seeks truthfulness in the wholeness of vision. What damage is done to our honesty when it is cropped and filtered, parroted and promulgated by questionable avatars?

What Social Media Requires: A Response 

Here we revisit a characteristic of social media: its connectivity. It reaches out, and, in doing so, engenders a response. You may argue that you are not required to engage with the posts in your feed, but even your choice to scroll past them is a response (behind every “yes” is a “no”). While Facebook has sought to develop sophisticated reactions (does one of six emojis actually count as a reaction?), we’ve so muddled our ability to respond truthfully that we “Like” heartbreaking posts as proof that we’ve seen them.

Do you truly enjoy the person who posts a meme every half an hour, or do you just find the kitten pictures to be a nice break from the workplace drama? Or, vice versa, do you agree with the platitude she posted (50/50 chance it’s some iteration of ‘love thyself’), or do you just like her as a friend? Regardless of the content, we now have the opportunity to know everyone all over again. What a joy to connect with the relative that lives across the pond, for surely you would know nothing of him without the connectivity of social media (but when his birthday pops up in your notifications, you may forget it because there are four others the same day and that’s just too much. Might as well let them all down). There are demands for us to post, read, like, react, especially after that friend posts the rant about the silent users who just ‘like’ and scroll with all the speed of a drive-by-shooting. Social media requires a response, but it does not always require effort. It demands time, not always engagement. It wheedles for presence, not always participation.

In relation to art, here all points converge: why do we post? Why do we scroll? Why do we like? What does it do to us? If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek‘s encapsulation of millennials, it’s worth your time. His point about addiction and social media is not unsupported, and the statistics are accumulating, although further research is still sorting through the countless factors that affect this outcome. However, we shouldn’t pretend that the lack of consensus is proof that addiction doesn’t happen.

Think of it this way: social media is an entrance into addictions of every flavor, and it joins the fray as a narcissistic injection of its own. In the muddied waters of art that have been created for a simultaneously connected and disinterested audience that liked your DIY post last month and not your puppy’s birthday post, we run the risk of dishonesty yet again. Did we write the poetry out of a truthful vision or with the shortsightedness of garnering endorphins through notifications?

Revisiting Potok’s vision of art, his semi-autobiographical character, Asher Lev, unswervingly speaks of art in this way:

“But it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.”

It’s a blunt statement, but I’ll make one as equally direct: we are whores to our feeds and likes and the hearts we are bound to bestow and the hearts we aim to receive.

In Conclusion…

I can’t rail against social media without acknowledging the creativity it engenders and the connectivity it entails. I can’t deny the innovation and the ability to interface with creatives from around the world. But, recognizing the characteristics and requirements of social media, where does our theology come in? If art is an expression of our souls, why does it matter that these souls are sanctified ones?

Here, I hope my silence has been instructive. By now perhaps you are tired of the paradigm that social media is a tool (so are others). I cannot preach about the moral imperatives governing the nature of social media. Its characteristics are not inherently evil, but they are deeply capable of evil. The responses it requires of us are where our theology must be our first foundation. Is there a moral imperative governing our creation of a profile? As a social experiment (ha), take a moment to read Galatians 2:20, Till We Have Faces, and One With Christ. Then, with your Scriptural, literary, and theological horizons widened, take a stab at creating that social media profile and let a real life friend read through it.

Before you post your spoken-word piece that may be a rant, consider digging into this, this, and this. Root your feet in realities other than the unsteady platforms of social media. Art is proclamation, and both our creation and consumption of such proclamations is stunted and warped by the characteristics and requirements of social media. I would suggest that creating art for social media is claiming to be a gourmet cook who only knows how to use three ingredients or run a microwave. Conversely, consuming art through social media runs the risk of living off TV dinners for the rest of your life. You’ll starve.

One final admission, confession, and plea: I recognize that I am writing this for a form of social media. I recognize that it is being disseminated via social media. I recognize the irony of criticizing a platform I stand on, of taking a saw to my own branch. Furthermore, I confess that I recently chose to disengage from these platforms. I’m in indefinite hiatus from the forms of social media I’ve dissected above. I chose it for reasons both public and private, practical and immaterial, deeply spiritual and unaccountably shallow.

But here is one reason that I hope this essay supports: social media shapes the way we think, speak, and live. To learn to shape social media rather than have it shape us is a personal and corporate challenge, and one we will all face whether we recognize it or not. For myself, one facet of stepping away involved the recognition that I needed the space in order to see it the right way; to recognize it for what it is and learn to live with it rather than under it.

We are living immersed in social media, using the language of it, absorbing its practices. We may learn how to grip it without letting go, but I would beg you to seriously consider whether you truly hold it, or it holds you. Far more than just our art is at stake.

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social media and art | more of less

If you’re reading this, there is an 80% chance you are a Facebook user (and if you’re the likely one who accessed it from Facebook, welcome to the 80%). If you’re under the age of 30, there is a 60% chance you have an Instagram profile. If you’re the parent of a teenager, there is a 75% chance your teenager is active on both Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram claims 500 million active users, and in June of 2017, Facebook recorded 1.32 billion daily active users. These aren’t empty profiles, as at least 75% of Facebook’s total users check in once a day.

I could bury you under the statistics being posted daily on a social network somewhere, but here is a concluding truth: in case you had any doubts, social media is here to stay. We post, like, share, scroll through a feed, and watch a story (although hopefully we’ve learned not to poke by now).

We could weep or rejoice that we’re seeing curated baby pictures from the college roommate we had for one semester ten years ago who lives in Denver and posts a daily yoga picture and just had her first daughter with her partner of eight years. Also, they just switched to cloth diapers. #crunchy

We could like or question the selfie our world-jaunting friend (who attends the same church, but doesn’t usually make it in time for first service) posted of The Ambassadors while on the British leg of her jealousy-inducing, culturally enlightening vacay. Note that the selfie was taken at just the right angle.  #foundit

We could enthuse with or judge the coworker who attended the midnight showing of that movie competing for the most headshots in cinematic history, or was it the one that claimed a Guinness record for its profanity? You can go back and check for their poorly-lit selfie in front of the movie poster. #worthit

I’ll step off my soapbox with this introductory admission: the pros and cons of social media can and should be called the joys and dangers of online connectivity. This article is not the place to discuss the full implications of social media on our lives and relationships. However, its pervasiveness established by the statistics above intersects with the desires of made | new to pose this question: how does social media impact art consumption? More specifically, what must we be aware of as Christ-centered theologians who both create and consume art through the lens of a society deeply entangled in the world wide web?

To begin to answer, I’ve chosen to highlight two characteristics (what social media is) and next week, two results (what social media requires), identifying the impact upon our art with each step. In short (placing a toe back up on that soapbox), let’s declare, inquire, and be willing to engage in judgment. We’ve been asked a question that deserves an answer.

What Social Media Is: Inherently Digital

This may seem obvious, but let’s remind ourselves: social media is not the old-fashioned networking of rubbing shoulders at a local business meeting or clinking glasses at a corner pub. Social media is digital in both form and access. Whether it is your smartphone or workstation or laptop or all three, these are the gateways to social media.

While social media can be the impetus to interactions outside of itself (a book club with Facebook invites but a living-room locale, for example), the point of contact is first between yourself and an electronic screen in range of the nearest cell tower or Wifi hotspot. Social media as an electronic tether is both the ball-and-chain and the key to the lock; we are obligated to digitally access our networks at the same time that we have chosen to create those networks as accessible only digitally.

What does this have to do with art consumption? One query is whether our art experiences are diminishing to electronic platforms; a sister question is the validity of our choices to limit them thus. Art galleries and concert halls are packaging their art to meet a digital culture, desperately seeking to bolster a shrinking public. The difficulty is utilizing the digital nature of social media to translate an experience that is not inherently digital. We can see the Sistine Chapel from our living room, but can we smell the centuries of tradition and reverence? We can hear the strains of Vivaldi via a live-streamed concert, but do we hear the dusty echoes of the last emphatic bow?

We can ‘Like’ the Facebook page of our city’s premiere orchestra, but at the performance we’ll be asked to disconnect from the very electronics that fed us the news in the first place. Afterwords, be sure to Like Us on Facebook and Instagram while we slot audible art into a visual medium, crop visible art into a filtered feed, and reformat scripted art into a convenient e-book.

Book excerpts used to be read aloud from the tome pulled off the shelf, but now they are digitally hand-lettered (its own oxymoron) against a foggy mountain background and uploaded to a platform that swallows it whole without ever tasting the words. This last small example is one that reveals a secondary, yet equally damaging loss that can be explained after a glance at our next primary characteristic.

What Social Media Is: A Form of Communication

The intent of social media is connectivity and communication, and no one can deny that it is highly capable of both. I’m not a Twitter user, but I’ve marveled over the creative confines of a 140-character constraint (although even that may be changing). Instagram lives by informal mottos both singular (“a picture is worth a thousand words”) and sloppy (“pics or it didn’t happen”), although corporate branding usually censors the latter.

Now we have something called Snapchat, which is still incomprehensible to the dinosaurs of this age (you know them, the ones who still use punctuation in their laborious text about walking the dog and seeing our neighbor, George, and having a chat with him… “XOXO Love, Nanna”). This platform is more difficult to describe; something along the lines of temporary visual messaging with the occasional voice distortion and themed/transmogrifying filters (think visual vomit to a select few or the whole world via a “story”).

It’s telling of our language that we call these pieces of visual communication “stories.” While social media trends toward the visual, Spotify is an intersection of the social with the audible, and Facebook is all things; if you write it, read it, draw it, watch it – you’ll find it there. Also, if you’d like a calendar reminder of when to do that, you’ll find it above the feed full of memes and fake news. And connectivity? The sky is the limit, but Mark Zuckerberg is not, as Facebook shrinks us far closer than six degrees.

When it comes to art consumption, I showed my hand with that header. Social media is a “form of communication,” and a limited one. Here, the digital nature and the communicative aspect converge in a way that expands our consumption (that connectivity again) and limits it (digital communication can only touch our senses in singular ways). The translation, communication, and consumption of art via social media is in a definitively blunted manner. Just as handwritten class notes require greater sensory and cognitive processing (and yes, affect your grade), so do real-world experiences.

To revisit our book quote example, can you recall sitting on the edge of your seat, hearing the unique lilt of another’s cadence as he read aloud from a book that would soon become your favorite? The scrunch of the reader’s nose when arriving at a description of scent, the higher pitch taken for a rapid line of dialogue, the deep breath before a weighty line; these are the experiences of art that are disintegrated upon entering the bytes and streams of social media.

Just as sound waves are compressed to shallower depths to facilitate online streaming, so do our discussions truncate themselves to fit into 140 characters or the lexicon of an online post. The brushstrokes are flattened, the colors muted, and suddenly we touch art wearing the metaphorical glove of social media, unable to truly feel the contours of what it was meant to be.

There is endless possibility to what we can touch, undoubtedly. But the sheer volume of communication buckles under its own weight, unable to further identify between information and communication, between creation and consumption, between experience and engagement. Social media involves far more of something that is far less.

Aronofsky’s “mother!” | the tangled webs we ought to weave

Reader be warned: here be spoilers. Please, please, PLEASE go see this film before reading this article if you have any interest at all. It’s well worth your time.

If forced to describe Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! in one word (besides the endless superlatives I could toss its way), that word would have to be “difficult.” Around seventy percent of my brain function was devoted to figuring out what on earth was going on during my first viewing of the film, and, judging by its abysmal Cinemascore report card and box office haul, general audiences seemed to struggle even more. I suppose it doesn’t help that they might have felt duped by trailers that marketed it as a horror flick when the actual picture is…well, I guess a drama about a man and his wife dealing with unwanted visitors that descends into a sometimes horrific fever dream that’s just too hard to describe with coherence and conciseness. In that sense, mother! is extremely difficult to market, as it could only really jive with audiences whose sensibilities leaned more toward the arthouse and independent scenes, and Paramount still had the guts to release it in over 2,300 cinemas in the United States (which I applaud).

It’s not that mother! is an impossible film to grapple with; I’ve seen movies that are incomprehensibly opaque, and this is far from it. In fact, once you’ve unlocked the film’s central biblical allegory, the whole thing appears almost deceptively simple, and a second viewing makes the metaphors so obvious you’ll wonder how you missed them the first time around. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the great flood, the birth (and death) of the Messiah, they all make appearances here while Jennifer Lawrence’s mother earth suffers at their hands (and Javier Bardem’s God doesn’t seem to care).

But to walk away from mother! with the most surface-level interpretation is to settle for it in its most unsatisfying state. This film demands your scrutiny, to be revisited and restudied and picked apart piece by piece, and still it will feel as though you haven’t uncovered all of its secrets. The simple interpretation ceases to be so simple when you consider Aronofsky’s previous, failed relationship with actress Rachel Weiss and current relationship with Jennifer Lawrence; the film is so strikingly personal, there has to be some exploration of this present. Perhaps, too, it examines the creative process and the haggard relationship between the artist and their work. Even further still, it could simply be a brutal, feverish nightmare depicting the suffering of the neglected, the pain of unrequited devotion and love.

Even that central, baseline story of mother earth being ravaged, raped, and ruined by mankind while God turns a cold, blind eye can be read slightly differently if you consider Aronofsky’s penchant for communicating stories through unreliable narrators. Is this meant to be an indictment of God for turning His back on the rest of creation for the sake of some reprobate apes that continuously ignore His instruction and destroy His work and His home despite professing their “love” for Him, a love that pales in comparison to that of the earth itself? But then I remember that I am one of those unsavoury beasts smashing mother earth’s chairs and stealing her pottery, and suddenly I am forced to come to grips with a new perspective on the consequence of my own sin, the profound loss that resulted of God choosing me over the rest of His creation and the pain it must feel if it were afforded personhood. Now the heady haze of mother! no longer feels like something distant and intangible to me. It’s unsettlingly close.

The truth is that there’s no singular, straightforward reading of mother! that you can point to and say, “That’s it, there’s nothing more to it.” Metaphors bear double and triple meanings, and the whole thing folds in on itself over and over again until it’s tangled to the point where it can’t be fully untied. Yet I can’t help but try. A week and a half has passed since my first viewing of mother!, and I’m still lost in it. I’ve yet to find a convincing interpretation of elements like the yellow medicine and whatever that thing in the toilet was, and I don’t know if I ever will. Still, I can’t help but feel compelled to keep wondering, keep searching, keep digging through this gorgeous, many-tentacled monstrosity in vain effort to wrangle it in.

Films like this are the epitome of what cinema should be, to me at least. Pieces of audiovisual art that are so effortlessly potent that they can suck you in for hours or days not just trying to decipher the plot but the implications thereafter, ending in an experience that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and rousingly spiritual. Aronofsky has succeeded in producing the most spiritually stirring film I’ve seen since The Tree of Life, and I will not hesitate already to call it a masterpiece. This should be a standard for us in what we hope to achieve in the arts – I can only hope to create something with half the depth of meaning of mother! someday.

For more of Andy’s thoughts on mother! and other films, you can check out his review at www.cinemainframe.com and follow him on Letterboxd.

how to accept critique

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Def: to separate things or people that are of high quality or ability from those that are not:
The first round of interviews really separates the wheat from the chaff.”
– 
Cambridge Dictionary

I grew up hearing this phrase. It was one of my Mom’s many Mom-isms, parental phrases repeated over and over again that, every time I heard them, made me quietly roll eyes and say “Mahhmm!” droningly to myself. It was especially used in my high school years, when after receiving a lecture or some chunk of motherly advice that my Mom was absolutely sure I needed at the time, she would close her dissertations with a sigh and a “Well, what do I know? I trust you to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Cue eye roll number two.

Leaving behind the days of my youth, I moved forward into the adult world with my eye on my passions. I’ve always been a creatively minded person, with my hands continuously dabbling in music, writing, illustration, and graphic design. And if you are a person even remotely involved with these practices, you know about the unfun part of putting your work out in the open; listening to critique.

It can be gut wrenching to have created something, feel especially proud of it, publish it for the world to see, then have someone find something wrong with it. Even if you’re looking for someone to find something wrong with it in order to get better, it still can sting in a way few other things can.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that our brains are working against us in that regard, whether we want it to or not. In an article published for BBC, psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone explain how, in many scientific reports, people would rather ignore reality, exaggerate their own good qualities, and shift blame onto the one critiquing than accept any comments that could bruise their good perceptions of themselves.

And to the Christian, this comes as no surprise that this is in our very nature. The Bible talks over and over again about the dangers of putting too much stock in one’s self, the very definition of the word “pride”. Pride has been labelled as one of the Seven Deadly sins, and the Scriptures are pretty clear about how God feels about pride;

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.
– Proverbs 21:24

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
– Obadiah 1:3

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. – Proverbs 21:4

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Whoa whoa whoa, Josie… I’m a Christian, I know pride should be avoided, especially in my walk with God. But don’t you think it’s a little much to be saying that feeling good about my own work is prideful? I should like my own stuff, right?” And by all means, like your own stuff! That’s a place many artists would love to be. But you shouldn’t be at that place at the expense of feeling wrathful toward people critiquing you.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
– Matthew 5:22

And oftentimes, we come to this place unwittingly, usually as a result of mistaken identity. In my journeys through the artistic realms, I have found that most artists would say that they struggle far more with insecurity than with pride. They have poured their hearts and souls into every piece of work they have made, and all they want is for people to like their work, and in turn, themselves. It is this mentality that causes artistic types to interpret critiques of their work as personal attacks on their self-worth, a self-worth that has been wrongfully placed in the work of their hands as opposed to their status as beloved of the Creator. Another form of pride to be sure, to try to define your personhood apart from the God who loves you.

So now we’re back to square one. No matter what we do, we are still prideful humans who think too highly of ourselves and the works of our hands. Even for the most tempered, even-keeled artist, it is difficult to prevent ourselves from feeling defensive when we seek out negative comments, even if we want to use them to make our work better. So what should we do?

“Separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Motherly wisdom always proves to be right in the end.

There are two necessary steps one must take in order to properly separate the wheat from the chaff;

  1. Take everything in.
  2. See what stays.

To understand this further, come with me to a wheat farm. It doesn’t matter which farm it is, who is running the farm or how they choose to harvest, because no matter where you go, the process is very similar. First, the farmer brings in the harvest. It does not matter how abundant or scant the yield is that year. They cut everything from the field and take everything in. And they want to, in order to pull in as much yield as possible so they can make as much profit as possible.

Second, the farmer places everything he has gathered into some sort of device. These devices can look very different, but their intent in the same. They stir up all the stalks and heads of grain that have come in, tossing them around in the air. Since the wheat grains are heavier, they bounce back to the bottom of the device and stay within it. Because the husks, shells, and straw surrounding it don’t weigh much more than a feather, they fly away with the wind or the blasting air of an industrial machine.

As artists, we must to the same thing in order to obtain the life-giving knowledge found in critiques. We first must take in everything. And I mean everything. Every helpful comment from a knowledgeable teacher, and every “f*ck you” from a random internet troll. Everything must be taken into account in order to get the most out of every statement. We need to remember that help can come from any part of the harvest, and we should not ignore grain left out in the field because it seems like there’s a scant yield from far away. Since we are hard-wired to reject statements that makes us feel bad about ourselves, our initial negative reactions and snap judgments cannot and should not be trusted. Any inclination to listen to those off-the-cuff rejections is our pride and misguided self-preservation getting in the way. 

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
– Proverbs 18:12

The second thing we must do is to see what stays. This can be a complicated task, since everybody does this process a little differently. You will need to do some tweaking to find the way that works for you.

Do your best to return to a sober mind. If a negative comment is causing you emotional discomfort, ask yourself clarifying questions; “What about that specifically makes me feel bad?” “Why does it bother me?” “What part of me does it bother?” “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” If something is really bothering you, talk to a friend or loved one about it in order to sort it out. It is by working through the emotional discomfort of highly negative statements that you will be able to let the chaff of negative comments float away. Once you get good at this, taking in and letting go of unhelpful, disdainful comments will become easier and easier.

Once your mind has been quieted, you will notice something interesting has happened. Because you put aside your pride and self-defensiveness and accepted all comments as potential harvest, you have blown away the chaff and are now able to see which critiques can be used as actual nuggets of nourishment for your artistic growth. But even this can become an interesting task if you get some comments that contradict each other. For example, I recently performed Genesis 1 for a class at college. One written critique I got from a classmate said that I should have gestured more during my performance. But another critique I got said that I gestured too much and should have let the story unfold. So now what do I do? How do I find the comments that are not just good, but best for me?

Here’s where we do our quality check with more clarifying questions, this time regarding the critiques themselves; “Do I know who said this?” “How experienced in my field is this person?” “How could this statement apply to my artistic growth?” “How could a different statement apply?” Toss all of the comments around in your mind. Test the critiques against your own artistic journey. By quietly mulling over these grains of wheat you have discovered, you will find that the most nourishing brain food will be the stuff that you use to further refine your craft over and over again.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. – Romans 12:3

But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. – Galatians 6:4

Well, as is usually the case when children come into their own, it is with quiet awe that I can say that my mother’s statement on accepting critique proved to be true. And I hope that in reading this article, you were also able to take it all in, separate the wheat from the chaff, and let whatever grains of truth you find here nourish your soul. If you can let go of the useless chaff, you will find that the heaviness of the critiques you need will stick to the bottom and impact your artistic quality for the better.

pride and fear and the art in between

I hang out with a lot of “artistic types” on a fairly regular basis, both in collaboration on projects and in managing the day-to-day administrative tasks that so many of our type find difficult or distracting. I would even call myself an artistic type pretty readily. I’m a fan of both fences and freedom (in fact, I think the former actually engenders the latter). I’m organized, but in a very disorganized fashion. I can focus fully on one thing for a long amount of time, yet enjoy a high level of distractibility most of the rest of my life. I value fantasy, symbolism, and imagination because they illuminate reality and truth, or maybe just because they’re tasty.

And I struggle with pride and fear on a daily basis.

To me, these are the besetting sins of the artist, and the most restricting sins when it comes to creating.

How We Ought to Think

Pride and fear are both, in essence, thinking of ourselves as something we are not. Necessarily, this means that we are thinking of God as something He is not, as well as everyone around us. Paul is doubtless describing pride in Romans 12:3 when he says the following:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

The remedy for pride here is, surprisingly, not to think of ourselves as less than we are; in fact, Paul spends a good portion of Romans talking about how we are to believe our status as a new people, made alive and free in and through Christ. It is belief in a higher truth that overcomes the old self, and here it is such belief that overcomes pride – and, indeed, fear. Here we are exhorted to think of ourselves rightly, faithfully, as God thinks of us: with sober judgment.

The Desire to Create

I’ve heard it said that the difference between artists and non-artists is that the latter look at art and say, “I could make that,” and the former actually make it.

As artists we somehow have the audacious belief that, amazingly, we are capable of creating art. Call it courage, call it idiocy, call it desire – we have found that creation is possible and even, dare I say it, fulfilling; so we keep drawing, we keep composing, we keep dancing or writing or acting or filming.

Artistic types are naturally gifted with an above-average measure of this desire. Unfortunately, we’ve also been “gifted” with a sin nature that degrades and twists this natural creative tendency.

The Twist

Pride twists our God-given tendency to create in many ways, like when we attempt to lift our art – and therefore ourselves – to the center of attention, so that we may be worshipped as Grand Artiste in the manner we desire. And I don’t think the terminology here is too dramatic. Pride is about being worshipped, and we as creators have to continually remember that we’re not capitalized by comparison to the Creator.

But it is also fear that twists us, because it is fear that whispers to us that we are less than – that we are so broken that we cannot be healed, that our art is worthless, that we are worthless, and that we’ll never get better. These are lies from the pit of hell, but the rebuttal to them is not confidence in our art or ourselves. It is confidence in Christ as Redeemer, Savior, Creator – in the One who can make us and the work of our hands, minds, feet, and mouths useful, beautiful, and true.

The Artist and Sober Judgment

The place we are to live is one of faith, confidence, courage, and resolve – these interrelated ideas are good and true when they rest on Someone outside of ourselves. To think of ourselves with sober judgment, we are believing 1) that we are created in God’s image, 2) that we have been gifted with creative abilities, and 3) that those abilities can and more often than not should be used faithfully.

Part of this sober judgment is accepting that we will never arrive at some perceived plateau of excellence. The product we create is only punctuation, and no one wants to read a book full of nothing but commas and periods and semicolons. The magic lies in the words and sentences – the process, the journey of creation, failure, redemption, tension, and re-creation, always further up and further in.

Within that process is our hope – that each day Christ can and does renew and refresh His distractible, forgetful, disorganized, prideful, fearful children for the work He has for us, and He will continue to do so.

no plateaus here | the artist and doubt

“To believe with certainty, somebody said, one has to begin by doubting.”

I remember vividly the sensation brought by reading that quote – of being both jarred and strangely comforted. I had been reading Shelden Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” drawn into a world where a poetic mind spoke honestly about darkness, death, loss, love, and the harshness of divine mercy. The book was stunning (read it, if you haven’t), but the quote itself started me off on a long line of inquiry that is still being directed and rephrased and remade.

What is the place of doubt in the Christian heart and experience? More pertinently to us, what is the place of doubt in the life of the Christian artist?

Living in the question

As artists, we question. Mostly “why” laced with “who” and including the odd “what,” our work constantly illustrates what we cannot rectify. It was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.” Dance, visual art, drama, writing, music, et cetera, often seeks to show either a picture of what is, or an idea of what could be (sometimes including the horrific alongside the hopeful). As Christians, it’s particularly illustrative of our belief and of our struggle within those beliefs.

I’m thankful that we are slowly coming to a place in the Body of Christ where the idea of Christian doubt is less and less the colloquial boogeyman. The Psalmist came to God with stronger suspicion and angst than anyone I know, and he got in the Bible for it. Even Christ never condemned a man for his doubt – He condemns him for his unbelief. Our incertitude often flows out of a deep, honest desire to trust, but a desire who’s answers have been found wanting, for one reason or another. In truth, Christ is the only One able to answer our qualms – even though He often doesn’t answer in the way we’d like (but all that’s another post for another day…).

If we refuse to acknowledge doubt, much less battle in it, we risk the falsehood of blind security. We look for the place where we (in our current frustrated and imperfect state) could become “enlightened;” where we have at last reached a full understanding of the things we had, until now, not satisfactorily mastered. Where we don’t need to investigate because we finally “get” it all.

It took until my fourth year at Moody Bible Institute to understand that I was seeking for just such a plateau. During my Systematic Theology class, some lecture or conversation or reading (I don’t remember which) stirred in my mind the understanding of looking for perfection. A place where one comes to the end of works well-done, where there need to be no more effort; “heaven” in the most boring sense of the word.

It’s appalling, actually. Here I was, sitting quietly in my seat, unknowingly convinced that all the grace and freedom I talked about was underlined with the firm belief that you can work yourself to a place where there will be no more conflict, disquiet, or effort. That you can perform your “works” so well that you make it to the absence of strife.

Besides that being an obvious theological mistake, it’s also a robbing of our joy through enrichment. In this life, we have messy things that constantly tug at us – relationships, ideologies, historical events, sins, convictions; contention in one thing or another. In bumping up against all that, somehow, we are made to mature.

Living in the mystery

While the absence of interactive relationship would mean a lessening of conflict, it would not result in peace. As human beings, we continue to find the qualms – even without the other bodies and souls who make it that much more evident. Running from times of uncertainty, however, will not ward them away. The vacancy of growth is death.

When we refuse to embrace the uncomfortable rub (within or without), the only alternative is stagnation and the extinction of our art. Without questioning, we cannot make art, and in order to query, we must admit there is much we do not know, even cannot know. The presence of the incomprehensible is essential. Paradox is a constant throughout our Christian faith; our spirituality is rife with reality that we cannot, in any way, satisfactorily answer. Trinity, sovereignty, union, sacrament, eternity – all of these are theological language for “you won’t understand it, so keep believing and enjoying it.” It’s crazy – something we artists should know plenty about.

Living in the mess

Let me take a moment to say that, in its essence, our doubt and our art are meant to be experienced in community. I know it’s at risk of becoming a buzzword for our generation, but community is an essential part of the struggle and gritty progress through contention. If you live in conflict while alone, it’s dissociative to your being. You split against yourself and have nothing to patch the hole.

In community, you experience the peeved reality of others’ quirks and questions, their idiosyncrasies and annoying bits. Those people are often the source of collision as well as the cushion for the blow. Thank God it is a mess and will not leave you the same as when you came.

Donald Miller says this in his book “Blue Like Jazz” (which, incidentally, has a lot of marvelous things to say about paradox, belief and distrust): “When you live on your own for a long time… your personality changes…There is an entire world inside yourself, and if you let yourself, you can get so deep inside it you will forget the way to the surface. Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body.”

In His sovereignty, the God we love and serve helps our finite minds haggle and fail in our pursuit of truth. G.K. Chesterton said “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” As artists, especially as Christian creators, we should (we must) live in the world of growth – in the fracas-ridden ground of suspense and uncertainty. Not always uncertain, but embracing the paradox in our faith and the strength of our God, especially in our times of doubt.

I encourage you to let the tears and the confusions lead you to questions – ask, read, talk, pray. Realize that you are growing and will continue to mature to the tune of impossibilities. Be honest, and let those things fuel you onward.

artistic worship| factory or faithful?

assembly line

(from Daniel Lim)

For the past four (almost five) years, I’ve been serving as a worship director in a small church in a small suburb in Illinois. Those who’ve known me longer than that may find that surprising. Prior to my position in the church, I was labeled as a secular musician; and I loved it. I loved the freedom it brought. I was allowed to write and create as an individual with all my frustrations, edges, and dirt. I didn’t have the need nor the desire to mask the things that the church would have deemed embarrassing. While I certainly am not asserting that I celebrate my imperfection, I believe it is a sign of maturity to sit as I am before God, knowing that I am covered by His blood.

I remember a conversation I had with my wife a week ago. We talked about how the language in music labeled “worship” was often bland and repetitive. I noticed that the vernacular used in Contemporary Christian Music was judged based on how well it fits in its narrow spectrum, rather than the content or message of the song. It got me thinking – what is worship? Or what are the characteristics of worship? And most importantly, is my art worship?

At the heart of the matter, I believe that your view on worship is dictated by your view on your relationship with God. For example, should you view your relationship with God as a mere compartment in your life, and hence void of significance in other areas, then your worship may be sterile – a representation of a nice and neat factory-cut delivery of praise to the doorstep of God’s Sunday apartment. But if you realize that God is the God of your entire life, including the dirt and the areas you are yet to be fully sanctified in, then sing to God as such a person.

Create art that speaks of your brokenness, even if it isn’t “Church ideal.” Is true worship not honest and raw? Why would we sugarcoat the truth to the God who knows and is the hard truth? If anything, labeling a song as secular (meaning void of God) because of arbitrary reasons such as a petty swear word or a cynical take on the writer’s walk will make us guilty of diminishing God’s all-encompassing presence in life. So artists, don’t create as if your walk with God is perfect. We all know it’s not. Write about this bumpy journey with all the bruises and cuts – this is true worship for the artist.

questions worth asking

Confession: this summer, I walked into an art gallery for the first time.

Second confession: I loved it.

Third confession: I didn’t know why.

I’m a self-admitted art dilettante, with experience largely of the history-books-and-billboards kind. Walking into a gallery and realizing, two hours later, that I didn’t want to leave was quite unexpected. Walking out of the gallery and being completely unable to articulate why was even more unpredictable.

What was the last painting that caught your breath? When was the last time you walked out of a movie? What was the last book you didn’t finish – or did finish and promptly chucked at the wall? What was the last line of poetry that demanded to be spoken aloud simply so you could taste the words? Art is meant to seduce, provoke, pierce, bind, and unleash…but only as far as our willingness to engage with it.

We are creatives, not simply consumers. We create because it is inherent to us as bearers of the imago dei, but we consume because we live in a created world. What we consume informs what we create, and the processing of it is the bridge between the two. While for me it was the storied glory of the Scottish National Gallery, for you it may be the gut-wrenching grip of book hangover or the starry-eyed stumbling after an intricate movie. What was the last experience that begged to be processed and not simply consumed? As artists and souls in development, choosing to engage further is crucial to our growth. Can we dig past our first impressions and engage with the nature of that which we consume?

What you hated – why? Was it twisted, uncomfortable, badly-portrayed, or confused?

What you loved – why? Was its siren-song heard by a longing that should be encouraged or kept in check?

When you meet truth – will you know it? When you see beauty, can you tell me why it has captivated you? When you meet ugliness, can you tell me why it is ugly and not simply unique?

When we react to art, can we take a moment to ask why? Why couldn’t we put the book down until the last page? Why couldn’t we tear our eyes away from the spectacle – whether grotesque or wooing? Our experiences with bad art can and should be as formative as our encounters with the soul-enriching kind. While we should seek and laud the best kind of art, if we don’t learn to process the art we encounter, we may not recognize the best kind when it comes. Perhaps our responses reveal that we never dug deeply enough to see the creator’s intent. Perhaps our eyes need to see a little better to understand the honesty of horror or the triumph of ordinary life. Perhaps our moral compasses need an adjustment when we realize that what desires of our soul are being fed. Perhaps, when we stand before a self-portrait and marvel at the season of life captured, we will know better how to articulate why, and in doing so, nurture the imago dei we confess with our lives and our art.

It’s much the same as our faith: we can settle for the beauty of the sunset, or uncover what it says of our Creator. Eventually, maybe we will learn something of ourselves, for what God is this who can tear the sky with thunder and paint it gold at dusk? And who are we that we can taste both?

on moana, the old testament, and the power of good story

In general, I don’t enjoy watching films very much. My friends will be the first to tell you that when “movie night” is the hang-out activity of choice, I will do all I can to avoid it, stay busy, or try to get people to do something else with me. Since most films have been made for the purpose of cheap entertainment or money-grabbing, they come with plot holes, cliches, unnecessary details, and gross artisanal oversight. Even films with good artistic intentions can have enough flaws in craftsmanship to launch me out of the storytelling experience and leave me feeling like I wasted 2 hours of precious time.

Because of this, I didn’t watch “Moana” when it was out in theatres. I like watching Disney films as much as the next person, but “Tangled” and “Frozen” left me feeling “meh” enough to not want to spend a ton of extra money on the big-screen experience. I resolved to watch it when it was easily accessible on a platform I already paid for. Even when “Moana” was made available on Netflix this past June, I didn’t get around to watching it until about mid-July.

To quickly sum up my feelings, I very much regret not seeing it in theatres. “Moana” is the first Disney movie in a long time to feel like a proper Disney animated film. The writing is rife with the genuine sense of adventure and heart that marks other Disney classics, and the lush, detailed animation feels nearly lifelike at times.

However, the thing that took me most by surprise was not the high-quality writing or the detailed graphics, but how close the story, specifically the music, ended up striking my heart. At the climax of the film, as Moana realizes where the Heart of Te Fiti belongs, she sings a reprise version of the song heard when she met the ocean for the first time at the very beginning of the film. I did not understand why, but the first time I heard it, I nearly broke down in tears. It felt so powerful to me how the quiet song of the sea was now being sung again as the way to ground Te Ka and bring Te Fiti back to life.

The emotion of that moment stuck with me, and made me realize the beauty of the purposefulness in the songwriting and arranging. That song Moana sang, “Know Who You Are”, is the back half of one of three musical bookends, marking the conclusion of the film and its story by its reflection of the beginning song, “An Innocent Warrior”. The other two bookends are the opening song “Tulou Tagaloa” and its reprise “Voyager Tagaloa”, and the song “We Know The Way” and its reprise at the very close of the film.

Upon looking at the translations of the Samoan songs “An Innocent Warrier” and “Tulou Tagaloa”, we see just how much each of the three bookends establish and reaffirm each of their presented themes and the themes seen throughout all of “Moana”. “Tulou Tagaloa”, the song heard during the opening credits of the film, is sung to the highest deity of Polynesian culture, the creator Tagaloa, and says;

“Pardon us…
Pardon us…
Oh Tagaloa.

Look down
Upon our world
Look down
Upon our world.
The light
[I stand before you]
It is good and beautiful
[My desire (homesickness)]
Look down
[The journey has begun]
At how beautiful our lives are.”

“An Innocent Warrior”, the song sung when Moana first meets the ocean, is translated to;

“Your eyes so full of wonder
Your heart, an innocent warrior
My dearest one
There’s a task for you
Let it flow over you
The freedom you feel
And your deep thoughts
Our young girl
Have you come
Our young girl
Your eyes so full of wonder”

It was after looking up these translations that I realized just how much “Moana” reflected common themes found throughout the stories of the Old Testament. Whether it be Abraham, Gideon, Elijah, or Hosea, the great prophets and followers of God all have a similar tale to tell; they were all called by God to accomplish a specific task for his people for their overall benefit. This great call was the thing that pulled them through every adversity, allowing them to conquer every doubt, fear, and enemy that stood between them in order to complete their divinely ordained end goal.

In the story of “Moana”, we find a story constructed in almost exactly the same way as any of those ancient tales. A young girl, divinely chosen by the high creator, is given a task to perform in order to set her people right again. In the fullness of time, she begins to set out to accomplish that task, finding doubt in the ocean and in herself to be constant companions along the way, causing even the creator’s chosen one to question the legitimacy of her entire journey. And yet, in the face of all of this, she chooses to trust the call that was given to her, carrying out her task to its fullest and allowing her people the freedom to commune with the ocean as they once did so long ago.

This story arc, unspoken and undefined but communicated through a tight cohesion of visual and auditory storytelling, is what spoke to me on such a guttural level. As a Christian, I know in very real terms what it’s like to feel called out to by an incredible God that I am drawn to so deeply. I know what it’s like to feel that relationship so strongly and tangibly at some times, but at other times doubt everything about ever experiencing it. And to see someone, anyone be able to not only pull through that adversity, but fully accomplish everything that was set before them fills me with such passion and hope that it leaves me breathless.

That breathlessness is the power of good story. It is the same power that makes telling and retelling all of those Old Testament recordings so important to the Christian walk. You could tell a person that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”. You could even summarize the experiences of Christians long past and present them as clear evidences of God’s faithfulness. But through the power of artistry and craftsmanship in storytelling, these truths can spring to life in astonishing ways, allowing emotion and empathy to carry them to the most raw and primal parts of the human soul. That is why good writing matters. That is why thought-through visuals matter. That is why the arrangement of six songs in a bookend formation poetically written in both English and Samoan to tie together a story based in Polynesian mythology matters.

“Moana” may not exactly be a Christian story. But it is a well-done story, told with excruciating care and attention to detail. And I have found that when it comes to catching the sparkle of God’s truth in media, whether it be found in ancient Hebrew texts or in a big-budget Disney blockbuster, it may be all that matters.

thorns and thistles

For the next two days I’ll be miles away from the nearest piano, working with a client to help them better configure their software and design good customer service processes. I’m writing this blog post from the plane. To be honest, airplanes and conference rooms don’t feel like the most artistic environment, but such is life. Or such is my life, anyway.

These days, most of my art is developed for Sunday mornings. While I work full-time in the IT industry, I spend my free time pouring into the life and love of my local church. It’s a small church, and so I serve in a variety of capacities – on the college & 20’s leadership, the women’s ministry board, and as the pianist. Many weeks, it’s a challenge to find the time to prepare something thoughtful for prelude, and I find myself recycling selections more often than my artistic ideals permit. It’s been a couple summers since I added anything new to my classical repertoire, and my piano degree is now a special interest addition to my professional byline rather than the highlight.

There was a time I would have considered this division of my attentions to be the ultimate failure. Hopes and dreams of graduate school and full-time work in music were dashed with the practical realities of ministry commitments and the financial provision of my surprising career in IT. From a distance, I watched former classmates pursue their artistic inclinations in more wholehearted ways and found myself struggling to find the time to prepare the music for our church Christmas concert in between folding my laundry and planning a women’s ministry event.

And yet, the richness of life in this season has far surpassed what I could have expected from the artist’s journey. Paul Westermeyer’s theory of good church musicianship has served well to frame my vision for art in this season: living among the people and giving voice to their song. I’ve lived this truth, and found that my best art hasn’t been produced in the practice room, but in this life among the people of God.

While some art is profound in its universality and its ability to touch millions, other art is intended for a specific context of people. I won’t pretend to know which art requires more or less care and artistry, but the art I am called to is specific. Each week as I prepare to play, the very real needs of this body of believers influences my musical selections. With the body, my music laments over death and church conflict and rejoices in the blessings we have together in Christ. Playing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” after a recent death or a Rachmaninoff elegy during a Good Friday service simultaneously grants music to the people’s song and provides a context that makes the art more accessible.

In this way, I’ve come to see my very splintering as making me a more effective artist, not less. I struggle to find time to choose a piece for communion on Sunday not because things are in the way of my art, but because they are enhancing it – because I’ve been communing with the saints all week, working in the same thorns and thistles as my brothers and sisters and sharing in their lives.