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.

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.

hir | the chaos of sin

The curtain rises to reveal a stage strung with chaos. My body tenses slightly, and I glance apprehensively at the friend who invited me. He glances back. Neither of us know what to expect from a slice-of-life drama featuring Issac, a war-traumatized vet home from Afghanistan; Max, his gender-fluid younger sibling; Arnold, their stroke-disabled father who abused them all for years; and Paige, their manic-depressive mother.

The show is Hir (pronounced ‘here’; the play takes its name from the gender-neutral possessive pronoun), produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Written by Taylor Mac, the play tips its hand from the first glimpses of the stage and the performers: you are about to enter a world where things are desperately wrong. The author specifies the play’s genre as ‘absurd realism’, and the absurdity of the situation is darkly comic as the characters of the play struggle in increasingly erratic ways to come to terms with the chaos that marks their lives.

The story opens when Issac comes home from the war to find his childhood home in shambles. His mother, Paige, has stopped cleaning anything as a reaction against the abuse and strict perfectionism of her husband, Arnold, prior to his stroke. Issac soon finds out that his mother has been hiding everything significant from him in his absence: their home is a pigsty, his father’s supposedly ‘minor’ stroke has in fact left him unable to speak or care for himself, and the family is destitute.  Soon Issac’s younger sibling Max appears on the scene. When Issac left, Max was his sister Maxine. Now Max is gender-fluid. This, too, was a secret kept from Issac. On the day that Issac arrives home, Paige and Max have already made plans to see a local art exhibit. Issac declines to go, and Paige and Max leave him at home with Arnold, on the condition that Issac resist the temptation to clean. Issac agrees, but does not keep his word. Everything else that happens arises from that broken promise.

It seems wrong to say that I enjoyed the play. How can I claim to enjoy the dramatization of that much pain? I learned from the play. I was grieved by the play. It mesmerized me because it was a finely acted, brilliantly written, expertly produced play. But I did not enjoy it. I saw sin and its consequences acted with crystalline artistry. It caused me to wonder: how can this writer, who likely does not believe that there is such a thing as sin, do a better job of portraying sin than any Christian production I have seen?

Because, believe me, all the pain and death of sin, and the immense brokenness of the world, were fully present in Hir. Issac suffers from PTSD. Arnold abused his family for years and the rage still boils below the fog of his new-found disability. Paige, bitter and exhausted from the years of abuse, has turned Arnold’s abuse back on him and now refuses him basic cleanliness and dignity. Max, lonely, hurt, and confused, shoulders the awful task of diplomacy between all members of a family torn apart when the sin of the father is visited on the children.

What response is appropriate? I sat and joined in the uncomfortable laughter of the audience at times, but I wept by the end of the show. I watched one couple get up and walk out, but I could not tear my eyes away from the wreckage before me. I disagreed with practically every philosophy presented in this production, but I found my presuppositions challenged by it.

Great art should change us in some way. When you encounter a truly exceptional creation, you have interacted in some way with the deepest parts of someone’s soul, and that should affect you in some way. Hir was great art, and it did move me. It made me view gender-fluid persons with much more compassion (that it took a secular production to make me feel that, and not the church, is a discussion for another day). It made me wonder why Christians, who more than any other group of artists should understand the wages of sin, are so very bad at portraying it.

It’s hard to see the glory of the cross and beauty of redemption unless we see the heinousness of our sin. The question, for me, is no longer, ‘Should we portray darkness’, but rather, ‘How dark should we allow our art to be in our attempt to highlight the depravity of the human condition’? It takes a grace-healed eye to see glory and mercy, but almost any person can see how sin can destroy. What if Christian artists, instead of being afraid that showing sin would glamorize it, realized that accurate depictions of sin and it consequences strip themselves of their own glamour? How will we ever feel our need of a Savior unless we feel the sickness of our souls?

Because, oh how Hir longed for, but was denied, redemption. How it longed for grace, but got only unforgiveness. How it ached for wholeness and health, but found only fractures and disease. Each of these characters (and their real-life, in-our-communities counterparts) were dying slow and agonizing deaths as the bill for their sin came due.

No Christian production has ever made me feel the weight of sin the way Hir did. If we dared to strip away the masks of decency and decorum we place on sin, and expose it for the hideous death it is, how might a similar weight be used in the hands of artists who know both the cost, and the payment, of our sin?

the difficulty of ideas

The single smallest creative act is to have an idea.

The nature of being a person includes this inescapable thing that everyone experiences: at a base level, we all imagine things that aren’t in existence yet.  We look ahead to a future we wish we had.  We play back conversations in our heads with better, wittier responses.  We read stories and our brains and hearts fill in myriads of details around the main characters, things that were never said but fit, so perfectly, into our mind’s eye of the protagonist.  We imagine the smell and taste and texture of bacon.  Because what else would you imagine?

The generative nature of all of our minds is surprising and wonderful and stunning all at once.  But the simple existential fact is that we all have ideas, good, bad, smart, stupid, define them as you will.

And that’s a serious problem, at least in my experience.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to narrow down the difficulty with ideas to two areas: large and small community experiences.

I work for a good-sized non-profit, with a lot of wonderful idea-makers in it.  I have friends in middle management who have a sharp understanding of what makes our company tick, and their ideas for improvement and optimization are nothing short of brilliant.  But most of those ideas won’t move beyond the idea phase to the actuality.

First, they’re telling me their ideas.  And regardless of how excited I am about them, if those ideas don’t trickle upward (a phenomenon that is remarkably hard to find, due to a thing called gravity) there is little to no chance that they will actually become reality.

Second, all my other middle management friends have great ideas too.  Unless there’s some kind of vetting process for ideas which would objectively push the best ones to the top, what usually happens is that the loudest idea-mongers get their ideas put into play.

Finally, little phenomena like pride, fear, and jealousy (let’s save time and call these things sin) get in the way of the best ideas.  These aren’t isolated to the people on high receiving the ideas, by any means.  In other words, while ideas in this circumstance can be tested thoroughly, the likelihood of activation is low.

The opposite environment (not surprisingly) breeds problems too.

Say I have an idea, but no accountability or community to test it in.  Or maybe I have a community, but I’ve been gifted with an obnoxious personality that runs over anyone in my way.

In this scenario, the potential for my idea to be terrible is statistically through the roof, because it can’t be tested. Given the limits of individual human knowledge, the likelihood of personal risk and/or forming a cult are high.  My idea may have merit, but without checks and balances I am, more than likely, toast.  Or worse, I put everyone I know in the toaster with me.

(A caveat: It can’t be discounted that certain ideas won’t actually affect a ton of people in a detrimental way.  Maybe I want to say something true about the nature of penguins. If I were to take a couple of hours and write something artsy and interesting about how penguins live, there’s not really… well, I can’t really think of any problem with doing that, unless it’s like this consistent thing where I’m abandoning my responsibilities as husband and father to write about penguins.  Maybe you get what I’m saying without further exposition.)

So how do we, as believing artists, harness ideas faithfully in any context?

For starters, like most things in life, our ideas are not automatically redeemed just because they’re creative.  Why does such and such an idea stick in my mind and convince me of it’s value?  Is it because it appeals to a base sense of pride?  Is it because it frees my lazy heart to take shortcuts around things I have no business trying to make more efficient? Unless we have a basic mistrust of ourselves, we can’t begin looking at our ideas objectively.

At the point when we’ve vetted a particular idea for sinful motivation, community comes into play.  Like everything in life, this is nuanced and messy. The very practice of vetting the ideas with other people brings other sinful natures into the equation.  How can we trust the human checks and balances around us unless we are learning to live in community and die to self on a daily basis with these folks?  For believing artists, this boils down to church at it’s core.

The people in my life are valuable sounding boards, for a simple reason – more than likely, they will see my motivations more clearly than I do. Here is the moment (ideally) that I trust them to call me out, and the moment they trust me enough to call me out, knowing that I would want just that.

In other words, community is a way to keep me and my ideas honest and humble (repetition is one of my strong suits). This is probably more vital than I realize, and definitely more difficult.

When an idea is revealed to a community, everyone in it naturally considers the reasons for it existing, and particularly how it benefits the community.  Yonder lies arguments, but these should be welcome to us. For example: in a believing church context, where Christ is supreme, our ideas for artistic creation necessarily fall under parameters – usage (what is this for?), aesthetic value (which culture are you in? will the aesthetics hinder other aspects of your creation?), communication (will your meaning get lost in translation? does that matter?), etc.  This is the moment when we ask ourselves and our God the right questions, and half of the artistic process is learning what those are.

As artists, we often act defensively when others challenge our ideas.  I have trouble keeping track of the amount of times I’ve heard the words “well, what I meant was actually…” come out of my mouth.  I don’t mean we should create things that only appeal to the lowest common denominator. I do mean that if there’s something not registering, we should investigate the reasons why and learn from them. This feels like putting fences around artistic creativity, and it should. Creativity without boundaries is ultimately dangerous.

So say we have an understanding of our weakness, a community around us, good questions, and natural boundaries for our creativity. The end game of any idea is activation, and in many cases there is nothing to do but try it out and see where it goes.

At this point, let ‘er rip.

you too can be an anti-hero

“Where have all the good men gone?” sings Bonnie Tyler, echoing what I feel in my own trope-frustrated heart. All I see around me is a wasteland of tortured heroes: the anti-heroes. I was originally tempted to blame everything on the generation around me, since they mess up everything anyways, from the housing market to resurrecting 90s fashion. But after scratching the surface, it is evident that the popularity of the anti-hero is supported entirely by the human condition. It is no news to anyone that people have always needed to hope and believe that despite their flaws, they can still make good and right decisions that help society and make them feel happy. And that’s exactly who an anti-hero is, he’s someone who does the right thing despite adversity.

(I shall continue to use the “he” pronoun to describe the anti-hero, because there are really no popular female anti-hero characters, mostly because anti-hero personality traits are more believable and excusable in male characters.) According to a theory examined by the American Psychological Association, there are two categories that can be used to recognize and define an anti-hero: the Dark Triad personality traits and the life history theory. Not only does it sound super cool, the Dark Triad trait theory is super simple. Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy make up the Triad, and having one or more of them classifies your guy as an anti-hero. In example, Dr. Gregory House from House, M.D. displays Machiavellian traits as he blows past hospital regulations and patients’ feelings to get to his end goal: a cure. Society tolerates him because his overall contribution to the world is positive (even though he’s a total jerk).

The life history theory analyzes the life strategy of an anti-hero compared to the life strategies of other humans. Humans are the slowest creatures. They have a long gestation, they mate for life, they have fewer young and invest more. Anti-heroes typically display characteristics in contrast to this process: spreading their progeny about, removing themselves from social communities. But despite the often unpleasantness of these anti-heroes, they still make up most of our beloved characters! I can’t list them all, but because I grew up with him and adore him, I will list Harry Potter, and just him. Heroes can often be unrealistic, because authors struggle to imagine a character without sin who still can relate to the human condition. The term “good guy” falls flat because he sounds so two-dimensional. But the “bad boy”, the tortured hero? He’s got an edge that makes him stick out.

It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world, doesn’t matter where in the world you find yourself, or which century is happening, stories of anti-heroes will surround you. Humanity is constantly reminding herself that despite brokenness or deformities, there’s still the power to make a decision to fight for what is good and right. However, I have to admit, I stand with Bonnie Tyler, holding out for a fast and fresh hero, strong and larger than life.

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repeat the sounding joy | year in review

madenewrepeat

We’re coming up on our one-year anniversary here at made | new, and in the grand tradition of online lists, here’s a look back at some of the most popular posts of the year:

excellence | identity

the artist in church

ordinary designs

this beautiful altar | surrendering the creative process

hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

content warning

en-courage the fearful artist

glimmers & resolutions

For those of you who’ve been along for the ride, we’re grateful to you, and we just want you to know that we plan to repeat ourselves even more in 2017.

Repetition gets a bad rap for a variety of reasons. Mostly, it gets annoying (although classics like “Seagulls, Stop It Now” will probably carry us onward for a good few years now). There’s no surprise. The new is more interesting. The more you see something, the more stale it becomes. Our worship must be fresh every morning; sing a new song, right? That’s in the Bible.

The Psalms, that grand exercise in reiteration, is also in the Bible. Also, admonitions to remember Christ as often as we eat and drink, and to tattoo Scripture everywhere you look so that we’re always being reminded of God.

Then there’s seasons, and the movement of the earth around the sun, and sunrises and sunsets, and the cycle of water and growth and death and rebirth… Seems like repetition is the lifeblood of the world. It’s definitely our lifeblood here.

We are a forgetful people, and our work is to sing it again, dance it again, paint it again, create it again, until by reminders we remember.

That’s how habits are formed and life is found, in the redoing, in seasons and traditions, and practice of skill and patience. New life is, paradoxically, always new, and there is nothing new under the sun. The Gospel is the same day after day, and mercies repeat every morning, and we pray without ceasing, and Christ is always pleading for us before the throne of God, and the creatures say it again:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.

Heaven will be the great Repeating.

We need to hear over and over that God loves us, so that we end up believing it at some point, and we need to hear “I forgive you, go and sin no more” over and over again until we love the Forgiver more than the sin.

At the heart of made | new is the idea that the great story of the Gospel is being retold, over and over, by artists of all disciplines everywhere. This is why we exist: to repeat the sounding joy.

So raise a glass with us to another new year, and may you and yours prosper in Christ as we wait for the coming of our Lord and the grand Making New.

From all of us here,
Chris Wheeler
Desiree Hassler
Allison Keeport
Andy Decker
Hattie Buell