An Artist’s Calling Part Three: Being Critiqued

critique

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, steeling myself to talk to you about the subject that I find the most cringe-worthy: critique.

Artists often think being critiqued is the same thing as being shamed or misunderstood because of our past experiences. To be fair, some shaming can take place under the banner of critique.  Even within a valid critique when one of the critiques is a failure to understand what the artist is doing, she can feel misunderstood. But critique and shaming and misunderstanding are NOT synonyms, regardless of how we perceive them.

Artists…So Many Feels

Perhaps you’ve noticed that artists don’t place a high value on normalcy. Many artists have described their need to create art almost as a compulsion. Others describe feeling like a deranged person when they’re doing that volcanic two-step often referred to as “the creative process.” Speaking of writers Anne Lamott writes:

“They want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work…write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing… the paranoia.”[i]

In spite of this experience, we still want to reach an audience with our work. As consummate actor Marlon Brando put it, “I just want to be normally insane.”[ii]

Melodramatic? Maybe. Some artists play into that reputation as part of their branding. Yet many artists describe themselves matter-of-factly using neurotic or dramatic language because it speaks the most accurately about their experience. By writing in first person about myself I discovered that I related more to an autistic child in need of a weighted blanket than I did to the pop-song listening peer in the room with me.

Yes, I just spent a couple paragraphs telling you that Artists are sensitive people who feel things deeply. This is not breaking news. Where this reality intersects with critique is that Artists can let that sensitivity and their real emotional wounds cloud their ability to receive critique and weigh it rightly. An artist who has not prepared himself may become reactive to critique so that he falls somewhere on the spectrum between two destructive extremes: the impenetrable fortress or the blank check. Yet neither of these can be an option for a good artist.

The artist’s maturity and willingness to grant others the benefit of the doubt come into play when facing a critique.

Artists are called to critique. We don’t get to opt out because it is difficult or because God has chosen us to create art. To desire excellence, and servanthood, and to fight for beauty, truth, and goodness to bleed through our art, this is to desire Him. And Jesus has not left us orphans, nor taken us out of the world, He places us in communities and asks us to hear them.

To hear the voice of the other in regard to our art is to love the other as ourselves.

The Impenetrable Fortress Artist

In this case, the artist says in response to being critiqued: “Since I am only responsible to myself and to God for what I do in my art, ergo, nothing you say is valid.” You are perfectly justified in saying this if your name is Jesus and you are a member of the Trinity. If not, this stance towards critique is starkly similar to the Pharisees, the group that Jesus critiqued in scathing terms in His day. Even those seeking God and living righteous lives, those who, unlike the Pharisees, are filled with the Holy Spirit are capable of creating a poor mixed media painting or failing to fully develop a character in a short story. I’ve done both.

No artist is a fortress in himself. Not even Emily Dickinson.

One of the reasons impenetrable fortress artists exist is that post-modern world argues that because truth is subjective, aesthetic beauty must be subjective too. In other words, we can’t really determine what a good or well-written novel is, but only acknowledge that some people like it and some don’t: the “different strokes for different folks” mentality. But nobody really believes this argument as Rotten Tomatoes and online comment streams easily prove.

As artists and Christians, our belief in an absolute Triune God should shape our view of beauty.

One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Douglas K. Blount often observed that if as Christians we believe in the existence of absolute truth and absolute goodness then we must also believe that there is an absolute beauty. Which also means as artists we need to humble ourselves by recognizing that we do not always know what is beautiful or what will work best in our art.

To put it another way, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment” (Proverbs 18:1) and “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… exhorting one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25).

The Blank Check Artist

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the impenetrable fortress, the blank check artist says in response to being critiqued, “To receive correction is a way to imitate Christ, therefore everything you say I should change about my art I must change in order to glorify God.” While the other artist spiritualized being accountable to no one, this artist spiritualizes being accountable to everyone. Without realizing it, she has stepped into an unhealthy fear of man. An artist who gives a blank check to all criticism she receives allows people who lack expertise or don’t have the big picture of what God has called her to do with her art to permanently change it.

If I share a rough draft short story with Stephen King and with a high school student, and one of them tells me that I should cut out a character that is just taking up space, the other disagrees that the character is critical to the wholeness of the story, who do I listen to? Even this is not an easy answer, for while King has the expertise, what if my short story audience is specifically teenagers? And what if instead of a short story I realize that this is actually the first chapter of a novel where that character is going to be developed later on? I know what I’m doing with this character and my readers don’t.

No Longer Reactionary: Free Yourself Up

I used to be so reactive to critiques that I either made all the changes immediately or I outright rejected them, because I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And I fluctuate. Sometimes I am nearer to being an impenetrable fortress, other times I give my critics a blank check to change my work. This depends on the power I’ve given to the voice that is critiquing me. Do you privilege authority figures, artists who excel in excellence, peers in the trenches with you, the average joe or jane, or the stranger when it comes to reactions to your art? Knowing who you heed and who you don’t is the first step to understanding how you already interact with critique.

Once you know who you need to critique your art, it’s time to gird up your loins and set specific boundaries for yourself.

Stay Silent

During the critique, remain silent, resisting the temptation to respond to what is being said. This is a critical practice for two reasons:

  • If your art can’t speak for itself without you explaining it, then it’s not doing its job to communicate or invoke the reaction you want from your audience.
  • Anything you say will shape how your audience perceives your art irrevocably, and you are robbed of honest or accurate reactions to your art.

Don’t Qualify Yourself or Your Work

If you’ve ever been to an open mic night, or a slam poetry session and cringed because the person gave a two minute introduction to their work such as they wrote it three days after the passing of their cat Princess Azalea, while inside the car at a carwash listening to the new Calvin Harris single on their way to a free-form dance class, realize this is exactly how you sound when you try to explain your work before it is critiqued. Resistance is NOT futile. Artists who desire critique can have the confidence and the self-control of reading only their work. Don’t qualify yourself, before or after.

Ask Clarifying Questions

It is okay to ask questions to clarify the feedback you’ve received in a critique. But again, there is a good way and a poor way of asking for clarity. Don’t ask a question that includes a defense of yourself or an explanation of your work.

Don’t ask: “When you say I need more sensory details, do I have to add them here when really I’m trying to show that my narrator is an android and doesn’t have conventional senses?”

Do ask: “What do you want more sensory details about?”

Do ask: “What part of the piece/performance is confusing?

Do ask: “Why did you like this part? What about it did you like?”

And really listen to the answers. Critiques may feel like standing before American Idol judges, but really they are closer to having your own captive test audience. Get all you can from them.

Be Aware of Your Triggers

Keep in mind that the terms people use in response to your work may hold different meanings for them than they do for you, and be aware of your own triggers. I had a fellow writer and close friend who wrote “Boo” several times on the margin of one the stories I shared in a graduate school creative writing class. That word destroyed me because as someone who had taught high school theatre for seven years, the word Boo communicated one thing to me: “Get the hell off the stage—you don’t belong.”

For two weeks I walked around in the grief that this repeated comment gave me before I finally talked to my friend about it. Growing up he and his brothers used “boo” as a term of playful dogging affection, meaning something along the lines of, “come on bro, you’re better than this.” He had used this term because of the closeness of our acquaintance, and here I was giving myself grief that he considered me the most terrible writer on the planet.

If you have a strong reaction to a critique, ask yourself, is this really about what’s being said or is something in what I heard triggering a reaction?

Have a Waiting Period

To keep from being reactive in your changes establish a waiting period. Mine is to read all the critiques the day I see them, but I am not allowed to make any changes for two days. If I have a stronger reaction to the critique, sometimes I make myself wait for a week. That two day waiting period also gives me time to cool off if I find I am summarily rejecting a critique in anger. Time passing puts distance between your emotional reactions to critique, allowing yourself to revisit the feedback with fresh eyes.

Build a Data Set

Not only do I weigh the power I should give to each critic in the conversation based on what I want to accomplish as an artist, I also look for patterns in all the critiques. If they are written, I literally lay them all out on the floor and visually scan for common markings or responses. If everybody found that sentence awkward, it’s awkward regardless of how much I am in love with the words it contains. If everybody lost interest at the four-minute mark of my performance, then I likely need to cut it down to three minutes.

All of this is hard work, it is even painful, but it is also good. By critique, I grow in excellence as an artist and in maturity as a person. No matter how successful my art has been, no matter how powerfully God has worked through my art in the past, I never get to just side-step the process.

So feel free to share your critiques in the comments below. I hear you. I’m listening.

Sources

[i] Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1st Anchor Books Ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) 10-11.

[ii] Mardy Grothe. Oxymoronica:Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. 1st ed. (New York: Harper Resource, 2004) 126.

An Artist’s Calling Part Two: Being Misunderstood

black-man

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, guilty as charged for saying the following about art:

“I don’t get it.”

This little four-word sentence can mildly irk or deeply wound an artist. It depends on who is saying it, and how much has gone into the work being shown. The power of these words also lives or dies in the strength of the artist’s need to be understood.

For many of us, the early reception of our art was one of our first experiences of being understood by others. How our art is received now is no mere question of will power but connects to deeply rooted needs within us. Artists create to communicate and to be known. These are not their only motivators, but they are big ones, otherwise work would never be hung in galleries and names would not appear on book covers. Yet regardless of your work ethic, sincerity, or belabored choices, it’s impossible to create art that is accessible to everyone all the time. Nor should we try to.

Good art challenges the audience’s perceptions of the world so that they cannot leave the encounter unchanged. As theologian Robert L. Short explains:

All real art though it at first may seem to be a most welcome escape from reality will inevitably lead one into a face to face encounter with reality… “Conversation” then arises between the work of art itself and the observer of the work.[i]

Conversations rarely, if ever, go as planned. This has not stopped the human race from talking. But when an artist has had conversation after conversation where the subject matter they value most is not comprehended, it can send that artist into one of two extremes: elitist or sellout.

Elitist or Sellout?

Some artists make it perfectly clear with their interviews and work itself that they don’t give a damn if their work is understood or not. And many in the arts community, Harold Bloom being one example, don’t use elitist as a dirty word.[ii] Some going so far as to declare any art that’s relatable to the masses has ceased to be art and become entertainment. Content to be elite, appreciated by the few or the none, these artists profess to be indifferent to their work being misunderstood. However, the extremity of their stance actually tells another story. Nothing broadcasts insecurity, pain, or fear like a person who is constantly declaring to the world that she is brave. It’s the cop-out of “cool” that so many of us buy into in adolescence and adulthood.

On the other end of the spectrum, an artist may adjust or alter their work so much that the art loses all its uniqueness in order to reach every consumer. For them, the need for their work to be understood is the most important factor in creation. This is why as much as we might enjoy them, we don’t place boy bands in the same category as Adele unless those boy bands go on to reinvent themselves and create the art they want to make like the Beatles did.

And we are not alone in the temptation to be understood. Christian mystic Henri Nouwen called Christ’s first temptation in the wilderness, which He faced and resisted, a temptation to be relevant.[iii]

Relevance does matter, and seeking it shows respect for your audience, but if being relevant is your dominant desire that overrides your love to serve God that indeed may be a temptation to sin. Even those who don’t buy into sin as a concept agree that being relevant shouldn’t be our ruling desire when it comes to creating. Case in point: the many rants millennials make online against “selling out.” An artist can sell out for out for money, or the approval of the masses, or of a select group of other artists they respect.

Neither should we swing the pendulum so far the other way that we make art that is incomprehensible. G.K. Chesterton gives an anecdote in his biography of poet Robert Browning where the poet was asked what one of his poems meant. His reply, “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.”[iv]

Growing comfortable with being misunderstood will protect you from both of these dangers.

Why so Misunderstood?

Art is communication, but of a different kind. If it is good it will provoke and invite the beholder to enter its world. This is because Art, due to its “subtlety or indirectness, has a way of sneaking around ‘mental blocks’ and getting to the heart of the matter where it is capable of deeply and literally ‘moving’—even the most immovable—men and women.”[v]

Where there is subtly, or ambiguity, there will be misunderstanding. At times an artist may not be able to divorce himself from the art he creates, so he also will be misunderstood. This doesn’t mean the artist needs to label himself a misanthrope and take that misunderstanding deeply personally. But it does mean she must bear the pain of her art and herself being misunderstood, and often by the loudest voice in the arena.

Hide or Get Comfortable

There is only one alternative to being misunderstood: hiding.

In the film, I’m Not There, a film that I did not entirely understand but greatly enjoyed, six different actors (seven if you count the narrator) portray folk singer Bob Dylan in different stages of his life. One incarnation of Dylan gives his “seven simple rules for life in hiding.” Rule six is “Never do anything the person standing in front of you cannot understand.” Rule seven is “never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life.” Yet Dylan’s point is just the opposite of his words—he refused to follow his own exhortation and hide and this is what make him an iconic artist in more ways than one.

To bear the grief or infuriation of being misunderstood is to come out of hiding. And we, brothers and sisters, are not called to hide. Jesus said “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:14-15 NKJV). And Jesus didn’t say this to the disciples in a private room either, He preached this to the masses.

Who are some artists in Christ who refuse to hide? How about U2, a band who didn’t let being written off by the majority of the evangelical world stop them from writing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They bore the brunt of accusations that they’d written off Jesus, the love of their lives, to write a song that expresses the longing and incompleteness we all grapple with this side of the eschaton. From whom did they learn this maturity?

Jesus. He spoke in parables so that the masses would not understand, but those who were ready to receive God’s message would. As He explains to the disciples in Mark 4:11-12:

To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables so that,

‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,

And hearing they may hear and not understand;

Lest they should turn,

And their sins be forgiven them.’

This scripture makes many of us uncomfortable because it sounds pretty elitist. Except that Jesus does not withdraw from public ministry here and open a private upper room for His disciples who “get it.” Rather, the entire gospel of Mark is filled with examples of the disciples, the ones to whom the mystery of the kingdom is being given, failing to understand Jesus (Mark 8:32–33, 9:33–34, 10:35–41 NKJV). In His use of parables, Jesus recognized that He would lose some of His audience, but that didn’t stop Him from speaking in parables.

In a contentious conversation with the Pharisees recorded in John 8: 28-29, He gives the reason for His confidence in speaking as He does:

“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.

And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.”

Jesus later asks His disciples, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:10 NKJV). In the same conversation He goes on to invite His followers, “Abide in Me and I in you” (John 15:4).

Jesus models for us the only way we can grow comfortable in being misunderstood and invites us into that relationship with God. We abide in Him and let Him work in us and through us. We seek to please Him and believe that He has not left us alone as artists. This process includes thoughtfully considering our audience, as Jesus did (He knows what they will and will not understand John 16:12), and abiding in God so what He wills is performed in our art.

When we are made comfortable in Christ, it is then that our art becomes relevant to others. After Jesus defends His authority to speak on the basis of His unity with the Father it says:

As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32 NKJV).

The irony is that those same Jews who believe Him go on to misunderstand this statement and the remainder of the conversation Jesus has with them. Somehow their belief and misunderstanding co-exist. His audience doesn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean His message is irrelevant. We’re still reading His words today. And their misunderstanding didn’t stop Him from speaking to His audience either because He knows that what He speaks is the truth. Jesus is free and it is He who makes us free.

There is freedom in abiding in Christ, freedom to be misunderstood and to create art.

Resources

[i] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 17.

[ii]  D’Addario, Daniel. “10 Questions with Harold Bloom” Time Magazine. April 30th, 2015. http://time.com/3841452/10-questions-with-harold-bloom/

[iii] Miller, Kevin A.“3 Temptations of Christ the Leader: They’re not what you think they are” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2001/may-online-only/cln10502.html

[iv]1908, Browning and Tennyson, (Combined reprint edition of two biographies; Browning biography was first published in 1903), Robert Browning by G.K. Chesterton, Series: English Men of Letters. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/09/24/god-knows/

[v] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 13.

An Artist’s Calling Part One: Overcoming Shame

hiding

Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, coming to you as a self-identifying writer and artist.

I’ve been calling myself a writer since I was a kid, but it’s taken the whole first year of being a Media Arts and Worship student at graduate school before I finally felt okay calling myself an artist. Even then, it was that I was going to be part of the leadership in our on-campus artists’ group, Eikon that forced my hand. Basically, I knew that if I was going to express confidence in other artists then I’d have to model that self-acceptance myself. But that doesn’t mean that it was easy for me. This Venn diagram appeared on Writers & Artists Twitter Feed, perhaps you can relate?

Writers & Artists Venn Diagram

This past spring I took a Theology and Literature class and read My Name is Asher Lev. Written by Chiam Potok from the perspective of a Hasidic Jew who is gifted from childhood to be a visual artist, this novel may well be the most painful read of my life thus far. Why? I am an artist who is shaped by and devoted to a community of faith. And like Potok and his protagonist, I refuse to buy into the false choice between my art and that community. I won’t check out of the Church even when what I do as an artist receives push-back that is acutely painful.

So this blog post and my next five blog posts will be my exploration of what artists are called to do in and for the Church and the world. While I will be speaking about artists: visual, musical, performers, writers, and filmmakers, we are not the only ones called to take up our cross and follow Him. Much of what I name here every church member is called to in the context of their own lives.

An Artist is called to Endure and Overcome Shame

I do NOT mean that an artist is called to be a doormat and just sit and take the shaming of others in a masochistic act of martyrdom for God or craft. Letting people beat you down indiscriminately does not produce godliness. But if you make art it is inevitable for you to experience some shaming. Unfortunately, much of the church only considers art a valid calling for a believer if the art that they produce:

1) directly contains Christian subject matter that glorifies God
2) teaches a Biblical or theological truth
3) is evangelistic

The desire to create art for God’s sake (or “merely” in an act of communion with God) without one of these three qualifiers is called foolish, self-centered, even evil. Because these messages about art’s correct context are so frequent, shame over desiring to create art and actually devoting your time to that end is sadly a common part of the artist’s experience.

But experiencing shame and shaming continually does not automatically produce an immunity to that shame. Shaming of the artist within a family, within the Church, typically results in one of three moves: censoring, hiding or leaving. The artist may train himself to turn off those gifts and desires, side table them, diminish them, and eventually through this self-censoring never take art up again. Or she may become the closet artist, the trunk writer, who keeps all art as a form of prayer or communion with God and never dares to share the beauty God has gifted her with.

Finally, there’s a mass exodus of artists from the Church. Exhausted and hurt one too many times, they buy the lie that there must be a division between their art and the community of faith, sometimes even between art and God. “I love Jesus, I’m not such a big fan of the Church,” they tell Rolling Stone in an interview about their latest album, and the Body of Christ is weakened where it could have been enriched.

Those who can help us Endure and Overcome Shame are the Redeemer and the Redeemed.

Jesus said, “It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24a). We know that abiding in the perfect will of the Father and for love of us, Christ endured the cross, a highly shameful death, hating that shame (Hebrews 12:2) but subjecting Himself to it in obedience. So Christ in us gives us a lasting hope to endure the smaller yet still painful shaming of our calling to be artists. As the Apostle Paul (a fantastic writer) once urged his believing audience, we get to: “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Heb. 12:3). If He endured and overcame shame, and He is in us, then we know and the Spirit of God testifies that we are never alone in our shame and we will overcome it.

The world tells us that the answer to shame for the artist is success. If your name becomes renown all your artistic choices are justified and you can spit in the eye of those who shamed you. But in his 2015 article, The Good News About Shame, Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch offers a different answer:

The remedy for shame is not becoming famous. It is not even being affirmed. It is being incorporated into a community with new, different, and better standards for honor. It’s a community where weakness is not excluded but valued; where honor-seeking and “boasting” of all kinds are repudiated; where servants are raised up to sit at the table with those they once served; where even the ultimate dishonor of the cross is transformed into glory, the ultimate participation in honor.1

Built of sinners holding hands and screwing up even as we are being transformed into the image of the Son, the Church is meant to be this community Crouch speaks of. I know as well as the next person that we have often failed to be this, but past failures do not prevent us from present and future victories because the author and finisher of our faith is Christ. And the more I look around me in the corporate gathering of believers, the more I find that I am not alone. There are artists who are staying in the church, fighting through past shaming and finding healing with the people of God. I have added links to their works and words below so you can see what Christ is doing in the artists whom He loves and who love Him.

So let’s continue to make art.

And when we are struck by shame, let us run to Christ and to the people of God, that we may yet endure as He has endured for the love of each of us.

1 Andy Crouch, “The Good News About Shame,” Christianity Today. Mar. (2015): 40.

I handpicked these links to show you what I consider these artists and writers’ recent “hit singles.” Enjoy.

AN ARTIST MIXTAPE

God.Art.Coffee
Faith and the Other Five Senses
Grace & Glory
Written Shutter
Disparate Truths
Sword and Scroll
Average Marks
The Broken Frames
Box and Turtle
Elizabeth Woodson
SRQ Tom
Herman’s Neutics
Aspire2
Hardcore Christian Men
To the Uttermost
Getting Carrie’d Away
Wordshaper