The Things that Make for Art
I am not an artist. Or so I’ve always told myself. I can’t draw a circle freehand. When asked to draw my family, I can’t improve upon stick figures. I can barely cut in a straight line. Wherever the line is between artist and inept amateur, I know clearly on which side I fall.
Not long ago in a staff meeting, we were introducing ourselves to our new colleague, Justin. Someone mentioned Jim’s artistic abilities – the wonders he can work with paint or wood or metal. Before long, people started volunteering their artistic sides – the music they create, the ways they quietly contribute to the beauty to the world, the things they do inside or outside of work that make the world that much lovelier for their presence. Once again, I was awed at the company I find myself keeping these days.
At first, I felt at a loss. Does a certain facility with words count as art? I tell stories, sure, but they’re usually not ones I make up on my own. I retell the biblical stories we’ve been sharing with each other for millennia. Does that count as art? Besides, words are ephemeral – especially spoken ones. They float briefly, and God knows where they land. What tangible things do I make that contribute to the beauty of the world?
And then, I thought about cooking. No matter the quality the product or how long it lasts, there’s no doubt that I’ve created something tangible. I can see it. I can taste it. I try to use the best ingredients I can find and afford, and I’m grateful for every hand that makes my meal possible. I work on improving my technique. Cooking is something I’ve grown to enjoy now that I’ve stopped comparing myself to anyone else. It’s an act done with gratitude and love, if not always skill. Could that count as art?
In an essay called “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Wendell Berry talks about what constitutes “art.” He defines art as “all the ways by which humans make the things they need.” He continues:
“If we understand that no artist – no maker – can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them – all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them, we practice – or do not practice – our religion.”
By that light, we are all artists of one form or another. The issue is how well we use the gifts we’ve been given. I might not be a visual artist; I might have to labor to sing on-key. But my status as an artist isn’t dependent on the gifts I don’t have – but on what I make with what I do have and the love and gratitude I bring to them. If we trust the raw material God gives us, and if we seek to make something of value to our fellow creatures and bring glory to God with our efforts, then we are contributing to the beauty of the world. We are making the world lovelier for our presence.
I never thought this prayer for church musicians and artists applied to me, but perhaps it somehow fits for all of us:
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 819)