Every once in a while I see something so inspiring, so perfect and so mesmerizing that it puts me at a crossroads. Whether it’s a movie that’s done so amazingly well, or a passage in a book that’s written immaculately, or even a song that brings a tear to my eye, it stops me in my tracks and makes me choose between three things…
The easy thing to do is to just give a nod to the art’s creator, acknowledge its greatness and simply go on living my life—which in a way, while easy and painless, devalues the true greatness of the art form. If something is truly inspiring, then acknowledging it isn’t enough. Not to say that I don’t ever do this, in fact this is probably the path I choose most because of its convenience and inability to burrow into my brain and give me a quarter-life crisis. But at the end of most days in which I do this, I feel like I’ve cheated the artist. I know not all creative types feel they need to affect all consumers (of their art) with a striking, life-changing realization, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? That makes those moments even more meaningful at least, doesn’t it? The fact that those artists know that 99.9% of people listening to that song, watching that movie, reading that chapter will just go on living their lives; they won’t even realize the true greatness, the real perfection of it, which leads me to option #2…
2) Abandonment and/or Depression
Occasionally, I do notice and do more than acknowledge the artist’s hard work and special giftedness and I take a look at myself and see what effect it can have on my own life. However, depending on how great the art is, the effect it’s had on me, where I am in my life, and (especially) how productive I’ve been with my art the last few months, it can have a very discouraging influence on me on a very deep level personally.
I remember in junior high I played basketball for hours a day. Hours. How many times in your life have done anything (besides sleeping) for hours every day? I haven’t done it with much, but basketball consumed my life from the ages of 10-18. It was everything I did. I begged my brother to play one-on-one with me. I’d have to get different friends to come over and play horse with me every day, because I didn’t know one person who wanted to play basketball as much as I did; not even close.
I was never a very athletic, fit kid. I loved sports, and I loved being active, but I was big and strong, not exactly the best basketball physique. However, I was tall and I had enough speed and skill to be a great player when I was in young. I was a leader on the court and I was a solid contributor. Then high school hit. I was suddenly not the tallest, not the strongest, and I wasn’t the best shot, or the most consistent defender. It was significantly more difficult than ever before. So I developed a decent outside shot, I started lifting weights so even though I was way shorter than the other guys, I could defend them in the paint, and I tried my best to make up for where my heredity failed me.
It worked…for a year or so.
Junior year I started going to a new school and they had these two guys: Chris Caldwell and Jon Kuhn. They were both a year older than me, but that didn’t matter. They were the best 17 year old basketball players I’d ever played with, hell, they were the best high school players I’d ever seen. Our school was small and was consistently the worst team in our league, and even though I know Chris and Jon weren’t nearly the best players in our county, I knew I couldn’t and would never be anywhere close to how good they were.
I had dreams and aspirations of playing college ball (albeit at a shitty college…but still), and even playing some pro-ball someday (maybe in Guam, or something…but still pro-ball). Midway through the season, and after getting destroyed in most of the games, I could see clearly that Chris and Jon weren’t nearly good enough to play even at the junior college level.
If they were lightyears ahead of me, what’d that mean for me? It was an earth-shattering, life-changing realization for me.
For a while, it inspired me to work harder, to practice even more and dedicate even more of myself to the sport—if 5’7” Spud Webb or even 5’3” Mugsy Bogues could do it…? But then it hit me sometime after high school, that if I wouldn’t ever play in the NBA, what was the point? Now, I realize that’s a stupid realization to think about too much. There are about 500 people in the NBA at any given time. I can’t imagine the odds of being one of the top 500 of anything at any point in my life—much less something that requires pretty good genes to get into. The point is: it wrecked me and made me hate the game for a while. I refused to play it. If I couldn’t be the best, if I knew I couldn’t even aspire to be as good as Chris and Jon, then why even try at all?
But then there’s the most special effect that great art can have on a person. Great art is created to beget other great art. I’m not talking about Banksy or Mr. Brainwash or other great pop-art robbers or rip-offs of beauty (no offense, I love Banksy), but really I’m talking about original, inspiring, art. When I see this art and really take the time to use it as a mirror into my own creative personality, it can have an amazing effect.
When I get out of my way enough to realize that it’s not about being truly “the best” at something, I am able to re-realize (as it has taken many times indeed) that art is a deeply personal, wholly creative element that can only be great if it is true, honest, genuine. Great art should do just this and help others see themselves and their lives in a whole new light.
When people watched Good Will Hunting in 1997, it was a naturally inspiring story of a hard-luck Bostonian boy genius from the wrong side of the tracks whose stars align and with the help of two professors—one good-cop, one bad—he overcomes all odds, meets his dreamgirl and figures out what he wants to do with his life. It was a good film with a bunch of awards, but to me it was (is) perfection. It’s me. I know it’s a stretch, and I know that if you know me and if you know the movie then you probably also know that the only two things I have in common with the protagonist is that we’re both guys, we like the Red Sox and we’ve met Robin Williams.
BUT, to this day, it’s the most inspiring, true-to-life story, genuine, story I can image. For some reason (lots of reasons really) it speaks to me. Not just the story, but the directing, the writing, the acting. I still watch it every few months and just about every aspect of the movie can bring me to welled up tears. It’s beautiful and it’s honest. To me, the movie is perfection.
So what do I do with that? I’m an aspiring writer. I’ve written 1.3 novels, 3 screenplays, 15-20 magazine articles (the only thing I’ve ever gotten published), dozens of shorts stories, hundreds of poems, songs, blogs and what do I have to show for it? I’ll probably never write a best-selling novel. I’ll probably never write a decent screenplay—and if I did, the odds are even greater that anyone who could do anything about would ever even read it. In all likelihood, I’ll never publish much of great commercial success. So what’s the point?
My best friend, gave me a book recently; Shauna Niequist’s Cold Tangerines. He told me not to read it all, but just a few pages that he’d dog-eared. I think he was hoping that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with having to read the whole thing, but hey, it worked. My wife and I read the chapter he marked and it brought tears to our eyes. Basically, the chapter is about a song that the author heard: “Needle and Thread” by the band Sleeping at Last. She goes on to say what an amazing effect this song had on her and her husband’s life, through childbirth, through fights, through loving each other, this song was at the center of much of their relationship. She ends the chapter with a letter to the lead singer.
The letter (again, basically…) says thank you, we need you. I’m completely ruining the passage—which every time I read it to try and summarize it, it brings tears to my eyes again—but it’s a beautiful, apt description of a deep and abiding appreciation for art. She goes on to say, “Great art says the things we wished someone would say out loud, the things we wish we could say out loud.” She describes how artists make her a better person for just witnessing their creative expressions, for giving her the method and manner in which to express herself that never even existed before their art was created, just by experiencing their art.
As I read the chapter, I want to copy and paste more and more of her words into this post, but I can’t find a snippet that sums up the chapter shorter than a few paragraphs long. In a way, this is a perfect example of what we’re both writing about. The way she describes this relationship between artist-art-audience is so mesmerizing and stirring, but it’s also so frustrating because I can’t even image writing a more perfect depiction of this phenomenon.
There are few things in this world that motivate me continually without diminishing over time. This passage is one of those things. I want to read it every day, I want to tattoo it on my forehead, I want it to be read aloud and played on repeat in my headphones as I seek out creative endeavors every single day the rest of my life.
It’s an amazingly written chapter and it’s one of the few things I’ve ever read that simply forces the reader choose that third option. You acknowledge the creator’s genius, sure, but you can’t stop there. It makes you want to quit in a way, because it’s written so beautifully, but its message implores you to not only continue being creative, but presents it as a duty, as a responsibility you have to the world. She writes it so that in me quitting any sort of creative outpouring, I am in turn depriving others of someday being inspired and encouraged and brought to tears because of something I was inspired to create. While it sure can be self aggrandizing to think I need to write (or create art in general), it can be just as selfish to think that I know that what I will write can’t possibly be good enough to inspire others. How arrogant is that? How could I think that what I have inside myself isn’t relatable to another individual?
I’m sure I’m not alone in being a writer who loves C.S. Lewis, but one of my favorite quotes of his covers the struggle every artist has with being original and creative with their art…
“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
Without even getting into the recycling/homage type art of Quentin Tarantino vs. the creative, ingenious works of Shakespeare type argument, I love the idea that all great art really isn’t original. If you think about it, even classic paintings like Monet’s Water Lilies or DaVinci’s Mona Lisa are just representations of things God put here on earth. Sure, they’re wonderfully-constructed, beautiful renditions, artistically creative representations, but they’re no more original that me drawing a picture of a stickman.
In this way, all art is just a re-telling of creation. Not necessarily Ken Ham’s creation, but even in whatever method you believed the world was created. To me, that points to God.
I took a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was hard. But I had the greatest professor I’ve ever known for that class, and it was an inspiring (buzz word!) few hours each week. My favorite passage from the trilogy is from the eleventh chapter of Inferno:
L’arte vostra quella, quanto puote,
Seque, come il maestro fa il discente;
Si che vostr’arte a Dio quasi è nipote.
Or in English: “Art, as far as it is able, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God’s grandchild.”
I stumbled upon a few quotes whilst creating this article as well that try as I might, I couldn’t help but include them here…
“An artist is only a prism through which naturally occurring beauty is altered, according to his or her perception. The only true artist is God, for all true beauty is created by Him.” – anonymous
“Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” – André Gide
They’re all basically saying that same thing: God is the originator of true artistic creativity. Everything we do to try and be inventive, to try and be original or creative is just an offshoot of the true, original Creator’s artwork. It may sound cheesy, but most true things are, at times, a bit cheesy. This also doesn’t mean that art can be lazy. A photo of a field can be a portrait of God’s creation, but it can also be a pretty crappy version of it. A stickman is just as much an example of creation as the Mona Lisa, but I have a feeling my stickman won’t reach as many people, inspire as many painters, or heal as many wounds as I’m sure DaVinci’s work has.
So, in that light, I am disregarding the Lord’s work in not pursuing my creative expressions more seriously, for in sharpening my skills and improving my ability to be creative and inspiring, the more I will be ale to portray the true Creator through my art. The harder I work, the better my art will be, and the better my art is, the more people will be inspired to work hard and create inspiring, motivational art in turn. It’s a beautiful, frustrating, not-as-black-and-white-as-I-present-it, never ending cycle.
It is my belief that great art begets more great art, not squelches it. And I am being selfish to think that my art isn’t good enough to inspire someone to one day create bigger and more beautiful, more captivating, more inspirational art than I ever could even imagine. If something I’ve created with a true and genuine expressive nature can cause someone to have to dig deep within themselves to reciprocate some type of creative expression that is true to themselves, then I will consider all of this frustration, heartache and hard work completely worth it. Hell, even if all of this work is simply for my own therapy so I can live a healthy life without having to second-guess every life choice I make, it’d be worth it.
I can only hope and pray that God might use my art to have a positive effect on the world around me.