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“We do not create alone.”

guitarist looking at sky

Last Friday I attended a screening of the independent documentary “In a Still, Small Voice,” directed by Steven Holloway. This short film explores the question of why humans create art, with reflections from leading Christian artists (including Makoto Fujimura, Chris Anderson, and Brett McCracken) on the challenges they face in their work.

The film is quite beautifully shot; and, more importantly, generated valuable discussion with the fellow Christian musicians and artists who saw it with me. I highly recommend it.

Click below to check out the trailer and a clip from the movie:

In a Still Small Voice

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February 9, 2011   No Comments

Who is an artist?

This is part of a series on the film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Read parts one and two.

Question: Is Mr. Brainwash an artist even though he obviously had little to do with the actual creation of the pieces in his show? How do we qualify who is and isn’t an artist?

Defining the term “artist” is a fuzzy, complicated business.

Nowadays everyone seems to hold a personal view of what qualifies someone as an artist. Some base it on economics — how many works a person produces or how much money s/he earns “doing art.” Others bestow the term on anyone who reaches a certain (again, often personally defined) skill level. And still others throw up their hands and say, “Whoever says he is an artist is an artist!”

Internet dictionary queries turned up conflicting definitions that were too vague to satisfy:

Dictionary.com
A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.

Merriam-Webster
One who professes and practices an imaginative art.

Oxford Dictionaries
A person who produces paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.

Oh, semantics.

So, for the purpose of this discussion, I decided to write my own working definition:

An artist is someone who, based on his experience and interpretation of the world, works to produce something that can be experienced and interpreted by others.

Let me unpack this briefly.

An artist is someone who…

Artists are first of all human beings. Creating art is a uniquely human activity and ability.

…based on his experience and interpretation of the world…

A person’s actions are shaped by his life and worldview; these will come through in his work regardless of his intentions. Art is not created in a vacuum.

…works to produce…

The essence of what an artist does — create — involves pure labor.

…something that can be experienced and interpreted by others.

An artist’s work should lead to a tangible result. By my definition, this means that someone can write a song in his head; but he doesn’t become an artist until he sings it or commits the notes to paper.

Two additional points: First, I deliberately left out medium, economic results, and skill level. This means that my term encompasses work that is not within the realm of “fine art.” A person can never earn a penny from his art, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an artists. I also believe that a person’s “art” is subject to criticism. But that’s an entirely different discussion.

Second, I do believe that all humans have the capacity to act as artists. I don’t believe in the cult of the artist — that only certain people are born artists and that passes through their fingers is art.

Mr. Brainwash

So according to my definition, does Mr. Brainwash qualify as an artist?

Yes, but not in the way one might expect. I don’t believe he was the real artist of his big show. A conceptual artist, maybe — he was responsible for getting the idea of the show together. It wouldn’t have existed without him. But when the members of his team started taking everything into their own hands, they were the ones acting as artists.

I think Mr. Brainwash’s artistry was best displayed not in the pieces hanging on the walls but in the creation of his new persona. He envisioned it and created it, and people responded to it.

What do you think? Is my definition valid? Would you call Mr. Brainwash an artist?

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February 8, 2011   2 Comments

Cafe Hopping (1/28)

Weekly roundup of (mostly) arts-related web chatter:

January 28, 2011   No Comments

Art in Unexpected Places

Music and dance in unexpected places make me smile. I especially love watching peoples’ faces as they suddenly realize what’s going on around them — from confusion to understanding to (usually) pleasure.

And yes, one day, I would like to find myself in a middle of a flash mob.

Choir in a parking garage:

Musicians perform Mozart spontaneously during a delayed flight:

Mambo in a train station:

Michael Jackson around Seattle (not the best dancing, but giving my hometown a hat tip):

And this Sound of Music one is always worth another watch:

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January 22, 2011   No Comments

Moving beyond champagne and butterflies?

The Huffington Post’s recent article The Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art, by Michael Milliner, is well worth reading. Writing in response to recent openings by artists Makoto Fujimura (pictured above) and Enrique Martinez Celaya, Milliner points to an apparent “thaw” in contemporary art towards religion, despite recent controversies (i.e. David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in my Belly” exhibition). The work of Martinez Celaya and Fujimura, he says, suggest that “far more interesting things are afoot than an art world/Republican party standoff.” Religious artists are, thankfully, moving beyond sentimentality; for, “Compared to the bracing reality of the gospel itself, urine and ants are as offensive as Champagne and butterflies.”

On a related note, here is a short documentary on Fujimura’s exhibition, “The Four Holy Gospels.”

Makoto Fujimura – The Art of “The Four Holy Gospels” from Crossway on Vimeo.

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January 11, 2011   3 Comments

Art vs. Philosophy

“Art tries, literally, to picture the things which philosophy tries to put into carefully thought-out words.”

-Hans Rookmaaker, quoted in Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo

(Photo: Let Ideas Compote)

October 10, 2010   No Comments

How Art is Like Plumbing

“Art should not be compared with preaching. The best work of art would still be bad preaching…But the best comparison is maybe with the plumbing. While we find it to be totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it.

Likewise art fulfills an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things, say a landscape, even without our noticing it…So the mentality that speaks out in art is important. Its greatest influence is perhaps where it is most like plumbing, where we are not aware of it.”

-Hans Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification

(Photo: mynameisharsha)

September 26, 2010   No Comments

The Process of Inspiration, Part 2

Inspiration involves both vision and industry.

(Read The Process of Inspiration, Part 1)

Because I dabble in several artistic fields (with varying degrees of proficiency), I frequently run across articles on how to beat creative block or find inspiration. Although the audiences of these articles vary according to creative medium, the content often overlaps. The tips usually fall into one of two categories: 1) vision (how to see/hear differently) or 2) industry (how to work differently).

Key to overcoming my own struggles with “lack of inspiration” has been figuring out in which of these two categories my particular problem lies. Sometimes I think I need to work harder when in reality, I need to step back and define what I’m working to accomplish (vision problem). Other times, I think I need more ideas when in reality, I need to start working to refine the ones I have (industry problem).

The difference can be explained in terms of trimming a bush. If I trim but never step back to see the overall shape, I’ll likely end up with something grossly misshapen. Alternatively, if I just stand back trying to envision what the bush should look like, the bush will never change. At some point I need to start trimming.

While anyone who has attempted anything artistic grapples with both sides of creative block at some point, I think many of us are prone to one particular side based on personality, education, etc. Knowing our own tendencies is a major step towards overcoming a “lack of inspiration.”

(Photo: williamnyk)

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Effect of Great Art


“A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.”

-Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

(Photo: Christmas w/a K)

September 18, 2010   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (9/17)

Weekly roundup of mostly-arts-related chatter around the web:

September 17, 2010   2 Comments