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What I Wish I Could Say to Every Artist

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A lot of my life is spent sitting in coffee shops with artists and creative people. I get asked questions and sometimes I can answer in truth and love.   But not always.  Sometimes the truth hurts too much.  Honestly, I wish that I could tell every artist I meet a few things.  Some hard things need time, relationship, and maturity before they are heard, and I don’t always have that with new people.

In a perfect world, this is what I want to say to every Christian in the arts.

It’s not about you.  Too often I see artists who are unable to separate their personal value and identity from their work.  In all honesty, I see many artists who use what they make to give themselves personal validation.  In technical terms, this is called “narcissistic supply.”

Seeking the praise and approval of people is an endless treadmill.  It’s also poison to your soul.

Grow up.  If you are called to the arts, you need to be on an endless path to maturity and becoming.  There is no calling that is higher than the call to follow Jesus.  There are two areas where maturity is critical:

First, in your faith.  You need to be a disciple of Jesus.  That means more Bible, more Holy Spirit, greater depth of understanding, spiritual relationships that force you to grow, and transformation of the way you think and act. This is a lifestyle and a process.  You can’t get it from running to conferences or listening to podcasts; you get it by building a relationship with God daily.

Second, you need to develop healthy life skills.  It means facing your demons, addictions, broken patterns, and unhealthy ways of relating (mostly communication).  Maybe you need some counseling, inner healing, prayer, and personal development.  This will only improve your work, because your inner life will determine your creative output.

Really, this is all about your identity in Christ.   When you come alive to the True you will naturally lay aside the false.  When you embrace your true identity, you will not use art to validate your worth.

Honestly, I see the same performance based spirituality all in all areas of the church, not just in the arts.

Kill your babies.  Yes, I know that sounds horrible, but I once had an art teacher who said that all the time.  The key to all great art and design is editing.  It is not precious, and it is not an extension of you.  Sometimes that extra act in a play, meaningful as it is, is too long.  You don’t have to add another chorus to that song.  Stop painting!  The painting is finished. (Except for that dove, paint over that.)

Your work is valuable.  You need to put honest values on what you do.  Don’t give it away.  And also, don’t take from others, don’t plagiarize.  Stealing from others is devaluing their work and yours.  And also be firm with churches that refuse to contribute to the cost of materials, labor, or who refuse to pay for a job they commissioned (I have had this happen several times).  These are all forms of theft, and reaffirm the lie that art has no value in the church.

But at the same time . . .

It’s not precious.  Christian artists are very “precious” with their work.  In the professional art world a person who is “precious” treats every thing they do like it is a little snowflake that must be cherished, protected, and adored.  I guess since artists are often a persecuted, misunderstood minority in the church, there is a belief that any art made by a Christian is good art.  It’s not!   It’s the same reasoning that we once heard on worship teams: “This is an offering to the Lord, so we don’t need to practice.”

Christian artists tend to not receive criticism (because the work is part of them and is too precious) but also tend to not critique others well.  Praise for bad work is not helping a person improve. Can you see the good but also recognize the bad?  Do you know enough to know when a piece of music, art, or theatre is good or bad?

Along with this, because the playing field is small, I have seen more competition and “catty-ness” among Christians than I ever experienced working in the marketplace.  Harsh criticism may remove your competition, but it does nothing to build up, strengthen, or advance our cause.   And I have noticed that most of this bad behavior happens behind the scenes.  Not good.  We are in this together.

Inability to face criticism is a tell tale sign of personal immaturity.  It’s also very amateurish.  Which leads me to my next point…

Be professional.  I regularly get comments that my Friday email comes out week after week, and that the quality is generally always improving.  The email is not my hobby, it’s my job.  When I was a commercial artist I had a schedule, deadlines, and budgets.  I also had a boss who was not an artist.  I had to produce, on time, under budget, and get results.  My weekly email goes to an editor, and they tell me what’s wrong, and they tell me if the email works or not.  If it doesn’t, I rewrite – sometimes right before the deadline.  That’s being a professional.  That’s how you have impact.

I don’t write based on feelings, and when I am writing a book I schedule writing time, because it is my job.  And when I was doing a lot of painting in churches and conferences, I charged for my work and I didn’t give it away – because professionals don’t give their work away.

Professionals know how much their work is worth.  Professionals understand that good work reflects on them as a person, but is not an extension of their person.   There is a world of difference.

Some of this may be hard to hear, and I am probably being passive-aggressive by writing these thoughts in an article.  Even so, for those of us who have embraced these guidelines, our lives and careers have improved.

I encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and see where you need to edit, transform, or mature.  Doing so is going to make a difference for you and for the world.  It matters.

Christ Otto

Christ “rhymes with wrist” is the director of Belonging House and is the author of several books for artists including his latest Mary: When God Shares His Glory. You can find out more at belonginghouse.org.

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  • Tane Miller says:

    Excellent word! Thank you!

  • suespringer says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are NOT being passive aggressive. This is important for people to understand. I tend to be blunt with people. If you ask me what I think of your piece I’ll tell you. I’ve hurt many a feeling by being honest. I have a hard time feeling bad about it. And in the age of “crying rooms” on college campuses I’ll probably hurt a few more feelings along the way.

  • fndemaio says:

    Thank you for you advice. I always appreciate constructive criticism. It’s what we need to improve and move forward.

  • Larry says:

    Is it passive aggression to act out your frustrations with particular people through public statements? Not unless you think snarling at the wind lightens your load. Finding people who loves us enough to be pragmatic about the real economic potential of our “art” is good medicine. I like what you wrote, except that by insisting that “professionals” don’t give away their art, you’ve neutered 95% of all who make art, thus suggesting that the real proof of a contribution lies in whether you get paid. And that is fine, for the five percent who by chance (and hard work) found various opportunities. In the age of the Internet, art is almost entirely worthless, it sells for thousandths of a penny per stream on Spotify. So, to the non-professional masses, I would say “don’t quit your day job”, “be humble, sober, and seek to become truly skilled”, and finally, do it because of Christ – His gift, His calling, His glory.

  • Donna Kemper says:

    I always appreciate your wisdom. Thanks for sharing.

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