Existential Angst and the Creative Mind

Jun 19, 2017

I’ve slowly made a discovery over time. Modern and post-modern artists can often make a great show of why they create art and the substance of it—ideally things that promote sales and highlight the uniqueness of the work. However, when you get to popular creativity, a little more of the true heart and motivation emerges.

My family started noticing this trend on cooking shows and cooking competitions. When asked about their participation or motivation, chef after chef would talk about “needing to prove something” either to themselves, their children, or their family. We recently saw part of a dance competition in which dancers were lauded as they told of their pain in life that was reflected in their choreography. Contestants on voice competitions talk about the angst of family relationships, hardships, and estrangement as inspiring their performance or their presence in the competition. In all of these instances, these creative people are seeking a validation of their pain, for their life choices, and as the impetus for creative outlets.

Let me be clear that in no way do I want to minimize what these people have gone through, and the rawness of those experiences often makes their creativity have greater depth and interest. Not to be cynical, but some of that just makes for good television.

The point is, people are continually fed the idea that the purpose of creativity is to express themselves. This leftover from the Romantics posits the artist as prophet—a veritable priest in the religion of self. This leads to statements such as, “You can’t question my art or beliefs because you cannot understand my experiences.” In essence, this leads to the continuation of the idea of the artistic temperament and an undue reverence for artists. In his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton takes this idea head-on:

The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs.  It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being.  … the very great artists are able to be ordinary men—men like Shakespeare or Browning.  There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear.  But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that is cannot produce any art. 

I was once part of the process of interviewing prospective art teachers for a classical school. One candidate confidently said that they valued the contribution of Jackson Pollack and his paint-splattered canvases because it provided a model to teach students that learning technique was not necessary to be able to express themselves. I recommended that they not get the job. 

In no other endeavor would we say we value self-expression over knowledge. Do you want to drive over a bridge made by someone expressing themselves or one designed by an engineer? I would rather my hair be cut by someone who has training and not someone working out their personal frustrations with their boss (not a hypothetical situation). We expect a conformity to professional norms, and those norms are generally built on objective criteria. 

So, what is another option for Christian creativity? It goes something like this:

  • Creativity is a sub-creative act in which raw materials of the created world are used to make something new (movement, sound, words, food, architecture, etc).
  • I am subject to the laws and inherent order of these raw materials.
  • I may choose to depict the brokenness of the world (the way things are) or the spiritual reality of the world (the way things were meant to be and how they will be restored). Either choice places my creative work in the realm of theological truth.
  • While creativity necessarily reflects the artist and their experiences, the artist is always working in the realm of objective beauty, truth, and goodness.

The alternative to the overflow of self-expression is to be an artist that crafts their work to showcase, highlight, and make known the beauty of creation and her Lord.

Greg Wilbur

Greg Wilbur

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN, as well as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin. He is the author of Glory and Honor: The Music and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach and has released two CDs of his compositions of congregational psalms, hymns and service music.