Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Necessity of Art

“In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and consider it as one of the conditions of human life. …Reflecting on it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of effective communication between people.” – Leo Tolstoy
In the age-old debacle of priorities, the arts are typically the first thing to go.

On the surface, the solution seems clear-cut. The arts, people argue, have little to no practical application in “the real world” and are as useful to education as flowers are to a construction site. The arts exist to give the world beauty, to give false meaning to an otherwise meaningless life, and nothing more. They siphon resources from our nations youth and devour precious time that could be spent more constructively in adults. Therefore if one must choose between the practical and the nonsensical, the arts must perish to save our society.

Not only is this a fallacy, but a dangerous assumption as well. I find it concerning that not only are our nation’s leaders and school officials falling prey to this line of thought, but so are our parents and children.

This is a “hot-button” issue for me, as I have seen the results of this fallacy in action all my life. “But what’s the big deal?” you’re probably asking me. “What’s the worst we would lose if we phased out our focus on the arts?”

We would lose our sense of freedom and independence.

The beauty of art is in how liberating it can be. Art can only be art if it forces us to question our world, ourselves, and our motives. Rather than viewing the recipients as vessels in which to fill with knowledge, art challenges the recipient to change his perspective and discover things on his own. Art challenges him to learn because he wants to, not because we are told when and what to learn. As he realizes that the feeling he has obtained after learning on his own is a rush of pure unadulterated freedom, he wishes to return to its source to learn more. Without the arts, we are left with people who see education as a drudgery and people who cultivate the idea that ignorance is bliss, because in a world without the arts, it is.

We would lose our sense of self-respect.

I believe that God, when commanding Adam to name all of the animals on earth, was teaching him how to breathe the breath of life that God had breathed into him. He was teaching mankind how to create. I experienced this idea firsthand when I discovered that I had a gift for writing. I remember the day that I completed my very first lengthy work of creative fiction. I wasn’t prompted and it wasn’t assigned to me. I read and reread it over and over, wondering where it all came from. At the time it was still a mystery, but the message was very clear. “You created life in the mind of the reader. It feels good doesn’t it?” Yes, I said. Yes it does. “Good.” was the reply. “Now apply what you’ve learned to your own life.” Dabbling in the arts teaches people that they have the power to create. It teaches people that they have control over their lives and that they can be whoever they so desire with a healthy dose of work, dedication, direction and creativity. Predestination, fatalism and Darwinism are medieval ideas that have no place in a truly developed society but continue to exist in a world where the arts are ignored.

We would lose our voice.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” Art gives a voice to the voiceless and rebuttal to the defenseless. People who are weak as politicians, bodybuilders and warriors find their strength as writers, painters and musicians. These people shape our world every day, whether we believe it or not. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, exposed the working conditions and sanitary atrocities of the meat-packing industry and brought about reform. The early impressionist painters of the nineteenth century shifted the focus of beauty and brought respect back to the commoners. Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci brought about a return to classical form, architecture and education. German composer Ludwig von Beethoven not only inspired the romantic era of music, but also the shape of all music to come. The Bible is considered, even by non-believers, to be one of the greatest works of art of all time, and the voice of its writers long passed away is still strong and still influences the inquisitive to this very day. “Why do you readily accept what people say about you just because of their social standing?” says the arts. “You have a voice too!” Without this voice, however, the world would be a bleak setting indeed.

We would lose our sense of fellowship.

People, even ones that come from the same communities, are different. We all come from different worlds and different regions. We may not completely understand each other communicating on our own terms, but art is a universal language. Even in marriage, the closest of human companionship, the experts agree that the most fulfilling marriages are the ones in which husband and wife challenge each other every day. Even people that can’t speak the same language (or speak at all) can understand art, and art is not created in a vacuum. When art is created and shared among people, we not only learn about ourselves, but about other people as well. This is one of the reasons why it’s always fun to go to art museums in groups. “Who do you see?” we are really asking as we ask them to read a book or listen to a piece of music. Their answers never cease to surprise us. Suddenly, conversation moves to something deeper and it in itself becomes an art. Otherwise, we would be left with idle chatter and small talk devoid of meaning. Nothing would ever get accomplished, would it?

The truth is that we need art. Terribly. The creation of art is something that separates us from animals. Animals can’t comprehend it, but it is alive for us. It is just as relevant now as it was when Europe was emerging from the black death to greet a new dawn, and ignoring it or worse, cutting it out for the sake of more “practical” pursuits, is not only foolish but self-destructive. What do we have if we don’t have art? We have a society that is blindly marching toward a cliff and neither realizes nor cares.

What is just as important as teaching our children math, vocational skills and physical fitness is teaching them how to create. Otherwise, we are robbing them of their true potential. Think about that next time your child’s school wants to cut the funding for the band program instead of the athletics department.

They can solve equations and run a pass, but can they communicate?

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Closed Circuits

“What this war represents is a failure to listen.” –George Lucas

Consider this.

What if all of our problems in life didn’t come from the way the world reacts to people, but in the way people react to the world? You would probably consider your actions more carefully in the future, wouldn’t you?

A familiar passage from Luke 6:31 says “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” What the Bible tells us, essentially, is that if anyone mistreats us, we should be kind to them, but people have difficulty following through with this. I don’t believe it’s because we haven’t heard it before, considering it is one of the most prominently and commonly displayed verses of all time. Instead, I believe we have difficulty with it because we have never learned or completely understood why we must follow it.

Here’s what I think:

Consider the laws that govern electricity. There are two types of material that interact with an electric current: conductors and insulators. A conductor will allow an electric current to pass through it while an insulator will absorb it and stop its flow. Anger, hostility and bitterness is like electricity, and people can be divided into two types: conductors and insulators. Conductors will readily store up anger in their hearts against the people who have caused them grief (whether they actually have or not) and pass on their anger to everyone else on their path (whether they intend to or not). An insulator, however, will stop anger in its tracks. They refuse to let people change their disposition and would rather show the world something else in return.

That’s wonderful, isn’t it? So when are people going to wise up and stop being conductors? Well, here’s the catch. Last time I checked, we’re all people.

This is where things get complicated.

“But you don’t understand my circumstances.” we cry out. I don’t have to understand your circumstances, or mine either, for that matter. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27) Jesus was referring to the salvation of mankind when He said this. Given this, I’m pretty sure God can handle the rest of our problems, too. “But our problem is so big!” we retort. “I don’t see any way around it and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel!” Who said anything about seeing? “Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:  For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-7) To God, our biggest problems on earth are nothing, and trying to react to our problems by what we see and feel will inevitably cause us to trip and stumble.

Drama and tension are seen in modern society as a normal and healthy part of human life when the Bible explicitly states that, to the believer, it is not only detrimental to a healthy lifestyle, but is considered by its definition to be unbelief. By becoming conductors even though God tells us not to “…repay evil with evil or insult with insult.” but instead, to “…repay evil with blessing…” because “…to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9), we are telling God that we don’t trust that Him and that we’ll do things our own way. In this light, it’s so easy to see why our society is in a mess, isn’t it?

“But why us?” we ask. “Why can’t everyone just shape up and leave the rest of us alone?” Because “[we] … are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do [we] light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead [we] put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, [we] let [our] light shine before others, that they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16) Why us? Because it is our responsibility. What if you had the knowledge to save people’s lives, and instead of sharing it with others, you spread misinformation to others while keeping the truth to yourself? When you act as a conductor, you are doing just that.

Modern society wants to put the burden of reform on our political leaders, schools and church pastors, but this has only made matters worse because we have relinquished not only the responsibility but also the power to enact changes in our lives and outlooks not only in ourselves but in others as well. “[F]or verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matthew 17:20) When you decide to build an impenetrable fortress around your heart as you give your wife the silent treatment, do you really believe this?

We can’t do anything about other people. We can’t change their minds or their hearts. What we can change, though, is ourselves, how we see people, and how we react to the things they say and do. It’s time we opened the closed circuits of our hearts and let into it something better.

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Respect

“If you want to be respected by others the great thing is to respect yourself. Only by that, only by self-respect will you compel others to respect you.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

Respect is something that I find very important in the creation of art.

At times, people will walk up and ask me, “What did you think of this movie/book/game/show?”, and more often than not, it is a very difficult question to answer, or at least convey, because to me, what is more important than good writing, characters, music, sound, production values or mechanics is a good sense of respect.

We all know what this is. We as human beings can sense when people are being genuinely considerate or mean-spirited toward us, and we’re okay with that. It’s when people put on the front of being considerate yet retain contempt toward us that we have a problem. Because art is created by people and thus by definition art has the imprint of its creator etched upon it, it can do the exact same thing. Have you ever watched something inane and refused to view it for more than two minutes because it insulted your intelligence, yet read something just as inane but tolerated it more because its intentions were clearly spelled out from the outset? Why is that?

Respect is a very powerful tool in the penman’s arsenal. To use it, one must realize that he is not providing a commodity for the masses, but speaking to the individual one-on-one, and to speak to the individual one-on-one, a writer must first understand what he is not.

The writer is not an illusionist.

Suspension of disbelief comes from the reader who willingly projects himself into the experience. It is not the job of the writer to fool his audience into thinking that what he is reading, seeing or playing is real. Suggesting such a notion is like telling your reader that he is very discerning for demanding only the best of entertainment, and then comparing him to a child that cannot differentiate fantasy from reality and desperately needs your form of escapism to survive and make life better for him. Whether this is true or not, nobody wants this blatantly advertised to them, and nurturing this fallacy does nothing more than that.

The writer is not a propagandist.

Being opinionated is a trait of all human-kind, not just writers, and valid opinions are not reserved for the prolific authors, red-carpet superstars and high concept directors (James Cameron, I’m looking at you). True, the goal of the penman is to shift the reader’s perspective and force him to look at himself and his surroundings differently, but it is not the privilege of the penman to force the reader to adopt the author’s opinion as his own. People don’t like it when their friends do it, so why would they enjoy reading your work if you’re doing it?

The writer is not royalty (even if he is entitled to royalties).

Let’s face it. The only reason why all the authors out there are selling book after book and you’re still trying to get a single magazine to notice you is because they were in the right place at the right time (and a little hard work never hurts). Ecclesiastes 1:9 says “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Published authors are writing nothing new that the majority of the populace has not already considered while lying awake at night pondering the mysteries of the universe. The only difference between the penman and the layman is that the penman is able to pull all of these wandering thoughts together and draw from it something cohesive and compelling. With this in mind, it’s easy to see that the penman’s thoughts are really our own. So, why do writers feel that they are the elite breed of human being bestowing their gift from upon high to the lowly subjects below? By this definition, the writer is subject to the reader, not the other way around, and this sort of arrogance is unwarranted.

This means that we have the responsibility to give the people what they need rather than what they say they want because they are looking to us for encouragement. What this does not mean, however, is that father knows best. We must listen to our readers and maintain an open dialog with them. We must observe our readers’ reaction to our work and craft something that not only entertains them but resonates with them. And most importantly, we must not underestimate our readers’ intelligence. One does not know what the public will understand unless one gives them a chance to prove themselves.

But this is not where respect in writing ends.

I Corinthians 8:13 says “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” This is not a command to be politically correct, but a command to be respectful to the people reading your work. Jim Davis, an American cartoonist, once quipped of a former editor that people are eating breakfast when reading his strip, so he must be respectful to them. Now, there are times when lines must be crossed to convey a point, but if there is something in your work that has nothing to do with your point and could possibly betray the work’s theme, leave it on the cutting room floor. “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.” Matthew 18:8

Most of this logic seems to have fallen upon deaf ears. Some people see it as foolishness and sabotage to their bottom line, and others feel as if its a compromise to their vision by bowing to the reader. But it’s not about giving in to compromise. It’s about having respect for the audience.

Despite what mega publishers and Hollywood executives want to tell you, having respect and morals in your work will not doom it to B-list status. The road may not be as easy and will be paved with hardships, but your work will find an audience, and better yet, it will find the right kind of audience that will listen to you rather than toss you aside for the next big thing that rolls along.

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