Love and the Artist

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis brought an artist up out of Hell/Purgatory into Heaven to decide if he wanted to stay. This particular artist, a painter, can’t sit still for two minute and enjoy the scenery. He can’t look at the landscape without wanting to paint it. When he’s forced to argue about this, the artist says that’s how every artist should be interested in the world—to put it in art. Art is the goal. The more heavenly local replies thusly:

‘No. You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

And that is profoundly true. An artist is not somebody who sits around thinking about or participating in art all day. That’s why those artsy people are so weird. A good artist, one who has his priorities straight, loves the world he is in, and wants to tell somebody about it.

Fundamentally, an artist is a two year old. Where more mature people just flip on a light, the whole concept makes him excited.

“Did you see that? He flipped that thingy in the wall over there and the round glass thingy way over there went zap! Then it got all bright! Do it again!”

In fact, the only difference between a young artist and a young scholar is that the artist babbles to mom for fifteen minutes straight about how cool the light is, and the young scholar tries to figure out how it works. And those two aren’t really mutually exclusive.

This means that the purpose of the artist is fundamentally to share. I’m fond of explaining both the way I babble to my family and close friends, and my desire to write with the phrase, “I can’t see and not say.” I have to tell somebody. Another artist, of course, might have to share visually with his paints, or musically with a piano. I prefer my words. At any rate, artists see something wonderful about the world and have to tell people about it.

I want to draw two things from this. First, this is why in a lot of societies artists are more or less sacred. In telling people about different aspects of the world, they connect people to a way of looking at life they can get more out of, that makes life more worth living. To paraphrase Lewis, art may not have survival value, but it gives survival value. And in so doing, art teaches people to be more human. That’s why it’s filed away among the humanities.

The other thing that needs to be stated is that when we lose sight of this fact, we get weirdoes and bad artists. If you are concentrated either on your medium instead of the thing it’s mediating, or on what the medium can get you, you will never have as much to say as the person who actually loves what he’s writing, painting, or fiddling about. Wrongly ordered love, as Augustine might say, is bad. You miss the point, and therefore cannot communicate the point to others. Hence both sellouts, who are in it for what the art can get them, and artsy people, who are also in it for what the art can get them, but in a more emotional, needy kind of way.

Let me qualify that: there’s nothing wrong with doing art for a living. After all, the artist has to live, and there’s no reason he can’t love what sells well. Problem is, he has to honestly love what sells well. The other half of that coin is that if what he loves, or what he should love, is not something that sells well, part of his job as an artist is to change that fact. If we’re communicating what we love, we ought to be able to make others love it.

And I will throw in a qualification for artsy-ness as well. All the mediums—prose, poetry, sculpting, and the rest—they all are things in the world, things to be loved. You can get quite good at them for their own sake. Your audience will be more limited and what you say will be limited if the medium itself is the primary thing you want to talk about, but it certainly is fair game.

But the primary goal of an artist should be to communicate something about this crazy, wonderful world God made. And, for that matter, to communicate something about God himself. The medium is not what we love, it’s what we’re mediating.

To top all this off, let me quote Lewis again. Because Lewis is a thing I love, and you should too.

“When you painted on earth–at least in your earlier days–it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”

Even our earthly loves are not an end in themselves. We love the world, because it is something God made and then gave to us. That’s why artists tend to be a little ADD (at least, in my experience). They flutter about from cool thing to cool thing, spending just enough time to tell you about it before they switch to the next thing. Because, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” All our lesser creativity is simply a way of talking about the Creator who went before us.

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