Community for Artists & Creative
How does a community for artists & creatives stand the test of time? What components are required and how can a vision be maintained in a healthy way? If we take the time to examine these communities, we will discover that arts communities themselves are a work of art. They require the same attention to detail, improvisation and creativity as any work of art. A community demands your imagination if it is going to thrive. Some communities start out idealistic. Others are more focused on structural programs and concerns. Others are focused on an idea or a vision. Regardless, they require an “all in” approach with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Artistic communities have their own peculiar challenges and need to understand what it takes to develop and protect a healthy community. Whether they begin with idealistic visions or pragmatic programs, they need to arrive at a holistic approach. We cannot come with simple approaches and hope to solve these complex challenges. Leading a movement or a community requires just as much creativity as you need to bring to producing a work of art. We need more than warm feelings and great ideas. We also need more than solid structures and pragmatic programs. Every community will face tension, frustration and potential dissolution. The question is how to remain healthy over time.
Problems & Paradox
Fame and finances will not solve the problem. World famous, successful bands are their own kind of small community. Yet even when they find great success, they can have the most spectacular breakup. Rolling Stone magazine broke down the ten messiest band breakups of all time. From Guns N’ Roses to the Everly Brothers. From demanding the rights to a band’s name (Axl Rose) to smashing your guitar over your brother’s head in a live performance (Everly Brothers). It doesn’t matter how successful you are, artists end up facing the same challenges, and sometimes greater struggles due to the passion and drive in creating their art.
Especially with artists, there is a paradox surrounding community that probes our hearts. We want to be known in community as deeply as we are afraid to be rejected by that same community. Community holds for us both an aroma of promise and of peril. If we are honest, we have all been hurt by community. If we are even more honest, we can admit we ourselves have contributed to the pain and hurt in our community. Why? We are human, made in the image of God, but fallen, broken, and imperfect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one the best books on community I have ever read. I read it nearly 30 years ago and I still pick it up to remind myself of his insight and profound love of Christian community. He warns of mere affection for having community, and challenges us to take time to understand what Christ is really calling us to pursue:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (paid link)
Christian community adds another layer to any artistic community: It requires both a heart that is willing to risk being broken while loving others, and a mind willing to hold onto the truths of God’s Word. This is a perfect picture of Christ: Christ never compromised or acquiesced to the pharisees heresies, in order to make them feel better, and make them feel accepted. At the same time, he never stopped loving everyone he encountered – from the prostitute and the tax collector, to the pharisee. He loved everyone enough to speak to them where they live. No hatred. Christ loved without compromise, and without coddling in order to create a false sense of community.
The Three Misguided Approaches to Healthy Community
There are three common approaches to artistic communities that seem easier and simpler, but they lead to dysfunction and eventually the dissolution of that community. Christ calls us to a healthy community, which requires hard work, and few are willing to maintain the rigor it requires. Most communities choose something simpler, thinking they have found a better path. Yet, when these alternatives are presented or pursued, they will fail to bear the fruit we long for.
1) The Gathering of Equals, Community
There was a prayer group here in Hollywood for about 20 years. It was created to foster prayer and encouragement. It was a great idea, and was a blessing to many for years before it finally closed. Yet, one of the problems was that the focus on community led the founders to create a system where they changed leaders on a regular basis. Consistency in leadership could not be maintained, and consistency in vision was not able to remain consistent. In the end, it was unable to sustain the community without a clear vision led by an insightful, consistent leader who could resolve conflict and maintain the vision.
Everybody wants to be equal, everybody wants to belong, and this type of community is often designed to insure no one is looked down upon. Validation and acceptance are typically a high priority. They seek to foster unity and to eliminate unhealthy comparison or competition. This model works best among people who really are peers in a very specific aspect. It works best if they are all students, all veterans, or even all have the same political and religious beliefs.
On the positive side, this idea of community comes from a legitimate desire to resist the traps of pride and elitism while protecting those who are insecure and discouraged. On the negative side these communities can enable members to vie for equality – not because they are healthy, but because they have the Crab Mentality. This famous illustration comes from fishermen who harvest crabs. They notice quickly that you don’t need to put a lid on a container with crabs, as long as there are at least two crabs in the bucket. Why? Because as soon as one crab tries to escape, the other crab(s) will drag her back down into the bucket. Artists who are jealous of others may push for this type of community so as to avoid the shame or embarrassment that may come from comparison.
The challenge here is to be honest about why you want this type of community, rather than having a leader who is initiating and leading your group forward. Is it because you were hurt by your last boss, pastor, or a parent? Have you looked for examples in the Bible? Have you recognized the biblical model of how God calls, installs, and uses leaders. . .even when they were fallen. God never gave up on having leaders, and he gives us instructions for how healthy leaders lead (1Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9). Incidentally, there is no biblical model for a leaderless community, so we should really ask ourselves why we are trying to create something which is not modeled in scripture.
The real problem with this idea is it is too idealistic and lacks a healthy understanding of humanity. It fails to take into account the selfish nature of humanity, or as theologians call it, depravity. People will covet, experience shame and guilt, and develop competitive thoughts, ideas, and impulses. You cannot eliminate this in a church, a culture, or commune. Removing leadership in a group will not magically remove these struggles between group members. In truth, the absence of a leader may allow those sinful temptations to flourish because peers don’t have the position of being able to speak into someone else’s life and hold each other accountable. Another common problem is mission drift – in the name of tolerance and acceptance of everyone, these groups often adapt their vision to accommodate conflicting perspectives. Over time it is hard for these groups to take a stand for anything because they are tempted to be accepting of everything.
2) The Program Focused Community
The second type of group we encounter which is unable to be sustained, is the program focused community. These groups come together to support a studio, a theatre or a local arts scene. We see these all over our cities. People who are like minded come together to collaborate and cooperate in creating art, art shows, and productions. It is always encouraging to see.
The benefit of these groups is that people who have little time or resources can pool their resources to create something of real value. It facilitates collaboration and also community as you work together, and the end result is something greater than any one or two people could create on their own.
The liability of these groups is seen over time. Programs and unity are not enough to guarantee they can sustain the activity. Unless there is a larger vision than simply one art show, or one kind of art space, eventually people will become bored with it and move on. Many artists are excited to participate initially, but eventually they want something more than to simply play a part. They may want to contribute to a greater vision, create their own work, or influence the direction of the group. These are often well intentioned, but without strong leadership these challenges can begin the process that leads to dissolution.
3) The Visionary Community
The third type of community which often fails to be sustainable or healthy is the vision focused community. Throughout history there are other artist groups who gather together due to a common vision. A classic example is the Fauves. As the Tate Museum defines it, Fauvism was an extreme version of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat. They were fascinated by scientific color theories. Naturally, it became a stepping stone to other approaches to art as it led people to part with the traditional approaches. They agreed in their view of art, but not in their philosophy or view of life. It was a limited unity.
Throughout history there are groups who are committed to a cause, an idea, a philosophy, or a political endeavor. They may see the need for new ideas. They also may see the consequences of dangerous ideas and dangerous leaders, and are willing to stand up and do something. It is on the one hand, inspiring. These visionary groups can be political resistance to a tyrant, theological resistance to evils committed by church leaders, or simply students wanting to change their university. These visionaries provide a stark contrast to the majority of people who drift into ambivalence and passivity. Each of us can easily become numb to the pain of others, and the injustices toward the orphan, the widow, and the downtrodden. We see it every day, and it is so easy to become cynical and forget it could be better.
On the other hand, these visionary groups can become disturbing. The more people find their identity in such a cause, the more they begin to demonize those who oppose them, and they are tempted to become intoxicated on self-righteousness. This self-righteousness is just another way to describe pride. As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, pride is the source of all other sins. Such arrogance can come from elite artists, pop musicians, street performers, art critics, as well as communists or capitalists, republicans or democrats. You need not be wealthy to be self-righteous, all that is needed is that you start to see other individuals as beneath you. This was the self-righteous sin of the pharisees, who said, “ Thank God we are not like those other people” (Luke 18:11).
Here is a test – ask yourself if you despise the “other” and see them as evil? Do you look down on artists with different training, or different skills? Do you buy into the debate between popular art and elite, “high art”? Maybe you would never say it out loud and it is more subtle – you realize you are bitter toward those who found success easily, or those who went to a particular school. If so, you have been injected with the toxin. It is in your heart and will begin infecting your mind. These visionary groups, if they are not based on a Biblical vision, however noble they sound, will lead into self-righteous, arrogant attitudes. We must see the dangers of being a apart of these enclaves of self-righteousness.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
Christ offers another model for healthy communities. Christ does not lift up community itself as the be all, end all. Community is important but it is not the point. Neither does he commend isolation. We were not designed to be alone. Christ calls us to pursue community in a particular manner.
We must avoid a community so in love with unity that is willing to avoid confrontation, and treasure unity above health, or truth. Ezekiel 13:10 tells us the danger of people who want peace, and will pretend there is peace instead of addressing the real issues among the community. True peace is found when we are reconciled with God, not simply when we are willing be kind to one another as we work side by side.
We must also avoid Elitism in a Christian community. Jesus Christ was the antithesis of Elitism. Consider this famous passage in Philippians:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Christ is the model of gracious humility. Christ tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, that we cannot look down upon others, and if we ‘hate our brother” we will be judged by God. A Follower of Christ should never find themselves courting hatred toward another. For a follower of Christ, it is non-negotiable – we cannot be part of a group that demonizes those who disagree.
We are free to disagree while at the same times we are called to discern what is right and to critique (1 Corinthians 2:15) the views of our society. A major problem in our culture in America is we have lost the ability to disagree while maintaining a posture of grace and generosity. People often quote the verse, “judge not, lest you be judged” (Matt 7:1 )as if God told us to turn off our brains and accept everything and everyone as good, or at least acceptable. Who cares if they are sacrificing their infants to idols? Well, God never says that. We are called to despise “evil”. We are to pursue what is true, good, and holy. The verse is about hypocrisy, not about a call to stop addressing sin, or to stop discerning right from wrong.
We also cannot be focused only on programs and structures. Programs must always be in service to a larger vision. Otherwise you become like churches who maintain programs long after their effectiveness has waned. Art shows, theatre co-ops, and similar groups are fine, but the true vision must be something tied to an understanding of God’s calling for those artists, not simply a commitment to that project. Otherwise mission drift will occur bit by bit until the second or third generation leaders have completely abandoned the vision of the founders.
Striking the Balance
A healthy Christian community, especially within the arts, must include a plan to preserve these three components:
- Clear Vision
- Solid Structure
- Healthy Fellowship
While each of these are good things, none of them will lead to health if we pursue them in isolation. We need vision, structure, and fellowship. As we develop all three, we will find greater health in our communities.
As Christians, we can never fully commit ourselves to any cause which may transgress the laws of God or the heart of Christ. Our vision must align with Biblical principles stemming from God’s heart for promoting truth, goodness, and beauty.
The basic temptations for communities of artists will be either to compromise on truth in the name of being gracious, or to compromise on being gracious in the name of truth. If there is not an agreement to maintain healthy theology, heresy will seep in drip by drip. If there is not a clear agreement about how to love those we disagree with, then judgmental elitism will seep in drip by drip.
As one of my old seminary professors explained, it is like a clothesline – if there is no tension between the two, then it is useless. We need to maintain a commitment to biblical orthodoxy and radical graciousness. If someone insists on heresy, for the sake of the community they must be confronted. If someone insists on being unloving toward others they too must be confronted. Over the years I have had to confront both types of people who have threatened to ruin the sense of community in our gatherings. A healthy community does not happen by accident, or by osmosis. To believe that is to demonstrate a lack of understanding about the very nature of sin.
The call to lead a ministry or to lead a community comes with an equal call to responsibility, care for those in your community, and a commitment to protect it from division, heresy, and arrogance. This means your vision must include a model for creating and sustaining a healthy community. If we maintain a commitment to following Christ, we will become a community that is more passionate about the gospel, more gracious to others, in so doing we will become a community that can be honest, transparent, and healthy.
So, whether you are leading a community or simply a participant, ask yourself how can it be made better. Pray, and ask God to show you how it can be made stronger so it will last the test of time and remain healthy.
- Does the vision really align with biblical principles?
- Is the structure serving that vision, and is it able to adapt when the time comes?
- Is our community becoming healthier, because we care about both truth and grace, peace and purity?
And for those of you who are in an arts community or leading an arts community, please take a minute and place a comment down below. We hope this clarifies the issues that are often muddy and brings forth a pathway toward healthy artist communities.
Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.
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