Lies Artists Believe: Self Expression
As we continue our series on lies artists believe, we arrive now at “Self-Expression.” Unlike most of history, art today is not about representing the world as it is, or depicting an objective reality, but about self-expression. The lie we are tempted to believe is that all we need to do is express what is in our own heart. This approach to art has been dominant for at least two centuries, beginning with the Romantic Artists. The question we need to ask is whether ‘self-expression’ is valid as a primary goal, and then if it fits in the spiritual life of a Christian.
Self-Expression as Our Cultural Core
Self-expression is at the core of the art world, and the entertainment industry. If you work and create in the mainstream art world or entertainment industry you will be swimming in the waters of self-expression. This is especially present in art celebrated by other artists. It is seen less dramatically in commercial art, and more prominently in high art, or art created for the art community. For instance, It is not so much sacred in block buster films whose goal is mass appeal, but it is especially present in the independent films and ‘pet projects’ of Hollywood actors and producers. Sure, the art world is interested in what is new, and we all enjoy new ideas, but if we are to understand clearly the world we live in, we must recognize self-expression is at the core.
The Gift of Self-Expression
Self-expression is a gift in the sense that it gives great freedom to the artist. They can express their greatest hopes and their darkest dreams. They are not beholden to one school of thought, to what a king or the church demand of artists in any given era. We can refuse to let our art become propaganda for whatever regime or leadership we live under. We live in an age, especially in countries where freedom of speech and art are protected, where we have no exterior restrictions. Our art can emerge from our own discernment, our own passions and hopes. Art is free to be about what the artist feels, desires, or is compelled to create.
The Danger of Self-Expression
Self-expression is dangerous because it can be toxic. If everything is about self-expression, then the content and form of each work of art is deeply connected to the mental health and social ambition of the artist. There is no objective critique. If an artist is talented and speaking in a fresh way into the art world, it has value. This is completely separate of any moral or societal concerns. Art which depicts grotesque acts, inhumane actions or inflammatory ideas are all equally acceptable. This is the current temperature of the art world and the entertainment industry. While there is restraint when appealing to the masses, there is a nearly religious refusal to restrain shocking or offensive content in any other arena. Why? It is self-expression…which in America is seen as a form of free speech. This makes sense because each artist has a unique voice and something unique to say. This is what is promoted at most art schools, film academies, and music conservatories without caveat.
Self-expression, in effect, has become a blanket under which anything goes. It reaffirms the idea that anything can be art, and art is above critique. After all, as long as I am expressing myself, society has to accept it as legitimate as a work of art.
The Christian and Self-Expression
God calls us to be responsible and intentional in what we create. God created each one of us uniquely and wonderfully, but we have more to consider than self-expression. There is a time and place to share our feelings and to be known. Clearly, we should not be copying other artists and failing to utilize our own unique talents and perspectives. And yet, there is also a responsibility to The God we worship and to our community. We are called to speak truth, to honor what is honorable, and to love others in all we do (including when we create and share our art). We should not entertain the idea of encouraging others to lie, cheat, steal, or to entertain lust, envy, sloth or greed. There is a responsibility to God that should influence the choices we make.
We learn early in the Bible that humans are capable of horrific ideas and actions. Lying, deceiving and murder almost immediately occur in the very first few chapters of Genesis. Though the Bible never shys away from these topics and ideas, it also does not glorify them nor give them free reign to hijack the story about what is good, true, and beautiful. There is a freedom to address all topics, and yet a vision used in order to bring Glory to the one who deserves all our praise and glory – God himself.
The freedom we possess:
I am reminded of what the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful. Everything is permissible, but not everything builds up. No one should seek his own welfare, but rather his neighbor’s.
– 1 Corinthians 10:23-24
The responsibility we have:
We are loved by God, and we have been given grace. However, we are still called to use our gifts to build The Kingdom of God, not simply express whatever idea we find within our heart. Recall these words from the letter to the Romans,
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
– Romans 12:2
The temptation we face:
God explains to Jeremiah how easily we can deceive ourselves and rationalize our sins. If you are a parent, you have noticed this natural and innate ability to justify and rationalize is present from the beginning of life.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;
who can understand it?”
– Jeremiah 17:9
If self-expression is at the core of the art world, then the self is at the core of the conversation. If you are a humanist and think people are basically good, this makes sense and you have no great concerns. However, the humanist is often surprised by evil in the word and unable to explain how often it rears its head. If you have a biblical view of sin and human nature, like the prophet Jeremiah, you will immediately see the inherent danger. You will also not be surprised by evil in the world. If we are sinners and prone to sin, this will come out through any self-expression, whether it is our conversations or our artwork. This is why we come together in church services weekly to repent of all our sins – the sins of omission and commission.
If we are only listening to ourselves and expressing whatever we find within our hearts, we will deceive ourselves and create art which is antithetical to what God desires for our culture. It may not be overt or obvious at first, but your heart and mine are prone to wander from the God we love.
The Balance We Must Strike
Self-expression is a good thing. We all express ourselves every day in our habits, our traditions and our conversations. God made each of us unique, desiring us all to come together as a family in one great tapestry or mosaic. We were meant to complement each other.
Self-Expression and Your Neighbor
This means we must be thinking of our neighbor, and not only our own ambition. In fact, we must “Love our Neighbor”. Therefore, if you want to honor God with all your talent, your gifts, and your creativity, then you should take great effort to ask yourself how your art demonstrates a love for your neighbor. If your self-expression turns out to be a needless offense or a stumbling block to your neighbor, you need to question the manner in which you apply the gospel to all of your life.
Self-Expression and Your Savior
We also must consider God himself, as the one who loves us and died to save us. If our primary focus in this life is to honor God, to enjoy our relationship with him and to glorify him, then our art should never encourage people or provoke people to embrace anti-biblical views. Our love for God will take priority over our desire to express our own ambitions and ideas. We will hold all thoughts captive to what we know is true in God’s word, and create art which mirrors and reflects that truth. It does not mean our personality and ideas will not come through. Even the writers of the bible have unique personalities, vocabulary and artistic style that comes through in their work. God does not want to squelch your creativity. He wants to direct it in a way that is life-giving and thought-provoking. He wants your creative work to be a fragrance of the love of God in this world.
Self-Expression and Your Calling
Self-expression is fine as long as you don’t buy the lie that it is the ultimate goal in your art. You can receive the freedom and be thankful for it. At the same time, you need to ask God to direct your steps and be aware of the deceitfulness of your heart.
So take time to seek first the Kingdom of God,
Ask how you can love your neighbor through your unique voice and gifting.
Ask how you can speak into our culture with hope instead of fear.
Ask how you can speak of reconciliation instead of abuse, and unforgiveness.
Ask how you can point others to God, however implicit or explicit that may be.
I am not saying your work should be preachy, for that is not the aim of art. But no one should be surprised to find out you are a believer after seeing your body of work. Your body of work over time should reflect a heart that loves your neighbor, honors God, and works for the good of the art community and the city in which you live.
P.S. – If you want to learn more about your Calling, check out our Online Calling Course.
There are also some other excellent resources on your calling as an artist of faith. Check them out HERE.
Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.