The Case for Art

When I say “art,” I am referring to the broadest scope of possibilities available for this word. If your “art” happens to be painting, good for you: We have mental imagery and a shared understanding for what the work and habits of a painter might look like. But someone else’s art might relate to a cause, a group, a place, a skill, a realm of knowledge, or a special burden that person has chosen to shoulder. It is impossible to define or delineate all the aims or undertakings that might call to a person. Yet I refer to this calling as “art” because it is specifically not commerce and not an obligation. It is the thing you would do whether or not anyone else understands why.

Nor is this thing a “passion.” There is nothing passionate or passion-like about the art I am describing. It is quiet and unassuming. It is not at all obsessive; it is not at all intense. If any reasonable person voiced any reasonable cause why we should quit our art, we would quit—and feel relieved to do so. Indeed, those with art in their lives quit all the time! The art is the thing that keeps coming back within the incompleteness after one has given it up, whispering to again have a place.

Why should we pursue our art? Why should we give time and attention to personal pursuits that call from out of the most individual parts of who we are? One answer is because this is the voice of God. Not God speaking with sentences and syntax, but God speaking his wish for you in terms of the way he made your mind and heart, and the interests he planted there. When we are given freedom by virtue of awakening into faith, part of that freedom is permission to go after what God has given us to pursue. Even if no one else understands why, he does. Art is our way of being in his company.

But there are more practical advantages as well. The question of why to pursue our art—why to give time and attention to it in the face of so many other pressing things to do—can be answered even with no mention of the divine, which is the case with most (not all) of the points below.

Why should you pursue your art? Seven reasons:

1. Defiance

What kind of world do you want to have? It is easy to succumb to the pressure to allow all of the time to be filled by pursuits that fit the context of work, obligations, passive recreation, and the forms of busyness that all of our neighbors and associates can understand. But shouldn’t the world and its possibilities be bigger than this? If you think so, then it falls in part to you to push back with your own choices and help pry open this bigness.

2. Children

Perhaps counter-intuitively, once you become a parent and thereby have less free time, it becomes more important, not less, for you to give some time to your art. You want your children to understand that they have the right to be themselves, and so you must model the exercise of this right for them to see.

3. Joy

That stillest part of the self is the place where joy lives. It requires the effort of our permitting and cultivating self-expression in order for joy to flourish. Happiness is fine as well, and the experience we routinely call happiness is a passable substitute for joy, albeit a fleeting one. Joy is something richer and more solid, with a greater power to affect the world.

4. Imagination

Here is the most immediately practical of all of the arguments for art. When my attention is given over to this peaceful and non-obligatory pursuit, I am removed for moments at a time from the grasp of my anxieties. Sometimes, answers to problems in my “real life” come to me that I could not have seen while in that real life’s fearful grip.

5. Vulnerability

Offhand, this one sounds like a risk of art rather than a virtue, and maybe that’s what it is. To express the authentic self is to allow that self to be exposed. Yet living without being exposed is not living strong, it’s just living shielded. By making ourselves vulnerable, we grow stronger from the experience of seeing that the vulnerability is survivable.

6. Connection

It’s not generally given to us to understand the “why” of our art. We just have the interest, the inspiration, the call—and what purpose it might serve belongs to God. But whatever that purpose is, it almost certainly entails other people. Pursuing our art and even struggling with it makes it possible for the art or struggle to find these people: those who might be a part of the pursuit, those who might help or encourage us, or those we might encourage or help. Our art is, among other things, a signal. It is the flare that might identify the artist to a potential ally, or the light that might help some other artist see the way to continue or begin.

7. Philippians 4:8

Paul includes this appeal to his listeners within the closing of his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”

The enemy is in our heads. At least it’s in mine. In my experience, there are so many ways to get anxious, so many ways to feel bent out of shape, so many ways to get greedy, so many ways to feel entitled, so many ways to resent, so many ways to smolder and churn with either anger or fear. Our art offers a better way than all of this. The mental clutter and corrosion might simply be an inevitable part of our passage through this world, and it won’t go away on its own. But the art offers something to replace it with, something better and richer to which to give my thoughts, aims, and attention, as well as some of my resources and even some of the energy of my self.

Art is a way we follow Paul’s advice. Again, I don’t know what your art is—and maybe you are still finding it—but it is something true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. Further, it is something that was given to you by God for the benefit of this world, and for the enrichment of your life within it.