Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Power of Art

The habit, very prevalent today, of dismissing words as “just words” takes no account of their power.
                ~Dorothy Sayers

Usually when I write a poem, it’s because the first few lines have popped into my head.  I’ve been thinking about something, or I see something, or I’m feeling frustrated, or a Bible verse is demanding my attention.  I always try to write those first lines down right away so I won’t forget them - nine times out of ten, I end up writing the whole poem right then.  In such cases, I usually write the poem in order, that is to say, stanza by stanza, and more or less even line by line.  I make changes as I go, of course, and more when I ‘finish’ and read over the whole work, and again when I type it up.

I think I’ve written every single poem on paper, with a pencil.  In the margins of those pages are scribbled lists of words that rhyme with whatever I’ve already written – some poems have many scribbles, crossed-out words, and erased and re-written portions, and some don’t.  It’s a process, and some poems are harder in the writing than others.  In the end, though, I have written the poem – I have chosen which words to use, and what structure; I have shaped the poem to fit an overarching idea, which often becomes more clear to me even as I write.  The process in its entirety is exactly as described by Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker,[1] though she uses the example of writing books and plays:  Where she discusses controlling free-willed characters to fit together with the plot,[2] my ‘characters’ are rhyme, meter and stanza, and my ‘plot’ is what I’m trying to say.

Because the process is the same, so are the results.  I have ‘predestined’ my poems to be a certain way; I have controlled their formation.  The structural elements have a ‘life of their own’, which is their free will, but as long as I keep them bound to the overall concept, they will conform to it and make the finished poem something altogether independent of the author.  This is a wonderful thing to experience as a writer, and is half the blessing of doing the work – as much as a person may be moved by someone else’s creation, its creator is privileged to be moved by it first.  This independence, however, is also very troublesome for someone like myself – I hesitate to share my creations with strangers, lest they ‘over-analyze’ them.[3]

But there is a difference between introducing foreign ideas and gleaning truths that were hidden.  Here again, Dorothy Sayers[4] has things to say, reassuring me that, just as the poem exerted its free will to result in something I could not have entirely preconceived, so also the free will and unique experience of the reader can see things in it that I didn’t notice.  This is, again, because art connects with us at the soul-level.  There is Power in the Word, and there is Power in words; neither return empty[5] when there is Power in the soul.

Ultimately, the artist and the feeling he puts into his art don’t matter; it is what the consumer receives from it that is important, and this is why our creations outlive us.  If the consumer is affected in a way that is consistent with the work, he will either love or hate it, just as people respond to teaching and prophesy with either joy or derisive laughter; sackcloth or stones.  It is not the job of the artist to try to control this reaction – that is impossible.  It is the artist’s job to create a conduit through which God may choose to speak to the soul; to use his gift to “profit all.”[6]  It is the consumer’s job to approach the work in the right spirit – to see what it is meant to say to him, and not what he wants it to say.[7]  Those who approach art otherwise may be surprised by some revelation, but usually they will walk away content to talk about brush strokes.[8]

Consequently, there are three aspects of a creative work:  There is the artist who rendered it, there is the consumer who responds to it, and there is God,[9] who inspired it and infuses it with the power to engender that response.  Herein lies the power of art:  That God may use it, as He will, to provoke within us not just an emotional response, but a spiritual one; not just feeling, but action.  That is why various institutions have been wont to treat art and its creators as dangerous, flinging insults like ‘subversive’ at them like rice at evil spirits.  Of course, the irony is, art and its creators are dangerous; not in the way those institutions tend to think, but in the same way that C. S. Lewis’ Aslan is not a tame lion.[10]  There is Power in the Word, and power is dangerous, because it can effect change.  I mentioned what is not the artist’s job.  What is the artist’s job is to ensure that what he is creating is of and for God; there is plenty out there already that is not.


[1] Chapter five, Free Will and Miracle.
[2] Characters who nevertheless have enough free will to interact with the plot in ways that surprise the author.
[3] I was an English major, and I was always frustrated by that when it occurred in my classes.
[4] Chapter eight, Pentecost.
[5] Isaiah 55:11
[6] 1 Corinthians 12:7
[7] It seems prudent to note that, in order for a work of art to have its full effect, the consumer must also approach it with the understanding that if it has anything to say to him, it is probably about his own state, or about God, and not about the artist; once the piece is finished, the artist is nothing, though we can’t help but sense the piece of him that is in his work.  In the same way, we don’t read the Bible to study the men who wrote it.  We will, of course, learn something about them, but the primary purpose must be to learn about God (and our relationship to Him); and that not as we would make Him, but as He is.
[8] In all of this, I am differentiating between the spiritual interests of a consumer, and the technical interests of a student.  I am only concerned with the former, for whom the actual making of the piece has no real import; for the latter, the brush stroke is a legitimate focus, though the student is still unlikely to 'hear' anything from such an approach.
[9] This statement is related to, but not the same as, Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant analogy of the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker.
[10] The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

No comments:

Post a Comment