[This discussion is continued from yesterday’s post by Russ, “Creative Intent: What Are You Thinking?”]
…your thoughts about the questions Russ raises are fascinating. I’d love to add something equally fascinating to the discussion but I don’t think I can. I don’t think. Here’s what I do think.
Art, like the artist, and like the Artist (capital A), is mysterious.
There are a few ways to look at it. Maybe art is meant to be appreciated and interpreted privately, in the confines of your soul, where its work is most potent. Trying to nail the meaning of a piece of art down can be, frankly, like driving a nail into a piece of fine art. It’s like handling fine china: the more you turn it this way and that, the more chance there is that you’ll chip it. We can get so carried away looking for the meaning of the dandelion that we have forgotten to delight the simple, unpretentious, serendipitous beauty of the flower itself. There is a kind of art whose beauty is in its plenteousness. It pervades our days and makes them brighter and more bearable. Ron, you mentioned elevator music in an appropriately pejorative sense. In another way, though, God’s beauty is also littered all about, and it makes splendid what would otherwise be mundane.
There are songwriters (Katy Bowser for some reason comes to mind) whose music isn’t meant to be disseminated but enjoyed. Some of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s music (the jamming bluegrass songs like “Little Liza Jane”, for example) don’t mean something in the heady, beatnik, pipe-smoking way. They’re just beautiful splashes of light in the world, made by sub-creators who were compelled to make the musical equivalent of God’s dandelion or waterfall or gazelle. (I think contemporary Christian music is sorely lacking in this department. We’re so burdened with wanting every song to change the world that we’re not bothering to try and change the sad guy on the eighth row’s countenance. It’s hard not to smile when you listen to Chet Atkins play “Centipede Boogie”.)
But there’s another way to look at art, and I’m mainly going to be thinking of it from a singer/songwriter standpoint. I want my music to communicate. What drives me to make music is that I’m lonely. I’m (very) happily married, I have three (very) amazing kids, a good church, great friends, and yet I sometimes feel as lonely as a bone on a sand dune. I have Christ’s spirit in me, I believe (deeply) that there is a God and that he knows and loves me. But I’m hammered with doubt, sin that shocks even me, inconsistency, and the deep ache in my belly that reminds me that this world has yet to be made new. When I write songs (not the kid’s songs or the funny songs; those are to me like those simple, pretty dandelions) I want those songs to call out into the darkness and be heard by someone. I’m crying out in the hopes that someone will hear, and answer, and that that someone who also feels alone will be comforted. I’m looking for a connection between me and the audience. When they respond, when they applaud or feed me with that intangible sense of graciousness that tells me that they see who I am and that they like me anyway, I feel joy. I feel satisfaction. I feel God’s pleasure.
When I first started playing concerts, I felt a sense of urgency with my songs. I knew that I didn’t have a CD for them to take home and live with, so I only had one shot to communicate what I wanted to say. I worked to make sure that the point of the song was understandable on the first listen. Having a record takes some of that pressure off because you know (hope) the folks will listen to the CD again and again and what may not have been clear the first few times will snap into place finally and the listener will experience that “Aha!” moment that I so love in my favorite songs by Rich Mullins, Andy Gullahorn, Randall Goodgame, or the Weepies. For that moment to happen, though, there has to be an idea that the songwriter is trying to communicate.
There are so many different kinds of art. Some art communicates beauty. It doesn’t aspire to anything more, and that’s perfectly fine. Other art strives to communicate ideas, beautifully. (Some art doesn’t really try to communicate anything, and is called self-expression. This to me is self-important and vain. To create something for public consumption without a thought for the listener, without meeting him halfway, is like babbling in a nonsense language about how no one pays you any attention.)
I don’t want to beat the dandelion analogy into the ground (though it’s not really an analogy), but I think that God communicates to us in artistically diverse ways, too. He communicates beauty to us for its own sake in nature. His goodness is expressed in this, his eternal power and divine nature, as Kevin pointed out from Romans. We can look at the things God has made and infer that he is good. Rich Mullins: “The thing that’s cool about music is how unnecessary it is. Of all things, music is the most frivolous and the most useless. You can’t eat it, you can’t drive it, you can’t live in it, you can’t wear it. But your life wouldn’t be worth much without it.”
But then, God also communicates ideas, beautifully. Communion. Baptism. Marriage. There is a poetry in his sacraments that communicates a specific revelation that a dandelion could not.
God knows that we are a hard-headed, forgetful people, so he pares down the analogy of the seed descending and rising again and gives us baptism. We are lowered into the water and are raised again in a perfect picture of both our death to our old life and our rebirth to a new one and the promise of our resurrection to come.
He knows that it is hard for us to believe that the story that happened two millennia ago is true so God gives us communion so that we might remember that it was real, palpable flesh and blood that Jesus sacrificed. He knows that we are hungry and need to be filled, that we need to be reminded in communion both that he is the king and that his outrageous love invites us to feast with him at his table.
His love for us is a sacrificial love, and we were made to be lifted up only when we lay ourselves down, so he gives us marriage. He invites us to be bound to him, and him to us, he teaches us about covenant and dying to self and abiding love and deep affection.
These two kinds of art–the flowers and the sacraments–communicate and express and create; they remind us that we are not abandoned; they can evoke sadness or gratitude or joy or sorrow; they enrich our days; they summon our thoughts to higher things, deeper things, holy things.
This is what art can do. What it should do.
The finest artists the earth has ever known have failed to come close to creating something as remarkable as a dandelion. Still, we fumble along, making because we have been made, tethering the worlds of our imaginations to earth in stories and pictures and songs, and our father in heaven is glad.
I don’t know if this answers any of the original questions, but there’s my left-handed, non-mathematical brain’s answer.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.