There’s No Right or Wrong (In Art)

By

“That’s the beauty of music and art is that there’s no right or wrong. Whichever way you paint the picture, you’re still painting the picture…” – Jonathan Chandler, vocalist – Amos the Transparent

I was speaking with some of the members of Amos the Transparent, an up-and-coming indie rock act (aren’t they all) out of Ontario, but since they’re not really the point here, I’ll stop the bio. Our conversation turned to the subject of creativity and the beauty of art in general when one of the guys said the line above. It’s something that I agree completely with, yet I often find myself responding in the opposite way to it.

“That’s not good enough!” That’s the common mantra in my head at most things I write. I can nod my head in an “Amen, sister!” sort of way when someone speaks a beautiful statement of “there is no right or wrong.” Then in a solitary confinement of my own making–surrounded by the smell of fresh coffee, the glow of my MacBook and the sounds of William Fitzsimmons–I become judge and jury to my own creative works, generally delivering a death sentence to each and every one of them.

We’re all our own worst critics. I hear that from countless artists I interview and I know the dozens of unfinished projects, essays, books and articles of my own speak to the same fact. Precious few walk this earth who can care less about the interior voices, who feel free to display their paintings or writings or speeches to the greater public without fear. The last time I unveiled something with a wide smile and brimming confidence probably coincided with my fifth birthday. Since then, it’s been a downhill slope of fear and frustration.

I go back to that quote however and love the way that Jonathan said it. Part of the beauty of art lies inside that freedom from the confines of what’s right or wrong, in or out. If I fail to find the freedom of that, then I lose the beauty of it–at least if the above statement is true. In other words, when I am lost in a pursuit of perfection and driving myself mad with an inability to “get it right,” I’m losing the beauty of what it is in the first place.

In the endless struggle to create beauty, I’m missing the beauty in front of me.

I’d love to be free again, or at the very least, to learn to be a bit more free. Of course, I want to work hard, develop my craft, hone my sentences and relentlessly edit. But often I simply shut the treasure chest and shove it back under the bed deeming all things unworthy of release–losing the beauty in the process.

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


19 Comments

  1. Linnea Lewis

    Excellent post, thank you! It reminds me that probably ten years ago, someone told me about a scientific report on creativity, and the conclusions showed that most children lose their “creativitiy” when they are 5 years old. The report went on to say that they believe this coincides with when most children start kindergarten, and when they are told to color within the lines. The beauty of art should always be in the making, the courage to try, whether it is painting, sculpting, writing, or cooking. Thank you for the reminder to continue to dare.

  2. Micah

    Hmmm, an interesting idea. But while there might not be any right or wrong in art, there certainly is a good and a bad. Of course, whatever way you’re painting a picture, you are painting that picture… but some ways you paint it will result in a better painting than others. Not just rules of composition, but actual objective standards for beauty.

  3. Loren Eaton

    I dunno, if there are no boundaries on art, there’s no way to weigh what’s cream and what’s … er, not. Perhaps it’s best to compose those first draft without any boundaries and then ratchet up the internal editor afterwards.

  4. Arthur Alligood

    So, are there no places that are off limits in art? Music comes to mind because many times we have composition and then we have lyrics draped over top it. I totally think there are no real fences as far as the music goes. There are no bad notes or chord progressions. However, I have always wondered if words somehow go by some other set of rules. Just a thought really. *Not sure if I’m totally being clear.

  5. Kurt McInnis

    If God is ultimate beauty, then, logically, whatever art most clearly reflects God’s biblical attributes naturally comes closest to capturing beauty.

  6. Linnea Lewis

    “There are no bad notes or chord progressions.” I agree that there is no good or bad, but there is dissonance, or genres that may not be to your taste. In the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, there is a painting of a canvas that is aprox 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide. The entire thing is painted WHITE. This particular flavor of art is not my cup of tea, but as I contemplated why someone would create this piece, a man said behind me, isn’t that beautiful? (in all seriousness), and went on about the exact shade of white…

    Art is what you make of it, or what you see. My god-daughter’s crayon drawing may not be museum quality, but it still hangs on my refrigerator and makes me smile. For every piece of art that someone questions whether it should or shouldn’t actually be art, there is someone else who doesn’t question.

  7. Ben Bryan

    It seems to me that art is much like living the Christian life. I know I struggle, and it sounds like you do too, Matt, with the inner artistic Pharisee. There is that little voice in your head that insists that what you’ve created isn’t good enough. That you haven’t measured up. This little inner Pharisee is certainly a liar. There are, however, two alternatives to the Pharisee: license and love.

    License throws out the rules and replaces them with nothing. This is what produces white squares on the wall of the sort Linnea has described, Britney Spears, and everything else worthless. This sort of art expresses nothing. It’s empty. If we can gather anything at all in such art about the human being that has created it, we cannot help but wonder if they have anything in their souls resembling the thoughts and feelings, the joys, loves, angers, fears, insecurities, etc, that pervade the rest of our lives.

    But there is another alternative to the rules: love. Love throws man-made rules out the window. As John tells us, there is no fear in love. Love expresses itself with freedom. But there are things that are unloving.

    Art as it should be expresses the sense of life of human beings striving to understand what it means to be and become more truly human. Art gives us a glimpse at the way a man sees or feels about the world, himself, others, God, etc. Art is a window into the soul. Sometimes, however, the soul is disturbingly empty. And this is what produces ugly art.

    But the creative Pharisee never worries about all of this. He misses the point. The creative Pharisee misses the heart of the creative endeavor that lies in the expression of the activity of souls of human beings who are trying to figure out what it means to be and become more truly human. He is more concerned with how “good” (oh how he has corrupted this word!) the particular expression is than whether the one doing the expressing is alive inside. Art must flow from a robust inner life. The creative Pharisee has forgotten this inner life.

    Granted, there is such a thing as skill. I may be able to write songs that express the struggles of a man fighting to learn what it means to live and to love, God, others, and himself, but I cannot do it with the skill that the artists I listen to do. That’s why I’m listening to them. They express well what I have trouble voicing, whether due to lack of lyrical or musical prowess. And sometimes such expression doesn’t require incredible skill. Why was B.B. King (or pretty much any great blues-man of your choice) great? Because he wrote great songs, or because he was an unusually excellent guitar player? Decidedly not. It was because every times he bends a guitar string and every time you hear that signature vibrato that only his fingers can produce, you get a glimpse of his soul.

    So it seems the solution, for those of us who tend to be artistic Pharisees, is to live. We have to be alive inside. And let music flow from us. Let life be our standard, not some qualms created by the Pharisee in our head.

  8. Rob Dunbar

    I think that sometimes what we mean when we say, “That’s not good enough!” is really: That won’t do what I want it to do. It won’t make people see, or feel, or understand what I want them to see, or feel, or understand. Art is, in the end, a way of speaking. We speak so that we can share.

  9. Tom

    To say that the work of human hands is neither right nor wrong does not seem to be compatible with the Bible. Am I missing something? It could be the case that I’m just jealous because I have no artistic ability 🙂

  10. Heather

    I think there are 3 parts to that question. Is it good or bad from God’s point of view? Is it good or bad from the public’s point of view? Is it good or bad from my own point of view (is it good enough for me, am I hurt that I CANNOT get it to do what I want, that God didn’t make me good enough for what I want to be)?

    As a visual artist, I spent way too long being focused on the second two and was freed when I started looking at it from God’s point of view (if you have ever seen Big Idea Studio’s “A Snoodle’s Tale” you will know what I mean.) The fact that God would gladly post my work on His fridge was a revelation to me and freed me to do my best and accept the outcome. Being free in art means being free in Christ, free to be exactly where I am and when I am and to do my very best with what He has given me at this very moment. As long as what I am creating and what I am doing is pleasing to Him then nothing else matters.

  11. becky

    I don’t think that this is a statement about moral absolutes. Yes, in the world of art there are moral rights and wrongs. I think that this statement is in comparison to something like mathematics. In math, there is always a right answer, and therefore every other answer is wrong. Regardless of whether or not I like my answer, or it says something about who I am, it is most often wrong. Math is black and white. Art is every color of the spectrum. It’s exploration of the questions, the possible answers, and my reponse to them. In art, if I come up with a different answer, or even a different question, that’s not only ok, but desireable. More creative. My technique may be poor, but even that is pretty subjective. What qualifies as good or bad technique? It is not objectively measurable in the way that mathematics is.

    Obviously, this is not how we should be looking at morality, or being “good”. We do have a standard by which to measure righteousness in our own lives. There are things that are morally wrong, according to the Bible, or which do not meet the mark set out by our rRuler. These standards apply to all areas of life, including creativity, because they measure our hearts. Yes, I think that there might be behaviors that some might call “art” which would be wrong, but I think that there is more room for error in what’s going on inside. My thinking may be “good” or “bad”, sound or completely off base. Is creativity my idol? Do I offer God less than the best that I am capable of producing? There are lots of pits for me to fall into. But they don’t have to do with what colors I use, or which brush I choose. They are matters of the heart. And if the heart of the mathematician is wrong, then he is “bad” even if he has all the right answers.

  12. Jason Van Bemmel

    If our creativity is rooted in God’s creativity, and we create as His image-bearers, then certainly there are boundaries. We cannot speak of something being beautiful without also meaning that it is “not ugly,” and thus we have an idea of the ugly in our minds, too. We cannot speak of music being harmonious, pleasing, well-suited, etc. without the understanding that it could have been cacophonous, distasteful and ill-suited. Because art and music also communicate meaning, then the manner in which they communicate can be faithful or not.

    This is NOT to say that everything should to be unimaginative or similar: Creation displays an astounding array of creative beauty and real ugliness (reminders of the fall?). I think it is at times healthy and right for artists to be their own worst critics, to continually push themselves toward excellence in their craft. We all benefit from it in the end.

  13. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I think for the purposes of the point Matt’s getting at, “right and wrong” should be replaced with “correct and incorrect”. Even then, though, the question of technique and craft is raised. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a book that ought to be on every writer’s shelf, a reminder that there are rules for usage that are ignored at the writer’s risk. (The book is hilarious, by the way–those two dudes talk about the English language like a drill sergeant barking orders at a new recruit–a stuffy British drill sergeant, no less. You can almost see them looking down their noses at you, adjusting their monocles with the hand that isn’t holding their teacup.)

    The same is true for tennis or painting or cooking. After you’re proficient at the right way to do things, you have the freedom to ignore the rules when you see fit–and sometimes it works. Part of what I love about our own Ron Block’s guitar/banjo playing with Alison Krauss is the restraint. The two notes he plays in this or that section have more gravity and are more beautiful because I know he has the mad skills to let loose if he wants. He’s learned the right way to do it, and so has earned, in a sense, the freedom to do it whichever way he wants. Discipline makes a way for freedom.

    Of course, that still probably isn’t the point Matt is making. He’s talking about the great freedom of artistic expression. A lot of songs have never been written because the writer was afraid the song had already been written, or it falls short of what he was shooting for. It’s good in most cases to silence those voices and push ahead, trusting your instinct (and the Spirit) to guide you. The piece may not be what you envisioned, or even what you’d prefer. But something, in many cases, is better than nothing. It can unstopper the plug that was holding back the creative flow, and then you can find the thing you were trying to create all along.

    What it comes down to is this: don’t be afraid.

    I’m saying this to myself right now, because I have five songs to finish before we leave to make the new album next week, and the juices just aren’t flowing like I wish they were. Fear creeps in and paralyzes. Fear tells me I should throw in the towel and record a bunch of Duran Duran covers, because what more do I really think I have to say? Faith, on the other hand, bids me look into the darkness and speak.

    Here goes nothing.

  14. Aaron Roughton

    We should all be praying for Andrew as he writes. I’d hate for him to get all his new songs wrong. But come to think of it, I’d love to hear a cover of The Reflex. But no, seriously, we should be praying for him.

  15. Aaron Alford

    Umm… Please could you record that? And maybe a cover of their cover of White Lines… a little banjo, a little dulcimer…it could work.

    Oh yes, and thanks, writers for reminding me to write.r

  16. Greg Warner

    I think you hit a good balance there, Andrew. The artist must have freedom to create, but to me that freedom is only really significant when it is gauged against certain standards of excellence or beauty. I love Michael Card’s quote of Francis Schaeffer in Art and the Bible: “He reminded us that we were free to create, as long as we remembered that we were slaves to Christ.” Art is about content, a message, plus a vehicle for delivery. Ultimately, the art that we have today is a result of the philosophies of the past, and we need to be informed about where we’ve come from, and to an extent the vehicles we choose paired with the essential content will paint, in visuals or sound, our worldview. It may testify to the beauty and order of God’s truth, or the chaos and darkness we see in the world, tempered by the reality of grace. So we are free to create, but true freedom can only be realized with boundaries given by the truth of reality. We may be “free” to paint a white painting (I saw some of the same at the Art Institute of Chicago), but if we paint it in a postmodern rebellion against any true beauty or meaning, we have torn through the truth boundary and violated freedom, and violated grace.

    Prayers with you on the new album, Andrew!

  17. Heather

    I think Greg has it. Where our heart is with God is going to influence the truth of our outcome. Something can be beautifully painted but if our heart is wrong then it is worthless in God’s eyes. On the other hand, something as simple as an all white canvas can speak to our hearts BECAUSE God is working through it to speak to us, and as the artist if our heart is with God then what we produce, regardless of its merit in the eyes of others, it is good.

  18. Margret

    Matt, Andrew, the lot of ya,

    You’ve once again managed to totally bless me! Thanks so very much! So wonderfully have you explored the subject that almost nothing else need be said. Almost…and that’s why I’m here!

    Having little schooling in music, I can’t (read: shouldn’t) comment about what’s correct and incorrect, except to say that not all of God’s feathered creation trills and warbles: some caw. This, I guess, puts their song stylings in the “beautiful noise” category. Also, not every animal has the same skill. A decade ago we were blessed to share two years of our lives with a beautiful Malamute mix. Zach loved to sing (as Malamutes do) and it was wonderful to hear. But when the pit bull next door tried, ever valiant, refusing to give up, it just sounded awful.

    Moving on to other expressions of art, in the early years of my photography, I learned one principle along with all the rules and regs of F-stops, lighting, and focal range: no matter how technically good the photo is, or how many people “ooh” and “ah”, if you don’t feel the same way when you see the finished product as you did when you looked through the viewfinder, it’s a failure and should be tossed. Granted, we now have Photoshop to “fix” errors, but this was nearly three decades ago, before this was common practice, and I still only use software to make my acceptable-to-me photos look different.

    We have been made in the image of Creator God. We also have been given creative dreams, visions, ideas, whatever, by the Holy Spirit and, in order to feel complete, we must do something with them. Will they always be good? No. Is it possible someone else’s “whatever” will be better than ours? Decidedly. Still, we cannot expect to have a fully satisfied life if we don’t at least try to bring those dreams to fulfillment.

    Examples? Okay. I think I have some form of dyslexia because, if I don’t write often enough, I forget how, my characters aren’t fully fleshed, and the dialogue sounds stilted. That discourages me, because I’ve loved to write since my elementary school years. It so bums me out that I sometimes shove those storylines aside for several years before I have the courage to revisit, edit, improve, proceed. I also love sewing and have some marvelous ideas for clothing designs, but don’t pursue them unless I cannot find them in a store (sewing is now an expensive proposition). I first sat down at a sewing machine 35 years ago, so you’d think it would be easy for me. Right…. Yet each time I purchase fabric, I must steel myself for the inevitable sessions with a seam ripper because, somewhere along the line, what I see interpreted by what I’ve learned doesn’t translate correctly and I have to try again. Again, discouraging…. But I’d much rather live as Coco Chanel recommended, “Be afraid but do it anyway.”

    Thanks again for the marvelous encouragement. Thanks for being who you are, wonderful children of God, and blessings to all who know you.

    All of Heaven’s best,
    Margret

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *