Heed the artists

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.

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2 thoughts on “Heed the artists

  1. So true Roy… and when you said: “…lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church…”
    in my reading I substituted “WBT” for “Church” and sadly remember so many creative friends too short stays within our org.

    • [sigh]

      You’re right, John. I enjoyed the tenure of Michael Harrar as artist-in-residence here for the last couple of years, but he’s one notable exception. Many have not fared so well.

      I’ve been art directing the design of the murals for the Children’s Ministry in our new church building. My intention was to find a group of artists and work with them, incorporating their ideas and styles to add variety. I finally took on the more creative pieces myself and scaled back my plans for lack of artists. Maybe some day we’ll draw some back to the church. It takes consistent openness to their ideas.

      For instance, we had a reggae performing artist join our worship team this week. I heard that a short elderly lady came up to the band afterwards and demanded their attention. Our worship pastor fully expected a tyrade… and got compliments. She loved the change of pace! We need a lot more of that, in our church and in our organization.

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