There is a beautiful song by Duke Special called This is all that matters, from his album Under the Dark Cloth. It begins:
I might not have held you
the perfect embrace was
a gesture that I couldn’t find.
The bird which resides
on the edges of space will
agree that I was not unkind.
Mine is a spirit which won’t be contained
in a castle, cathedral or jail.
Truth is elusive but I will remain
though I stumble and flicker and fail.
I lived under the dark cloth
nothing else matters at all
following visions of heaven,
nothing else matters, nothing else matters at all.
The album was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and was inspired by the life and work of three great American photographers: Stieglitz, Steichen & Strand (who all lived, so to speak, ‘under the dark cloth’ behind the camera). This song, the last on the album, is a defence of a life lived for art and creativity at the expense of all that might have been brought to relationships.
It’s not an unfamiliar idea, that those precious gifted few (the artists) must be allowed to create, to give to the world, to transcend convention and respectability and even morality, in order to pursue the higher ideals of their art. We cannot hold them to the same standards of behaviour as the rest of us; for they are free spirits who must not be contained. If they want to act in a fairly shoddy manner to their nearest and dearest, or even the world at large, it’s ok, they have a greater purpose. “Truth is elusive but I will remain” – and their lasting contribution will shape and enrich and change the world.
“Nothing else matters”.
I have had this song in my head over the past few days, since reading a blog post which my friend Hannah showed me, asking why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers (and then its follow-up post, both on patheos). The central argument of the blogs seemed to be that religion fosters stability, strong relationships and encourages people to think alike, all of which factors are likely to pull against creative impulses which challenge consensus and cultural norms and practices and force us out into new ways of thinking.
So of course conventionally religious people can never be as creative as non-religious, because by definition they are committed to…well to commitment and keeping things running. And being nice.
The two arguments (from the blog and the song) aren’t exactly the same, but they are related. They want to tell us that being a great artist, a great creative, can never really be compatible with the kind of regular goodness we might see as accessible to the normal human being (especially the religious one, but the argument seems compatible with most versions of conservatism). We have to choose – let them be great, or ask them to meet our standards both of convention and morality. Or even for ourselves – will we aspire to creative genius or being a good mum/wife/daughter/friend/church-member/whatever.
Now I have never believed myself to be a great artist. I never grew up believing I was one of those precious few, the free spirits, the real creatives. I was told repeatedly that I wasn’t. But interestingly, it never occurred to me that what disqualified me from their ranks was my faith, or religious way of life. In my mind it was just my personality (and my lack of talent).
I remember at drama school being asked by several other Christians – is it hard for you as a Christian, being in a place like this, being asked to explore all kinds of weird (implication: immoral) material? I was always surprised. No, actually, I felt like I had a brilliantly secure anchor in God which freed me to explore all kinds of crazy ideas and characters and techniques without fear. I’m not saying I never hit any boundaries of where I would go, but they were rare.
I’m not writing from the perspective of a great artist, but over the years I have had this persistent niggle about the kind of argument that underpins Duke Special’s song and a lot of the thinking behind those blogs.
It is articulated in part by an interesting aside in the second of the two blogs which highlighted how the sociologist Max Weber had distinguished between conventional and radical forms of religion. The blogger, Connor Wood, summarised:
In its radical manifestations, religion is a raging geyser of creativity, breaking down cultural barriers and tearing away at established lifeways. In its routinized form, religion is the stable, plodding foundation for everyday family and economic life. It organizes people’s relationships, stimulates in-group cooperation, and streamlines the countless social processes that undergird life.
I think this is a fascinating attempt at a distinction (and makes radical religion sounds way cooler), but at a guess I’d say that most of the religious communities I have been part of have had features of both manifestations. I’ve always been drawn towards convention-disturbing, risk-taking, tradition-busting faith groups, but there is still always an anchor, always a pull towards community and togetherness and conversation over lone-ranger activity.
What I’m really getting at is that I think it’s a totally false dichotomy to set ‘being a great artist’ against ‘being a great human being’, in the sense of being deeply connected to others in committed relationships, pursuing goodness and overcoming our selfishness (my own rough definition). I don’t think we let artists go “too far” by asking them to pursue their vision and ideas whole-heartedly, I think we ask them to stop short by divorcing this from their character and from community. We’re all called to something better.
Or, as Connor Wood puts it:
So bland art just doesn’t do it for me. But neither does the blasted, lonely life of a countercultural rebel who despises religion and tradition. I want both real meaning and real creativity. And I think our society could use both, too.