Does Meaningless Art Still Matter?

“If children can build sand castles without getting sandcastle block, and if ministers can pray over the sick without getting holiness block, the writer who enjoys his work and takes measured pride in it should never be troubled by writer’s block” – John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 137

The past few weeks, I have struggled with understanding why I make art through writing. Writing is hard for me for this reason. I am still trying to understand it, but if you are struggling yourself with wondering why you do this, I have been digging deep into this question for better understanding.

What is art, and why is it hard?

Writing is easy. You sit down–or stand, whatever you like–and you type one word at a time until you have a lot of words. It is simple, fun, and free-flowing.

You will rarely hear the sentence above without a hint of sarcasm. Because we all know that writing is hard. But look at the sentence again. It sounds easy, right? What makes it so hard?

By “hard,” I don’t just mean difficult. We do difficult things all the time without it making us want to bury our heads and cry. Writing well is difficult, at least for most people, in that it takes time, knowledge, practice, practice–and plenty of neck strain. But writing is hard because of all of the things that writers do when not writing–the things that often keep us from writing. Things like “writer’s block,” a.k.a self-doubt. So–maybe it is not writing, but being a writer, that is so hard.

When you say that you are something, then you must do it. But to do it, you have to believe in it, trust it, and trust yourself. Writers don’t give their eight hours a day and get a paycheck. We don’t know if that’s ever coming. So we have to make it worth our time even if we don’t get paid. And lots of writers will say that there is so much value in writing for the sake of writing, and that should be enough, but I think most writers want to believe there is more to it. Not just at a monetary level, either. Our society is in love with monetization, and I can’t exclude myself from that. The first thing I thought when I learned how to crochet was, “How can I make money doing this?” In other words, “How can I make this ‘worth’ my time? How can I justify all these hours that I want to spend crocheting?”

Many artists have some way of doing this. Giving art as gifts is a big and honorable one. Hanging it up on the wall as decoration or sharing it on social media are others. As a writer, I want to make my writing “worth” it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love writing–I do. I can’t escape it. I finished my first book as an adult two weeks ago, and I’m already missing that sweet time at the computer where I can let go of my concerns for a little while. But the amount of time that I gave to this novel was almost equivalent to a part-time job, and the thought that I might be “wasting” my time is a massive drawback.

What really makes writing hard for me, then, is not that I don’t love it or that it is too difficult. When I’m writing, I’m loving it. When I’m not writing–I’m doubtful, angry, confused, frustrated. I feel selfish. I feel worthless.

Whenever I feel that way, the question that really bugs me–that makes my head feel like it’s stuffed with cotton and makes me want to quit–is why. Why make art at all?

But to get to the bottom of why art, I have to first understand what is art?

Some say art is purely expression, which means it is art if it came from someone’s consciousness. This definition is not determined by how difficult this process was, only that it expresses the individual. Another definition would be that art is a skill. Art takes years of training, time, effort, and, often, a measure of “natural” talent.

Both of these definitions are based on the creator more than the result. Expression comes from an individual, and the art, without that individual, may not be communicated. Other definitions rely on the art itself. A book, for instance, is judged by its contents rather than what the author intended to express or communicate. Art is judged by its effectiveness in doing what that particular “genre” of art is meant to do. But then we have many types of art that are completely different in their function. A protest song is art, but so is a hotel painting of a vase of flowers. A literary novel about racism in the 1940s is art, but so is an intricately crafted coffee mug.

And then you have something called animal art, which is when an elephant or a monkey tosses paint on a canvas. Or baby art. You have functional art, too, like architecture, vs. nonfunctional art, like films. But not all functional things are art, and not all non-functional things are art.

I’m writing this without really knowing any definite answers, and I’m positive I’ve left out some major definitions. Merriam Webster dictionary describes art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects,” or the “works so produced.”

With all of these subjective definitions, there is only one thing I can find in common:

Art is something that has been created with an intent other than pure function. 

Note that this definition assumes that something functional can or cannot be art depending on its nonfunctional value. A salad, for instance, can be healthy and well-crafted without being art. But when a chef creates that salad in such a way that its purpose is not only to be functional as a healthy salad but also tastefully surprising and beautifully arranged, that chef has created art.

Does nonfunctional art matter?

But, like a child, I can’t help myself from asking, Why?

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes, “No motive is too low for art” (135). No matter what reason an artist wants to create, Gardner thinks it is enough.

I was skeptical about this. But something interesting happens if you reverse that phrase. It becomes,”No art is too low for your motives.”

Art is worth it.

Why?

The questions become more and more existential, don’t they? No wonder I feel debilitated as an artist–I can’t do anything without questioning my own existence! As a Christian, I have been raised believing that everything I do must have extraordinary purpose. In other words, everything is evangelism. One must do everything “for God,” or “for evangelism.” Maybe this is why the purpose of art is so difficult for me grasp. Where is the evangelism in fantasy?

One could talk about C. S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia include a retelling of the Christ story, but even Lewis has said that these Christian elements came up not before his invention of Narnia but “pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” On Other Worlds, 57). It was not evangelism. It was creation at its purest. Yet, look at the title of Lewis’s article–“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.” Lewis recounts his realization that fantasy helped him “steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of [his] religion in childhood” (58). When feeling a certain way about God was a requirement, he could not do it. “But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping the of their stained-glass Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could” (58-59).

I still don’t think he would call this “evangelism.” Rather, this art was a means to an emotion about God for the existing believer. Lewis emphasizes how writing a good story was not even about “commenting on life,” but about how how “good stories…are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience” (“On Science Fiction,” Of Other Worlds, 111).

Isn’t this what a painter at her purest is doing? Yes, many paintings comment on life, and some are even made for evangelical purposes, but other paintings, instead, add to life. They help you see something in a way you haven’t seen it before, or create an emotion you can’t even explain. They don’t have a communicative purpose, but an aesthetic or emotional one. And no one says to the painter that she wasted her time because she didn’t “say” anything with her art.

But why do we have this desire in us at all?

Why do I have this desire in me to make a story out of nothing, to shape words into mushroomed woodlands, or thoughts into a moss-covered woman who misses a child she’s given away? Why would I not only imagine this but want to spend a year inside of it, wrestling with it, feeding myself to it?

Why make any art at all?

In my search, few things resound with me so perfectly as Tolkien’s words in his essay On Fairy Stories:

“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

For Tolkien, creating Secondary Worlds was an act of sub-creation–a mimicking of the Creator. It could be said that the drive to make any art has been instilled in us because we are made to be like our creator, and therefore we create.

Equally interesting is how Tolkien felt about art in light of the Christian story, which he compares to a fairy story. Through the narrative of redemption, he writes, “Art has been verified” (15). What man longs for in art–a kind of redemption–has been made complete. That the Christian story is so complete and joyous and perfect does not mean more stories should not be told. Instead, it compels us to create. “So great is the bounty with which [man] has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (15).

Tolkien, like Lewis, believes art, or sub-creation, adds to life. From the outflow of God’s goodness, we bubble up more goodness and beauty. We, as Adam and Eve were first commanded to do, tend to the garden. We nurture it. We make it beautiful.

It was after the Fall that our work became hard. Not difficult, for surely tending to the garden and animals was difficult. But now it is a burden. To make art–to give ones’ time to something so seemingly meaningless and non-functional–is to go back to the garden. It is to remember that work serves life and not the other way around. We work to live, and art is a part of living. That is not to say that art is the most important “work,” but that it is one of the things we work for, or work towards.

C. S. Lewis, when describing how the life of Heaven will differ from Earth, writes that what is frivolous here, in a world where we are “cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties,” is actually the closest we can come to understanding the “Ends of the ends” of a “better country” (Letters to Malcom, 124-125). He ends with this: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (125). In Heaven, dance and play are all an essential part of being. Here, we only get tastes of that. That is okay. Even Lewis understands that it would be a “truancy” if we only danced and played all day, because that is not what we are here to do. But that does not mean we should look down upon dancing and playing while we are here.

Of course, Lewis isn’t just talking about dancing and playing. He is talking about widening our view of God and our lives. This is what art can do. It can slow us down and remind us who we really are–children made in the image of a Creator.

In an older post about why I write, I concluded that I create in order to be created (Creating to Be Created). I write because it shapes me. I write because there are images and emotions in my head that are bubbling up.

Yes, I write because I want to be read. Who would paint a picture and hide it in their closet? And yes, if I could get paid to write, that would be nice, since writing is art as well as work. More and more I am learning that artists do not have to starve in today’s world. But today I needed the reminder that I could create without guilt or feeling that I am wasting my time.

When I create, I want to add beauty to the world while partaking in an act that I can only think of as spiritual. Like Tolkien and Lewis, I want to write stories that offer new experiences and wonder and hope. I want readers to feel their viewpoints broadening and their courage expanding.

As I write this now, I know this is a long post, and I know that few will read it. But that’s okay. Today, I’m writing this because writing is hard, but it’s caught me, and there’s no escaping. All I can do is wrestle with these doubts until I remember why.


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