Art only works if it has an audience. It is necessarily public. People can creatively express themselves in private, but for that creative expression to be a genuine artwork, it must communicate, which means that it must be read, watched, heard or seen. Therefore, it is no surprise that in our art practice, our focus is on the public face: the stage, the page, the exhibition, the release.
However, in all of this there is a danger. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against giving to the needy, fasting and praying in a very public way and to be admired by others, but instead to do these things ‘…in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.’ (Mt 6:4,6 and 18).
Of course the context is very different, but the warning still carries some force for artists. If our attention is overly drawn to the public we may well miss the things behind closed doors, that God may well view as most important. Lying beneath and behind our artwork are all sorts of private things that God not only sees, but rewards, and I sometimes wonder whether it is in these secret, unseen interactions and practices that God often does his most long lasting work in us and, even through us.
One of these private things is the relationships we make through our work.
Loving others throughout the artistic life
When we make a piece of work, we endeavour to establish a relationship with an audience, but there are plenty of relationships that go into the production of the work itself. This may involve the collaborative relationships that help bring the work to life, or possibly the relationships with those you work with along the way (with the event promoter, the publisher, the person behind the sound desk, etc).
My conviction is that our primary calling in our art is the same as our primary calling in our lives in general: to love others.
Roger Scruton, the aesthetic philosopher, put this excellently regarding our artistic output:
‘It is certainly a failing of a work of art that it should be more concerned to convey a message than to delight its audience.’
I don’t think that all work should aim to ‘delight’ people in the short term (work could be concerned with immediately provoking, warning, shocking or consoling its audience) – however if we take his general point to mean that our work should be made with a desire for the increased well-being of our audience, then I fully agree. In other words, our work should be done in a spirit of love and kindness.
Perhaps, though, it is even more important to live this calling out behind the scenes of our work.
I had direct experience of this in a band I used to be part of. We recently released a remastered version of our debut album, to mark its 20th birthday. I’d not listened to the album much in the last decade, and spending some time with it again caused many unexpected reactions.
It was strange hearing the voice of my 20 year old self again, and to reflect on ways in which I’ve changed or stayed the same. It brought back to mind the events that surrounded the recording and release of the album (the feeling of total joy to find out that DJ Pelt was willing to work with us, overloading on Tetris during recording sessions, arguing about which vocal takes to include… that sort of thing). It also compelled me to think about the value of the work. What did it matter? Was it time well spent, writing, recording, releasing and gigging this album?
I loved being part of Michaelis Constant. It is genuinely one of the highlights of my life, and I thought we did a pretty good job. Our music got reviewed well in the hiphop magazines I grew up reading, we got to play live with most of the bands I most enjoyed listening to and I was pleased, listening back to the album, that I still like listening to it, and I know there were other people who did too. However, I wonder whether one of the most important parts of our legacy happened away from the stage or the recording sessions.
When we started the band, my friend Rich, who was a producer and rapper in the group, wasn’t a follower of Jesus. By the time we broke up, he was. I still remember the time we were praying together during a band practice and Rich, I think for the first time, chipped in by praying himself. ‘God, thank you that I can thank you,’ he said. It was a simple but deeply profound prayer.
If all Michaelis Constant ever achieved was that prayer, I think it would have been enough.
Achieving the Unexpected
I saw something similar to this recently while watching a live video of Kanye West’s Use this Gospel. I’m sure you’ll know the headlines by now: Kanye West releases gospel album, talks to anyone who’ll listen about his conversion to Christianity, sends critics scurrying to admire or decry his new direction. It’s all very brash, very public, very Kanye.
But there are unseen stories going on behind the hype, and in this video you get a tiny glimpse of one of them. This song is notable because it is the first song that the lauded hip-hop group Clipse have appeared on since 2009. Clipse is/was comprised of two brothers, Pusha T and Malice, but after the release of their third album, Malice became a Christian (soon after, changing his name to No Malice) and the band broke up. No Malice and Push continued to release music, but they were clearly no longer on the same page, with No Malice wearing his newfound Christianity on his sleeve, and Pusha T’s content continuing to be unrepentantly ‘street’, often revolved around drug dealing.
Since the group broke up, Push has worked extensively with Kanye West. In 2015, he was made president of G.O.O.D Music, the label that Kanye had founded.
Fast forward to now. Kanye has become a Christian himself and is releasing gospel music. It is the perfect opportunity to unite the two brothers and bring Clipse back together. Thus: Use this Gospel.
So, you up to speed? Good. With all this in mind then check out the video. Kenny G does his sax thing then the music kicks in, and it’s all pretty immense and spectacular. Push fumbles his verse and there are some mic problems and then No Malice steps up and raps, with Push vibing along and providing the overdubs. Then at 3:53, No Malice puts his arm around his brother and closes with the line “hold on to your brother when his faith’s lost”.
I’ve got to be honest, that’s a tears-in-the-eye moment right there. For all the Megachurch performances, Apple Music interviews, over 200 million streams, worldwide number 1s, there is an almost unseen story of two brothers who have found a way to reconnect and make music again together. If that’s not enough, one of them can use this new platform for collaboration to tell his bro about his affection for him and his desire to see him come to faith in Jesus.
Please, don’t forget the relationships behind your work. Don’t get so focussed on the audience that are out there, that you forget to love those around you in the process of making. Maybe it’s in these unseen interactions, conversations and friendships that God really wants to work.