Making Authentic Art

Art making requires a willingness to put ourselves in front of people. Whether the art leads to a stage, a dinner table full of guests or a gallery in downtown New York, making art is a social enterprise. So, if we are to make honest, authentic art, we must develop a healthy relationship with those who engage our work. This, at times, requires taking an unpopular stance and exploring ideas and methods not considered by those around us. Historically, artists who have been willing to make this leap have most always led the way in breakthrough and innovation but not without facing criticism, opposition and outright rejection along the way. 

At the end of WWII when abstract expressionists broke away from the predominant forms of realism and began painting shapes and swaths of meandering colors, critics refused even to acknowledge their works as art, saying "these were the scribblings of children." 

Abstract artist, Wassily Kandinsky had his paintings spat upon they were so revolting to his initial viewers. Expressionist painter, Barnett Newman was told he was no more than a house painter and continued to face criticism throughout his career. Today, however, Kandinsky's works are on display at the Guggenheim while Newman is viewed as one of the most innovative artists of his time. This type of story is atypical. In fact, it's the norm. 

As a rule, people prefer the familiar above the strange. Understanding new ideas requires more of us, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The commonplace is less taxing than uncertainty and feels safer. We don't have to think as much as when we are in uncharted territory. Its the difference between driving through a new city as opposed to the neighborhood we grew up in. The familiar requires less of us but the strange offers new experiences. 

Traditionally, people want something trustworthy and reliable, something their peers will give an approving nod to. But when it comes to art-making, this need for approval can clash with the artist's proclivity to venture into the unknown and to question long-held beliefs concerning life and truth. Those pioneers of art movements throughout history, not only in visual art but music, poetry and the like, are those who continued in their work despite the most severe critique from their peers. Many of them, including Kandinsky, Newman, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Handel, Bach, and an entire canon of others, went on to be heralded as geniuses in generations to come. Its almost archetypal. What the mainstream rejects, flourishes in the underground and what we see flourishing in the underground today is likely to be the seed of what will be popular ten years or more down the road.

Given this tension between the artist's radical vision and the conventionality of the general public, there is a particular tenacity every honest artist must carry. There is a hurdle we each have to face at some point or other in our journey of creative expression. Anyone who sets out to create authentic works of art must be willing to accept standing apart from the crowd as a normal part of the process. 

Early in my own experience, I recall having the sense, God was asking me, "Stephen, are you willing to be misunderstood to go where I am sending you?" In my zeal, I answered in my most Isaiah the prophet-like voice, "Yes, Lord. I will go." But walking out that conviction has been a bit less romantic. 

Most of my closest friends at the time were aspiring worship leaders. They wrote songs for Sunday services and gatherings of like-minded believers. I loved to write worship songs and sing with the congregations as well, but no matter how much I tried to fit my songs into the mold, my songwriting naturally led back to esoteric, metaphorical poetry, odd-metered rhythms and minor chord progressions that didn't elicit the same emotional response as your typical praise song. My music yearned for expression within a broader demographic while maintaining the same heart of worship. 

I played a batch of my "Sunday" songs to one of my music producer friends and he gently exhorted me, "These songs are great, but they sound like Stephen doing what he thinks the church expects him to do." His words cut me to the core but also enabled me to make the album I always wanted to make without fears of rejection or failure haunting me. 

Making the art we really want to make requires a willingness to go past the accepted, the popular and the familiar but the reward of authenticity is much greater than shallow strokes of approval.