An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 8, 2009

Over the past couple of years, my artistic process has increasingly involved collaboration. Sometimes I’ve worked with other artists, but most often I have worked alongside friends and family members: people who are deeply invested in me and in my work, but who would not ordinarily identify as artists. And I’ve struggled for a while to give words to the deep rightness I sense in collaborating with non-artists — a significance that goes beyond the simple pleasure of doing something I love in the presence of people I love.

I’ve long been bothered by the specialization of art — the notion that only a chosen few should have the power to create objects and meaning, and that their efforts should be appreciated and interpreted by a similarly-elite class of curators and critics. And what happens beyond this charmed circle who have been initiated into the complex code of contemporary visual meaning? We don’t know, and we don’t care, the contemporary art world seems to say.

So cheerfully inviting non-artists into the artistic process is a satisfyingly concrete rebuttal to the image of the solitary artistic genius. The work we produce is no longer the product of my own genius (if I do possess any genius, it hasn’t surfaced yet), but of relationship and cooperation. And the art itself no longer belongs to the cloistered elite, but to the whole of the community — to the critics, yes, but equally to the priests and students and farmers and auto mechanics.

That, to me, is art worth making.

Coming soon: thoughts on the difference between excellence and elitism — does accessibility come only at the expense of quality?


3 Responses to “An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 1”

  1. ccematson said

    Are you reading Scott Walters’ blogs on bringing art back into the hands of the community?

    If you’re not, you should be.

  2. Alida said

    I find myself on both sides of this question constantly. On one hand, I certainly strive for excellence, and I feel that the marginalization of quality over content, particularly in Christian circles, has done a huge disservice to both the church and the arts. We need to push for excellence and take back the arts from the idea that “if I’m doing it for God, I don’t need to be good, because it’s all about him and not about my talent anyway.”

    On the other hand, I work with a lot of volunteers. It’s a challenging role, and I can’t do it as a full-time job, but there’s a certain groundedness that comes with it. As much as the arts are my life, my way of worship, my passion, the foundation for so many of my relationships–they’re not that way for everyone, and I can easily find myself getting elitist about it.

    Leading a church drama ministry (which is a job that I sometimes gloss over or put in prettier terms, because it carries its own stigma, even in the faith-based theatre community), my goal is for everyone to grow as an artist and in their knowledge of the arts and faith. Whether it’s someone who has never set foot onstage before or a professional artist who volunteers in the church as a way of worship and giving back to the community, there is growth, and it’s my job as a producer to find a way to stretch every single one of them while still using their talents and gifts.

    I’m also a huge believer in auditioning people to be involved in church ministry. Not everyone has the chops to be a worship leader on Sunday morning or to have the lead in the play. That’s not to say that their passion is invalid or that their worship is less, but I think that leading demands quality, and sometimes we have to be the bad guys who say no, your gifts don’t fit here. Your passion might, but your gifts don’t. And then the key is helping them to find a place where their gifts and passion intersect.

  3. Sarah Jane said

    Alida, I think you got it exactly right when you said that leading demands quality. We never want to discourage people from expressing their personal worship in whatever way they feel called, without concern for their gifts or ability levels.

    And when it comes to leadership and service, I think you’re right also that we need to help people find places where their gifts are needed — perhaps even to actively create roles where a diversity of gifts can shine. And we probably also need to learn how to better appreciate everyone who serves — to acknowledge the invisible sound dude as much as the charismatic worship leader, and to celebrate the unassuming library volunteer as enthusiastically as the outspoken community organizer.

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