April 4th, 2011 – by Bethany Tobin
For the past two years, I have spent a lot of time holed up in my studio staring fearfully at blank pieces of paper. I’ve had my life-long dream of time, studio space, and the vision of expressing the beautiful truths of the universe – the generative love of the Trinity! Yet making art has been such a struggle. I have learned that the more I expected instant perfection, the more I was paralyzed. The more I was driven to produce success, the more miserly and contrived my work became. The lesson of this year is that making art is really about practice and unproductivity, working with imperfection, being willing to be vulnerable and open to risk and surprise. In short: Making art is only possible when one is willing to fail. And in an interesting symmetry, I find that the method looks like the beautiful truth it wants to express: Kenosis (self-emptying) is the source of generative love.
Our willingness to be vulnerable and risk it all is what allows us to create something new and make something more. Failure isn’t the end of the world, it is the opportunity to learn and grow. If you don’t have a theology of failure, you’ll end up burning out or devastated when you inevitably wake up to a mistake. We do what we are called to do not because we can do it perfectly, but because even in failure, we believe it is worth doing and that in doing our best God is honored.
What about productivity? A phrase caught my attention months ago and it’s been ruminating in my mind ever since. The phrase was, “You either contemplate or exploit.” (Andy Crouch, In “Andy Crouch: Love and the Risk of Innovation” in Faith and Leadership Newsletter, November 23, 2010). And it struck me that I was exploiting my art for my own sake (my progress, accolades etc) instead of listening to and valuing art for itself and what art inherently can do in the world. When art becomes about success (impressing people or making money) it stops being about the art, and the heart goes out of it. In that sense, art is for its own sake. You’ve got to make art for the love of making art because that’s the only way you’ll want to practice your craft. To practice our crafts, we have to have an attitude of gratuity: to “waste” time on work that will never leave the basement.