And the stew tastes good
Art is always a thing of its own moment. Not in a postmodern, deconstructive sense, but in the simple reality that it is created when it is created, and not at some other time. I first conceived this post walking home from Hastings last night – I’d spent the evening preparing to teach a class at church this morning. Ideation, then, happened in a particular environment (walking down a sidewalk beside a reasonably busy street) at a particular time (between 9:15 and 9:30 pm on a Saturday night). More than that, however, it happened this Saturday night after that study. Had I been thinking another night, or after some other study, I would have thought different thoughts.
And for that matter, had I written this post on arriving at home last night, it would have been a rather different post than the one I write now. I would have chosen different words to express the same point; I would have made different emphases and, to wax poetical for a moment, it is likely my voice would have been colored by night instead of by early morning. Anyone who writes much knows what I mean: the environment itself shapes the way the words come out. The dark before dawn is different than the dark at 9pm, which is different again from the dark of midnight, which is still different from the deep silent blacks of 3am. Each of them touches the soul in its own way; and so each of them shapes the words that spring from the soul in its own way. Having slept matters, and so does not having slept. Food in the stomach, or not, and the sort of food if so, affects brain chemistry – not to mention mood; if it was good food, all the better, and if it was bad…
Because art springs from artists, it cannot help but be shaped in just the same ways the artist himself is. This is obvious, at least on a superficial level, as regards our influences: composers cannot help but be influenced by the music to which they listen, architects by the buildings they see and especially those they study, and so forth. (More on this below.) I think it is less widely observed just how much those other, smaller details alter the outcome of our efforts. When my mood is foul, my writing will be affected in some way. The precise manner in which it is affected will vary widely; sometimes the expiatory act of writing will clear my mind and the writing itself acquire a force it would not have otherwise had; and sometimes the foulness of my mood will drag the writing down with it. The effects are not readily predicted, but they are real and they are profound.
An artistically astute friend of mine (Levi Wall, whose poetry you really ought to be reading) noted that this “presentness” is one of the interesting phenomena of art that is readily overlooked. When I was working on 52 Verses – an abortive attempt to write at least one poem every week – I built the site so that it displayed only one poem at a time. Levi noted that this emphasized the “nowness” of the poem, and thus highlighted the very way the artistic process works. Had I really wanted to emphasize that, I’d have made the poems unavailable after the week in which they were posted – an experiment I’d still like to try at some point in the future. Using the form and medium in which art is presented to reinforce the message of the art is another of my great fascinations.
More recently, Stephen Carradini highlighted another way in which art is temporal. One of my posts on Ardent Fidelity was, as Stephen put it, a “grand slam” – cogent, powerful writing that spoke incisively on an interesting topic. It is one of the best things I have written. If only I could write that well every time – but just how posts like that happen is mysterious to say the least. Sometimes everything just works. Stephen’s comment on this phenomenon was interesting: I didn’t really write that post last week. I wrote it over the last two years.
The ideas that finally found their expression in An Aspen in a Forest of Pines are not ideas that first occurred to me only two days before I wrote the post. I have spoken and written about them, in less coherent ways, off and on for a couple years. Rachel Hill’s piece in The Atlantic was merely the congealing agent that brought together years of studying the Bible, talking with friends, reading various blogs and books, chewing on Earthen Vessels, and thinking hard about the ways the church has related to sex. The congealing agent was necessary, but it was simply the piece that made the rest of the puzzle fall together. (Or at least: this section of the puzzle.)
Art, then, or artistic acts (an essay on the church and asexuality is not art, precisely, but it may be artistic), are not quite the spontaneous acts they superficially seem. They germinate, stew, bubble up from the cauldron of our many influences. Returning here to my earlier point: it is obvious that the art we consume shapes the art we produce. What is less obvious is just how that shaping occurs.
For example: none of the hubbub over the release of Mark and Grace Driscoll’s book on marriage (and sex) induced me to write anything at all. Looking back, however, I can see how it was one more piece in the puzzle as my brain worked on a problem I had subconsciously set it years before: how should Christians think about and act in the realm of sexuality? This is not by any means a problem I have resolved, of course – but I have made some progress in my own mind along the way, and much of that progress has been invisible to me as it happened. You won’t find a reference to the Driscolls in that piece on asexuality, but their thoughts on sex touched it nonetheless. Likewise, there is no mention of Dallas Willard or Richard Foster, not even an allusion to Lewis or Chesterton, and so forth. But they’re all in there, adding flavor to the particular morsel I pulled up from the souppot.
And of course, so are Bach and Hans Zimmer and Brooke Fraser and Taylor Swift, becaus writing is not merely influenced by other writing. No art stands in a vacuum; it is always interacting with all the other kinds of art going. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the intersection of architecture and music. Tomas Luis de Victoria’s stunning choral works would make no sense at all in a modern church building, but then neither would a rock band cause any response but otological pain. It is more than this, though. De Victoria’s pieces are shaped not only by the spaces in which they sound right, but by the very visual stylings of the buildings in which they were meant to be sung. The same is true in reverse, as well: the buildings are shaped, soaringly vertical and magnificently open, to match the music.
In both cases, the art reflects something of the culture at broad – in this case, the sense of the resplendence and refulgence of God the creatives understood their art to be in service of. But they were shaping their culture, too, because the act of creation marks on the world even as it is marked by it. The cathedrals remain along with the music that inhabited them, and they still shape our culture; even our rejection of those forms is shaped by their existence. We are – inescapably – people of the present chiseled out by our mothers and fathers.
People are right, then, to comment that the best artists are those with a broad knowledge of the world and a great deal of reading and studying and listening. By and large, however, we miss the reasons why these things are shaping us, reducing them primarily to information. The act of ideation is not simple as simply and directly responding to our influences. Synthesizing our influences into something new is partly conscious, but partly unconscious. Though I have listened to more Hans Zimmer than any other composer in the last five years, you will be hard pressed to find anything in my music that sounds particularly like him. Yet I have no doubt his influence is pervasive in shaping the musical landscape I mentally inhabit (for better or for worse). When I sit to compose, I never think, “Let me imitate/reject Zimmer today!” But he is there nonetheless, and will be to the day I die even if I never listen to another note of his oeuvre.
The same is true of every book, blog post or journal article I read; every movie or television show I watch; every video game I play (and every board game, too); every conversation I have with friends; every sermon and every lecture I hear; every building I walk into; every fashion and unfashion; and every landscape, every tree, every sunset-blazing sky. So I choose my sources wisely, and choose them widely, and try to remember to be surprised by the way Orion chases Venus in late spring, and enjoy Star Wars novels from time to time. It’s all in the pot, and the stew tastes good.