In centuries past, art was made for the honor and glory of God. Viewed in this light, a career in the arts was a career of service, not egotism. There is a cue there for us.
As artists, we are the bearers of gifts, spiritual endowments that come to us gratis and ask only to be used. A gift for music asks that we give voice to it. A fine photographer's eye asks that we focus it. We are responsible to our gifts for the use of our gifts, and this is a form of accountability too.
When our work is made only in the service of our hope for fame or recognition, it is hampered by our self-consciousness as we wonder, How am I doing?
When we are able to work without such self-consciousness, we are able to work more freely and more fully. Our ego steps aside and is no longer a constrictive valve narrowing our creative flows and focus. We think less about "us" and more about "it," the work itself.
I remember sitting under whispering trees at a music park, listening as a brilliant pianist lashed through blistering performance as dramatic as the incoming storm. I was seated between two grown men who listened to the cascading notes as enraptured as small children, their faces lit with Christmas radiance. Magic was afoot, or, perhaps better, at hand. Later I learned that the musical magician we had so admired had played all evening uphill, against an inner critic that cited that missed chord, this muffled mordent. With a monk's devotion, he had played anyway -- such nights are an artist's Gethsemane, a night to be endured only on faith.
"I have to remind myself there is something larger than me and my skill, something more important than my ego's perception," the pianist confided to me. That something is in art itself, the creative power that moves through us, healing and transforming those who encounter it.
We have very strange notions about art in our culture. We have made it a cult of the individual rather than what it has always been, a human aspiration aimed at communicating and community. We "commune" through art, both with the forces of inspiration when we work and with other humans who encounter us and those forces through our work. To commune is to attune with an open heart, something impossible if are thinking only of ourselves.
Contemplating a piece of work, we do better to think Whom is this work for? Whom will it serve?
rather than How will it serve me?
Once we find a path for our work to be of service --even if that path is merely to create a wonderful role for a friend -- then our work goes smoothly forward. It is not about "us" anymore. We have returned as self-conscious creator and aligned ourselves again with all of creation, a worker among workers, a friend among friends. When we do so, our work is less buffered by own harsh fears. Our fears are set aside every time we simply ask again, "How can I make this work more serviceable?"
Director Steven Spielberg once remarked to an interviewer that he hoped at heaven' gate, God might say to him, "Steven, thanks for listening." This listening for inspiration, this willingness to align our creative will with a sense of higher guidance, is not contrary to a career but a better and more grounded way to establish one. A career solely grounded in the idea of self-advancement is not grounded enough in the advancement of ideas. For all their estimable craft, artists who fail to deepen their goals and their ideas find that their careers run into a certain shallow sameness over time.
We used to routinely call God "the creator." We had a consciousness that our own creativity was a divine gift, an opening for God to work through us. When we enshrined ourselves and our individuality rather than our shared humanity at the center of our consciousness -- we lost our proper understanding or art as service. We disenfranchised ourselves from our birthright as creators and we lost the understanding that art was an act of the soul and not of the ego. When we ask to "listen," we create works worthy of being heard and we ourselves hear the heartbeat of our common humanity, which is grounded in divinity.
We may make a piece of art to promote planetary understanding. We may make beautiful music for the glory and service of music itself. We may write a play for alcoholic women to take heart. We might paint to express gratitude to our creator for the beauty of Queen Anne's lace. When we make our art in a spirit of service, it lightens the burden of our ego. It makes for clarity of focus, purity of intent, and follows a spiritual law that might be simply stated as "Form follows function." When the "form" of our work is open to higher consciousness, its function is raised as well.
Art moves through us. It is colored by our individuality, but we are not precisely its origin. Or, to put it differently, a piece of art may originate with us, but we originate somewhere larger ourselves. We are, each of us, more than we seem, more than the sum of our merely human components. There is a divine spark animating each of us, and that divine spark also animates our art. When we ask to be of service in our art, we fling open a window in our creative studio. Through that opening, the greater world of inspiration can enter us.
A painter friend of mine talks about art needing a "hole for the imagination." I think I might phrase it as "When we dedicate a piece of art to something larger than our ego, that something becomes a felt presence." A great painting, poem, or piece of music carries that indefinable something more. We sense it and, although we try to name it and define it, it eludes definition and containment.
There is a breath of the divine that blows through us as artists and blows through our art as well. Walk into a cathedral and you will sense something larger than the artisans. Our hired hands, as artists, also hold a hand with a higher hand. Take Bach, hired to write music so that his church would have something play once a week at service -- that word again. What Bach wrote was more than merely serviceable. Inspired by a spirit of service, he wrote the cantatas, the "little songs," that we love and cherish centuries later.Arguably, we are all in service to an artist greater than our own. Life itself works through us. We are the carriers of dreams and desires that may have originated generations earlier. Music runs in families. So does a gift for drama and for words. When we elect to make art from a spirit of service to a larger whole, we are really simply becoming truthful. We are all part of a larger whole and, in acknowledging that truthfully, we move a notch closer to humility, to a simple and sheer plainness that allows the beauty of the grand design to be seen through us. If beauty is truth and truth beauty -- and I believe that this is so -- then our acknowledgment of our place in a larger scheme of things strikes a first true note from which more beauty follows.