Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Retreat Update: The Virtuous Artist (and Brian Moss is coming too)



(NB: This is part II to an update on the retreat for ministers to artists. Part I was here. If you know anybody who might be interested in this retreat, would you mind letting them know? I'd sure appreciate that. See here to register. See here and here for all information about the retreat. )  

A Question: and then a few more
What if you are a super talented artist, say, you earned your MFA at a prestigious program and were courted by the elites in your field and then were offered the chance to make the kind of work you're most passionate about?

What if you have it, the elusive, coveted it, which means you're the one who is featured in the industry magazines as model artist and you're the envy of your peers and the admiration of the young?

What if, say, you were the one who won the highest award at The University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop? Or you're the kind of painter who gets calls from the Guggenheim? Or the Weinstein brothers call you to go out for drinks? What if you're that person? Or what if your architectural designs win the vote of the city council and every day people drive by and look in awe at your work, every morning, every afternoon at the end of the day and into the night, for years on end? 

And what if, to suppose a hyperbolized situation, one day you're in a car accident that causes you to become a quadriplegic?

Or, perish the thought, your spouse commits suicide? Or you find out that your child has been a heroine addict for nine years and has decided to cut off all contact with you? Or what if the IRS calls and tells you that you're in debt beyond your ability to pay back and that you'll have to forfeit all your assets? Or a tsunami destroys all your possessions except the clothes on your back?

What becomes of you then?

Do you give up your art? Do you harden? Do you pitch into a fever of driven labors? Do you pitch into a depression that you cruelly hope nobody rescues you from?  Do you look for every opportunity to sabotage signs of goodness in your life, with whatever addiction is at hand, so long as it numbs the pain of sadness and anger?

Or do you "settle"?

What if your friends ditch you? Worse, what if the people you thought were your friends turn out to be the fair-weather friends you'd always read about in novels and you never thought you'd be that (pathetic) person to whom it would happen?

Exaggerated situations all? Sure. But exaggerations can be useful as morally imaginative exercises. I also know people for whom, sadly, these tragic situations are far from hypothetical.

Our strange lot: in plenty and in want 
The worse thing that could happen to us as artists, I've long supposed, was sudden fame or sudden disaster. Even gradual stardom or gradual disaster, though, has a way of disclosing the innermost habits of the soul, habits that are even secret to our conscious mind. What is it then that could keep us from pitching into subtle or gross forms of self-destructive behavior, where the constitutional goal, wittingly or not, is to make sure people don't see what's inside for fear that we'll be found wanting (to be sure, one of the more crippling fears for artists, that or being found "all along" a fraud). 

Alternatively, what could help us abundantly flourish "whatever the circumstances," as St. Paul remarks autobiographically in Philippians 4:11?

Yes, I realize I've gone a bit grim here. For most of us, thanks be to God, the circumstances I've described are hypothetical. Or we live toned-down versions of them. Still, many of us we live with a certain cluster of fears that hover at the horizon of our consciousness. Perhaps I've seen too many artists give up or settle. The "bitter settling" is the worst, I find. I've seen artists make themselves at home with their dark tendencies, whether they're the successful type or not, and it makes me both sad and discouraged and it always makes me sober. 

Again I return to the same question I have asked myself repeatedly all these years: What is an artist and what does it mean for an artist to flourish, because I don't think either of these questions is self-evident?

So what does it have to do with our May retreat?
It is curious to me that both Frederica Mathewes-Green and I will be appealing to older histories in our discussions of the vocation of the artist.  With Frederica the icon tradition will serve as the focal point for her talk. She summarizes it this way:

"How different it was in the first thousand years where visual artists of the first millennium saw their mission as one of handing on the visual tradition they had received with humility. They did their work with prayer and fasting, and left their work unsigned. What can we learn from them? What can we learn from the early icon-stylized art?"

The problematic matter of a "successful" artist
With my talk I'll be exploring ways in which the tradition of virtue ethics can inform our work as ministers. The thought is this. What centrally makes for a successful artist? A high level of talent? An MFA? The right internship or patronage? Significant influence in their own field? Vast influence throughout society? Awards? The respect of peers? Continuous productivity? A job with an elite institution? A job at all? In good standing with the church? Work that "glorifies" God? A certain combination of these?

What if you're only one or two of these things? Are you still successful? According to what and on what grounds? 

What I'd like to propose in my talk is that a virtue ethics approach can help us answer these questions in a way that deeply resonates with the biblical tradition, which Christian history, in turn, bears witness to in the lives of faithful disciples. 

What makes for a successful artist? A successful artist, I suggest here, is one who is virtuous.

The virtuous artist: courageous, for example
Take the virtue of courage. Aristotle poses the question, Who is the brave person? He answers that it is the person who “stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident.” The excess of courage, he adds, is to be a pretender of courage, while its deficiency is cowardice.

This answer doesn't exactly tell you what to do. It doesn't involve a principle. It ignores altogether the issue of rules. It describes instead a kind of person. It's the kind of person that Dallas Willard investigates in his work The Divine Conspiracy. This person is like an apple tree. A good apple tree flourishes in a manner consonant with its treeness, which, to the point, is inseparable to the internal design of its life and to its external relation with other entities (rain, sun, dirt, care).

This is the person who knows how to respond rightly, that is, virtuously, in any circumstance. What kind of circumstances? 

Whether or not her poetry is published by The New Yorker (or a lesser magazine). Whether he acts on Broadway or off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway or in regional or local or, God be praised, community theater. Or whether she muddles along, doing the best she can. A virtuous artist will know how to respond rightly whether he or she succeeds or fails or simply hangs in there. He or she will know how to be content whatever the circumstances and will know, crucially, that this is impossible without a faithful community inspiring, surrounding and sustaining all of his or her efforts.

Four virtues & manifold practices
The four virtues I suggest are fundamental to the successful artist are humility, courage, diligence and generosity. In my talk I will briefly explore these four virtues. But perhaps the question that captures my attention even more than these virtues is the question of what practices sustain them.

It's one thing to know the right virtues. It's another thing to desire and to seek them out. It's another thing altogether to discern the practices that enable us to become virtuous and to remain virtuous over the long haul.  

It's still another thing again to discern and to cultivate the kinds of environments that encourage this kind of virtuous living. 

If having good friends around you is one of the conditions for growing in virtue, what do you if you don't have any? What if your present church experience is a difficult one? What if you're a divorced single-mother of three children with no relatives near by? What do you do then? What if you're severely bipolar or suffer from mononucleosis? What if you're in an abusive relationship that you're afraid to get out of?

You know the questions. They aren't easy, but they are the kinds that I'd love for us to explore at the retreat. 


Lastly: the neo-psalmist, the ineffably talented...
... the burly-bearded Brian Moss will be joining us at the retreat to lead our worship. I'm psyched. He's such a good man and he leads so very well. See here for his prayerbook project. See here for comments I've made about him in the past. I am particularly happy because this means we now get to cooperate twice in worship planning: once at Laity Lodge and once at the CIVA conference in June. It rocks.

Our retreat is getting better and better. It makes me so happy. Do join us if you can.

(PS: This blog entry was sponsored by despair.com, the most inspiring site on the internet.)

4 comments:

Greg Scheer said...

What exactly do you mean by "The Virtuous Artist (and Brian Moss is coming too)"? Does this imply that Brian is not virtuous, but you decided to invite him anyway?

I hope this is a problem of syntax rather than sin...

w. david o. taylor said...

Greg, I'm afraid you're right. We've invited Brian in order to help him become the virtuouso that he's always known he could become. You should come too for that matter. The syntax is in the sin.

craigandrewharris said...

I am really wanting to come and had a question. Does the conference tend to go more to the theory side of things or the nuts and bolts?

w. david o. taylor said...

Craig: the answer is both. It's important to me that folks get a conceptual and practical workout. Frederica and I will each give one talk, Friday and Saturday morning respectively. That'll comprise the conceptual exercise for the retreat.

This year I'm adding something new. I'm going to create an opportunity for a kind of "5 Minutes Max," where participants will have the opportunity to share in five minutes something about their ministry over the past year. The goal of this exercise is to allow the chance for a practical information "dump." I'm figuring out the details, but it will happen during our official gatherings.

In addition to this formal component, there's a near-constant opportunity for folks to interact with each other, especially over meals.

Ok, I think that's it. I hope it helps you make a good decision, and if you come, we'll be happy to have you.