Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is an artist, anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the definition of “artist”. Often in Christian circles, people talk about artists as creators and quickly draw a parallel to The Creator, underlining the essentially sacred nature of what artists do.

I’ve always really liked that idea (undoubtedly due, at least in part, to that all-too-human desire to be like God). But as a director, I question whether I can call myself a creator. And if I can’t, can I call myself an artist?

Recently, Theatre at TWU presented a piece called Mythification. Under the direction and guidance of Kris Knutsen, students used the inspiration of the first chapter of Genesis and the form of Greek tragedy to write and perform a work that personified the beginning of the world. A creation about the creation.

My Dean at TWU, David Squires, is a musician and composer, and he responded to Mythification with unrestrained enthusiasm. In a thank you letter to the cast, he wrote:

I am an artist, and I believe that the human impulse towards creating something new is a strong measure of God-likeness. In the imago dei he made us, and we return the blessing, if you will, by making something which hasn’t existed before. And the moment it appears on the scene it is a wonder...suddenly there where nothing had been!

I am an artist, and I believe that the world is a better place because I am made thus, and because I am surrounded by so many others who also speak this uncommonly God-like language.

But I am not sure I can claim to speak that language. The art I make is not created ex nihilo. The plays I direct are written already, whether classics with many performances or new works with few. The theatre, designers, cast, and crew are new; but are we creators?

My friend Lucia makes a distinction between “artists” and “craftspeople” or “artisans”. The artists create out of nothing and the artisans hone the work of others. She claims that the relationship is more of a marriage than a hierarchy – the artists need the craftspeople to see the vision to the end, to collaborate so that the artwork reaches something nearer beauty and perfection.

(It’s no surprise that she is a playwright – the only artist in this scenario.)

Like Dean David, Lucia believes to create means to bring something into existence that was not there before. But in the case of theatre, the definition is tricky. If Lucia writes a play and I put together a creative team and mount a production, did it exist before the performance?

The art the playwright creates is the words only, on the page solely; art, certainly, but written art, as is a poem or a novel. The art of theatre is something else altogether. Whereas music cannot be “read” until it is played or sung, the art of theatre and the art of drama are two separate, intimately related disciplines.

And when we speak of theatre, we must remember that it is, at its core, collaborative. Theatre is a living art and it lives in performance. And the performance of a play – whether the first or the fortieth – has been brought to life by the collaborators. It did not exist before and it will not exist again.

I remember reading an interview with Raymond Chandler once in which he was asked whether he was concerned about what filmmakers were going to do to his novel. His response was (more or less): “They aren’t going to do anything to my novel. It’s sitting right over there.”

That is a fitting parallel for the theatre. While Lucia the playwright is unquestionably a creator and artist, Lucia is also an artist and creator when she dons her actor-hat to embody a play written by someone else. While a piece of music can be "faithfully rendered", each production of a play must be different from those before because of the many interpretive collaborators, the demands of the physical space, and the lack of indisputable guidelines for presentation. Music can be recorded and preserved, while live theatre is impossible to capture, different each performance, non-existent once a production closes. Those who make theatre - the actors, director, and designers - are artists and creators. Without their vision and implementation, the words would remain on the page, artful but lifeless.

While I'm pleased that I've managed to formulate an argument to convince myself, if no one else, it seems fitting to end all this philosophizing with a warning from Mr. Chandler.

The more you reason, the less you create.

1 comment:

Ron Reed said...

Is it nit-picky to point out that even playwrights don't create "ex nihilo," out of nothing. Only God created out of nothing. Playwrights create out of the raw material of their lives, the other art they encounter, the created world around them, things they overhear, patterns of relationship they experience or observe, etc, etc. We are collage makers, patching together a massive amount of experience into some new shape - and even that shape is in some way derived from, patterned by, affected by other shapes we've experienced. (There are how many essential story patterns? Ask Lloyd. Somebody wrote a book about it.)

It can be said that actors and directors are interpretive artists, and playwrights are creative artists. I would submit that we're not two different species altogether: rather, that all artists do their work along a continuum of interpretiveness, stretching from somewhere close to (but not quite at) God's "ex nihilo," to the scientific documentary photographer's "that's pretty much exactly how it looks." Craft and art are not mutually exclusive separate categories, they are points on a continuum.