Religion has rarely had a comfortable—or functional—relationship with art. This would be annoying, but tolerable, if art had nothing to do with artists.
In an era when it’s vogue to write theologies of the arts, permissible to release art from the “music ministry” cloister, and feasible to salary arts pastors, many churches are still limping when it comes to incorporating the persons of artists into the body of Christ. Churches may be figuring out what to do with art. But they have no idea what to do with artists.
In some ways, churches can’t be blamed. We artists can be sensitive, unorthodox, moody, and full of doubt. In many ways, our work—questioning, challenging, reconsidering, seeing things slant—is antithetical to established religion. Faith and soul are flexible, but religion and the church as an institution are inherently rigid and anchor what structure they have in answers, obedience, certainty, and unity.
You can see why it’s a challenge to get along.
We artists can also be relatively good at making the situation worse. We can build solidarity among ourselves by complaining. We can cherish a sense of persecution as proof of our enlightenment. We can ditch the scene all together.
Frankly, churches and artists could use some relationship therapy. And as many of us know by now, the first thing a therapist will tell you is it’s all about communication.
Among themselves, artists are familiar with giving and receiving feedback. Even without MFA programs or juried reviews, most people who sustain an artistic practice do so in conversation with others. We call this workshopping, collaboration, or feedback. And it works because we’re equally vulnerable.
This clashes with the communication norms of most established churches, which often function on hierarchy and call intimate, formative conversations “accountability,” “admonition,” “discipleship,” and even “rebuke.” Regardless of the feelings of the participants, the vocabulary of these interactions is not one of equal vulnerability.
Conversations between artists and church leaders are also complicated by the limited roles established for artists in the church. These days, if an artist is participating in a church function they are usually an employee (the music minister) or they are “serving” by offering their art.
Artists need to be pastored, and churches need artists. But we may need some training wheels to reconceive our roles and be able to communicate about our processes. God may not, indeed, help those that help themselves. But for the sake of keeping us from hurting each other, I’m willing to corral the materials for a bridge—hoping it will take less than a miracle to build it.
How to Give Helpful Feedback to an Artist in Your Church
1. Clarify the context
Have you been invited to give feedback?
Just as spiritual accountability is unwelcome and inappropriate outside of an established, invited relationship, artistic criticism that is uninvited can be unhelpful and distancing.
Is the artist’s employment on the line?
In the business world, clarifying between formative and evaluative feedback is essential. In the artistic realm, this distinction can be complicated, but is even more crucial. If an artist is also your employee, be sure to establish which conversations and comments are relevant to continued employment and which are discussions of taste and style.
2. Begin by listening
Ask the artist what his or her aims or goals were.
Ask what he or she thought was effective about the performance or artwork.
Ask what he or she thought was less effective about the performance or artwork.
Affirm areas where the artist’s aims or goals were worth pursuing.
Affirm areas where the artist’s impression of the performance or artwork matched your own.
4. Share the “movie in your mind”
Rather than saying “Your set wasn’t worshipful” or “The painting is jumbled,” report yourexperience by saying, “I felt more energized than contemplative during the first set” or “I’m not sure where to focus my attention on the canvas.”
The first set of statements is problematic because they
express a posture of judgment
fuse the worth of the artwork or performance with the worth of the artist, and
are likely to foster defensiveness.
The second set of statements is effective because they
express a posture of reception
acknowledge that the viewer’s experience is only one possible experience of the work, and
empower the artist to apply his or her skills of craft to facilitating a different (more effective) response from the audience.
After sharing your responses, try to avoid prescribing how changes should be made. Artistic works are akin to children—while parents are far from perfect in executing parenting skills, they still know their own children best. While an artist may not execute perfectly, he or she does have professional expertise in the processes and devices of the medium.
5. Thank the artist for his or her efforts
By offering a gift of expression, an artist has accepted a position of vulnerability—this courage is often unrecognized in a consumerist culture fixated on production and material worth.
6. Be patient and open-minded when watching for response to critique
Allow for individuality, creativity and improvisation—making art is an inherently iterative process.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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