Monday, November 12, 2007

Christian Artists: Giving Constructive Criticism

Recently, I have been in many online and in-person discussions about Christians and art, or more specifically - why there is so much bad Christian art out there. I would argue that, ultimately, there is just bad art out there period, and getting saved doesn't automatically sanctify lack of talent or taste. My reasoning for the fact that bad Christian art continues after salvation is that we have so many Christian liars out there. People that say they like something (painting, song, band, poetry, whatever) when they really don't think it's that great. Liar is a strong word, but I can't think of anything else to call it - so please try not to be offended by my use of it. More on that in a minute. First of all, a few things to set-up.

There are basically two types of Christian artists. First of all, there are those that make art for themselves. They don't intend to sell their art, get it displayed in galleries or played on the radio, etc. This is the kind of art that anyone participates in, and, in fact - I encourage everyone to do so. Being creative is something we can all do. If no on ever sees it - no need to be shy. The other type of artist is the one that tries to sell their art, even make a living off of it, or get it published, played, or displayed in public spaces. These are the ones I will refer to here from this point on as Christian Artists.

Once you cross that line from personal artist to Christian Artist, a whole new world has to open up for you. You no longer can just do what feels right to you. You have to be mindful of your audience. The opinion of others is crucial at this stage, because they are the ones that will ultimately support you. The opinions of other artists are helpful, but you still have to know the opinion of the audience. You have to connect with them.

This brings up the fact that there are three aspects of art that artists have to be concerned with. First, there is ability (skill, talent, etc). That is a given aspect, even if the artist doesn't have it. After that is the communication of the idea. Just having a lot of skill doesn't mean that you can communicate what is in your mind. And there are plenty of people out there that have found ways to communicate ideas in their head really well without any talent. The final aspect is the connection with audience. Having talent and the ability to communicate your ideas means nothing to the Christian Artist (or any professional artist) if you don't have the ability to connect with your audience. And, yes, there are those artists that don't have talent, do a bad job at communicating ideas, and yet still create stuff that connects with people.

This is also where many artists tend to take a "meh" attitude towards people that went to fancy, highly rated art/music schools around the world. These schools teach people the skills and the means to communicate ideas, but then students graduate from the school and go work for some catalog publisher. They have to do this because (possibly) they lack the ability to connect with an audience. Most artists would rather connect with an audience than perfect a skill.

Thus the rub of being a Christian artist. You need to know what others think of your work. Yes, you can pray and ask God and do what He wants regardless of what others think, but then there is that pesky deal of how God speaks to us through others.

This is why I encourage people to be honest when a Christian Artist asks for an opinion of their art, and you don't like it. I have been in many situations where people lied and said that they liked something and they really didn't (they admitted this to me later). They felt they were being "kind-hearted," but I argue that a lie is a lie and can cause damage.

You see, Christian Artists do believe that God speaks through others, and you never know if that "kind-hearted" word is the last word they get before they decide to do something radical, like quite jobs, or sell it all, and "go for it." I've know many people that actual do this (without praying - let's face it, we all do this from time to time), and since all of the feedback they got was "kind hearted," they missed God's will and crashed big time.

So, what to do when a Christian Artist asks for your opinion of something that you just don't like? Take a deep breath, and say four things:
  1. Let them know your credentials up front. If you have never studied art, music, poetry, etc, let them know it. They need that context to know how to file your opinion.
  2. Find something positive to say about the work/song/story/etc. For the Christian, this is usually the easiest part. Most Christian Artists mean well. It's not like they are out trying to subvert the word to serve the Anti-Christ. So, you can say something like "I can see that you had a good idea to show a spiritual truth here" or something like that.
  3. Give them an idea about what you didn't like about the art. You probably want to be as general as you can here, but not open yourself up to further questions (let's face it, you wouldn't be going this route if you didn't want to lay out a list of all the problems with the art or didn't care about hurting feelings). Let them know that you don't go for the genre; or, if that is a lie - let them know that you just don't connect with it.
  4. Encourage them to seek out more opinions. It may just be that you don't get the genre that they are working in. You could be the one that is wrong. Or you could be that last straw that lets them know whether to ditch the day job and go full time or not. Let them know that you should not be the last opinion they get.
In fact, I would argue that these four steps could be for giving feedback on art that you do like - just replace step three with giving them specifics on what you did like.

So, the way to give constructive feedback on, say, a painting that you don't like would be like this: "Well, please realize that I don't have any training in art. I like that you are communicating how prayer affects the world through this painting. For some reason, I just don't connect with the way that you are communicating, but I don't know exactly why. I think you should definitely seek the opinion of others on this and not just go by my word alone."

And, yes, I know artists are sensitive. They might still take this hard. Communicate with love and they will not feel rejected by you. Remember that above all - you still love the person, even if you don't go for the art.


Ariel said...

My reasoning for the fact that bad Christian art continues after salvation is that we have so many Christian liars out there.

Strong statement...and the more I think about it, the more I suspect you're right. It's too bad that Christian community often fosters a kind of fake, positive glow about anything creative. Thanks for the post, it's given me some excellent food for thought.

Matt C. said...

Ariel - I like that statement: "a kind of fake, positive glow about anything creative." I have noticed that is very true.

And I realize that what you quoted is a strong statement. We know that liar means "one who lies," but we tend to tack on "all the time" in common use. And I don't want to imply that those who have lied once or twice about art that they didn't like are pathological liars. But it was the only word that fit there. So - if anyone is reading this comments section and is mad about that statement... please read it as "someone that was not honest in a particular instance," not "someone that lies all the time."

blest said...

"they missed God's will and crashed big time." Unless of course, it was God's will that they crash - which is entirely possible. We shouldn't assume that God's will and plans for us always mean worldly success.

ANYway. Good post. I'm the voice crying in the choir room that we need more "Simon Cowell"s in the church who can lovingly say "Ummm maybe God has gifted you to do something else..."

Matt C. said...

Unless of course, it was God's will that they crash - which is entirely possible.

True, true - I agree totally with that. I was referring to crashing spiritually, as in drifting away from Church and God - just to clarify.

I'm the voice crying in the choir room that we need more "Simon Cowell"s in the church who can lovingly say "Ummm maybe God has gifted you to do something else..."

That's funny - and needed. Keep the cry going :)

Victoria White said...

This is exactly what our church, and my career at the moment is dealing with! I am working for my dad, a professional sculptor, now putting on an exhibit called "What's in your worship?" that is probably the most bizarre Christian art I've ever seen. His church is putting on the exhibit, knowing they may offend our local Christian community, but still behind the message, and they idea that art, especially Christian, should be excellent, well-thought out, and critiqued, just like any art. My family is definitely against that "fake positive glow" and all for a direct approach, so that excellence before the Father is what we all try to bring to worship. After all, isn't art worship, an offering to the Lord? If not, then why are we making it? See my dad's work at

Andrew said...

As an Artist and Christian the most important criteria is an honest expression of my exploration and relationship with God. I don't think I'm hugely talented and will always appreciated comments both positive and negitive. But I hope I'm being real. In that way I hope my art will be of interest to all who enjoy my type of art.