Open Call for a New Amateur

Being an artist in residence is like being a court jester: you have no authority, but you can say anything you want and no one but the king can kill you. I am one of the artists in residence at the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller. I am neither theologian nor scholar, and I do not speak with the authority of either. I am a filmmaker. We write stories in script form and then embody them, or, to put it an ancient way, we take the word and in-carnate it. I consider it a holy calling.

I am of the opinion that we should love the work God has given us. Both the art we cannot live without and the jobs God has given us to support it. In fact, we must love—in order to do great work and in order to survive—because no other fuel is enough. If we do not know love in our art, to paraphrase 1 John, then we do not know God in it nor do we represent God with it. I’m talking now to the artist who is a Christian: If you are doing your art or your job in God’s name without love, you ought to stop.

Championing the Idea of a New Amateur

We, whose God is Love, and whose two commandments are to love and to love, have lost the habit of being fueled by love. We have succumbed to the standards of the empire, preferring to judge success by financial gain and indiscriminate fame. By disdaining the life of the amateur, we rob ourselves of the courage, the insight, and the inspiration necessary for truly transcendent, revolutionary, God-infused work.

What does it mean to do something from and for love? The word “amateur” comes from the old French, meaning “lover of.” Schooled or unschooled, paid or unpaid, the “lover-of” is not driven by money or credential. You will hear artists say that they cannot turn away from their work because they cease to be themselves without it. There is one thing that explains the potency behind such an urge to create—it’s because the amateur is fueled by love.

Amateurs do by loving—a work ethic that produces profound art and lives; however, the word amateur has come to be associated with low quality, which we, as artists of faith, appropriately disdain. In this nefarious twist of meaning, we turn away from the power capable of reflecting God. We shouldn’t even have to talk about whether it’s acceptable to do mediocre work in the service of the Most High God. Anyone with that sort of thinking would have been struck dead back in the day. God may stretch the canopy of grace to cover your weaknesses and your failures, but you don’t want to start out with that expectation as an artist any more than you would want to be pregnant and thinking that you can abort or abandon your child if you get tired. We must strive for the best we can offer as amateurs, so that the idea of “amateur” actually has less to do with measuring an artist’s craft and more to do with measuring an artist’s love.

Flaubert illustration by D.KlitsieFlaubert on the Importance of Story
Gustave Flaubert was a French Realist with a controversial personal reputation who is considered among the great Western novelists. His deep commitment to aesthetic principles prompted the description of him as a “martyr to style.” His views on the artist—which he called “a monstrosity, something outside of nature”—were uncompromising, possibly because he gave great weight to the importance of story: “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction,” he said. “No, read in order to live.”

Professionals make money at their art, preferably a lot. Sometimes, however, well-paid professionals come to feel trapped by that money, under the impression that they have to do work they have lost love for because they need it to make a living for them. Often, putting the burden of making a living on your art can be too much for it, akin to treating your art like a pack mule rather than a beloved child. Imagine the disastrous results on the art and on the soul of the artist! Cat Stevens famously left a professional career as a musician claiming, “I’ve returned to being an amateur without any ties or strings attached, which gives me a freedom I never had before.” It was freedom he sought, in life and work, and love was the way there.

Money Is a Tool for Art, Not a Validation of It

In 1960s America, musicians were judged not by how much money they made but by whether or not they had something to say. Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, called No Direction Home, observes that the revolutionary artists were consummate amateurs; in fact, that’s what gave their music power. However, the idea that success might be measured in terms other than monetary is so foreign to our view now as to appear at least naïve and at worst irresponsible.

Many respectable artists earn money for their work. It’s no more noble to work without pay than to work with it. The Scriptures say that a workman is worthy of his hire; still, money is an inadequate determiner of whether an artistic work should be done or not. I say that from within possibly the most expensive art form ever invented: filmmaking. Yes, money is a tool that can make doing the work much easier—like having a hammer to drive a nail rather than a stiletto. But the point is to drive the nail—to do the work!

I cannot count the conversations I have had with artists who find it impossible to conceive of working for anything other than pay, as if the pay were the point: musicians, painters, filmmakers, and singers who agonize over the financial worth of their art or of their time. Artists who are actually offended by the idea of working for free, as if their self-worth has been insulted. Curiously, it’s often Christians who have the most disdain for the idea of amateur projects—a natural result of being undervalued and taken advantage of by the church, perhaps. But we suffer again, by our own hand, when we react by not doing our work.

I have worked with financial resources and without, and the work is hard either way. I find it more difficult to tolerate artists who continually remind everyone of how much they are worth or of how they have to make money. We all have to pay the rent. We all make choices. Where do we get the idea we’re entitled to make money on our art, and that we’re failing if we don’t? Often, I find that those whose work seems to be least affected by the tyranny of this thinking are young artists who still feel the fire in the belly or older artists who yearn to feel—once again—the love that propelled them when they were young. Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt said, “once the amateur’s naïve approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.”

Love Your Job, Do Your Art

Instinctively we believe it’s important to do what we love, but it eludes most of us how that is supposed to happen. We have precious few historical examples. Many of the artists we admire ended their own lives in despair, tyrannized by the inability to make life and art work together. Since most of us will live somewhere in that struggle, let’s start talking about how we can successfully live out the twin dicta of faith: to be honorable about our lives and faithful to our callings. Or, as Flaubert put it, “be calm and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

There are many voices claiming that the energy we put into the world is toxic when we are not prompted by love. However, those voices too often conclude that we need to find what makes us happy and make a living from it. But what if you need to make a living at a job that is unloveable so that you can do what you are called to do? Was tentmaking (or as John Drane interprets it “scene building”) Paul’s great passion? What if the thing you love is not something you are likely to make money at? Do you live in denial and ignore the responsibilities of your keep? Do you pollute your art into something that can make money but no longer resembles what you were called to do?

Turns out, love is the answer: calm and orderly love (your job) and violent and original love (your art). There’s a difference between those two categories, and naturally there’s a difference in the character of the love. But whether it’s loving the work you do or doing the work you love, love is the theme. Love the job God has given you for provision—your scene-building—with intent, with dogged determination if that’s what it takes. Love it because it is calm and orderly. (And if it is not, if it steals your creativity and demands your “off” hours, then you need to rethink whether the job is doing what it’s supposed to.)

You also have to do the thing that you love—your art. Don’t let anything stop you. If it is a calling, and God has given the inspiration and the love, how do you dare to not do it because you’re not “funded”? How will you answer when God asks: what did you do with the talents I gave you? Will you say “I hid them because no one gave me permission? Because no one paid me what I was worth?”

There are many ways to make sure your work gets done, sometimes requiring painful restructuring (make a movie on a borrowed iPhone rather than with someone’s million dollars), but the point is that you must do it. As with generosity, you cannot wait until the circumstances are perfect. You must do it especially when the circumstances are wrong. To repeat: love your job, do your art. Most people I know hate their jobs and make excuses for not doing their work.

What kind of work comes out of a person filled up with love on all sides like that? With fear cast out and an endless supply of patience and energy? I am reminded of a story of the desert fathers Lot and Joseph:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

This is what I am talking about. Casting out all fear, becoming all love. I can’t guarantee that your work will be profitable, but your life will.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2012, “Groanings Too Deep for Words: Engaging the Senses in Worship, Theology, and the Arts.”