In her article, “Beyond the Disciplines: Art without Borders,” Suzi Gablik mentions a kind of art that has “some worthy agenda outside of itself, and a socially redeeming purpose” (par. 2). I love that concept and idea, as opposed to art driven by “professional recognition,” marketplace competition, and “brisk sales” (par. 3), which seem more to steal the heart out of art than to develop true art. As an aspiring writer, I find myself caught in that conflict, hoping to write for a purpose, to write something that has meaning, yet comparing the popularity of that form of writing against works that fit a popular genre and are therefore automatically popular.
I admit that, more than once, I have found myself inwardly irritable toward those whose works are published and popular because the authors are better at marketing than writing. At such times, I have to assure myself that writing from the soul is worth more than an impressive royalty check, because I am not only writing for myself. What do I want my readers to see? What do I want my children to see as they grow old enough to read my writings? A succumbing to popular opinion and pop culture, or a rendering of the soul on paper? When I think of it in that terms, the answer is easy. I want to write to make a difference in the world, no matter how small the ripple.
On Friday, February 26, I picked up my kids from school and drove them to the Save Mart Center, to stand in line for the Rock and Worship Roadshow. Ten bands for ten dollars is hard to beat, as far as entertainment goes. The bands varied widely. Danny Gokey and Mandisa, both finalists in American Idol. Both singers with powerful messages of hope and the strength that comes from God. Newsboys and Phil Wickham, both Christian pop rock bands. One band, Audio Adrenaline, sang a song titled “Kings and Queens,” and throughout the song, video clips were playing of village children in Haiti. The clips brought tears to my eyes, though I tried hard to keep them back. After the song, the lead singer spoke of a ministry they began in Haiti 11 years ago, The Hands and Feet Project, which they continue to this day. The tagline of the project is: “Caring for the orphaned and abandoned. Fighting to keep families together.” Having lived in India and seen such poverty firsthand, causes that promote help for the helpless have always been close to my heart.
Later that evening, between bands, a man spoke about Compassion, the reason the ten bands had come together for this tour. Not “compassion,” the emotion – though that probably played a part – but Compassion International, an organization started in 1952, which welcomes sponsorships of children from poor and developing countries. Currently, their program sponsors over 1,700,000 children, providing food and education to children, rescuing babies and mothers from poverty, and meeting critical health needs (Compassion). Each of the bands could have been touring on their own, making more money, and entertaining audiences with their music. Instead, they play for a dollar to promote a cause: feeding and educating those who could not receive it otherwise. Art for a purpose. Music for a cause. And it has made a difference. At the same concert last year, over 800 children got sponsors that single night.
How many children, overall, have had their lives changed because of the power and attraction of music? How many have been fed and educated because of the tug on the heartstrings to help the least of these? I don’t know. The official numbers might easily be found, but there is no way to determine the total effect. Because there is not only the effect on the children and families who receive sponsorship, but on the families who give it.
In 2011, we began sponsoring a boy, Stiven, from Columbia. He is about the age of our middle child, Allen. In addition to the almost embarrassingly small amount we send each month – $42, easily spent in the U.S. at a single restaurant – we write Stiven. My children write him. I read to my children the letters he writes back, in which he say that he thanks God for us. I read to them the magazines that Compassion sends each month, that tells of homes and buildings constructed in Haiti after an devastating earthquake; of a teenage mother in Ethiopia so sick and poor she could not care for her baby, who now receives nutrition and education; of families who can now earn a living and perform a skill to support their families. So many stories. True stories. Of a world changing because of the power of art and music mingled with the power of love.
But the stories still untold are the stories unfolding in the lives of my children. My boys love to draw; my daughter loves to read and write. My children take weekly piano lessons, although they would often rather play than practice. But I wonder, what will they do with the art and music that is building up inside of them now? I hope that they will choose to bring hope to others through their art and music and writing. In some way. It doesn’t have to be by joining a world-famous band, or writing a bestselling novel. Maybe it will simply be sponsoring one child. Maybe traveling overseas and seeing the world and those in it with new eyes. Choosing compassion (the emotion and the action) and finding a purpose in art. That of making this world a better place.
Suzi Gablik observes, “In Western culture, artists aren’t encouraged to be integral to the social, environmental, or spiritual life of the community. They do not train to engage with real-life problems” (par. 3). She is right, and such a narrow focus destroys the core of what art truly is, a rendering of the soul on paper or canvas or a sheet of music. Art, by its very nature, is drawn from some deep spring within us, a spring that brims over and refuses to be quenched, and thereby must be expressed. But the spring cannot be dammed up and controlled; such an act would staunch the very blood that brings it life.
Gablik notes the widening of interest in a “transdisciplinary approach” to art, a form “in which the individual artist becomes an integral component of a larger social network” (par. 9). One aspect of this approach welcomes artists showing an interest and becoming involved in “social and environmental domains” (par. 9), just as the bands we watched were promoting meaningful, social causes. I feel that, to some extent, this has always been the thrust of meaningful and enduring art. Gablik comments on the need to adopt a multidimensional form of art that “is more in harmony with the interconnected nature of the real world” (par. 17). Art – whether a poem or a painting, a symphony or a sculpture – pulls back, for a moment, the blinds that we often keep over our eyes while we walk all too quickly through our days. It reveals something of our true selves, or of the selves we are called to by God, or of the harmony of nature, or of our place within that greater rhythm.
Art invites us to stop, to reflect, to take in with deep, life-bringing breaths the beauty that surrounds us. When artists remain true to themselves and true to the One who has created them with art deep within their soul, true to the world in which they live and the people within that world, they create unique works that promote change for the better in some lasting way. And that art is infused with purpose.
“About Compassion International.” About Us. Compassion International. n.d. Web. 6 March 2016.
“Hands and Feet Project: Caring for the Orphaned and Abandoned.” Hands and Feet Project. n.d.. Web. 6 March 2016.
Nicole, Britt. Gold. Britt Nicole. Capitol Records, 2012. MP3.
Suzi, Gablik. Beyond the Discipline: Art without Borders. New York: Landau-Alan Gallery, 1967. Green Museum. The Monongahela Conference. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.