The Burden of Autonomy
When I was working with clients as a graphic designer, there was one statement that I never wanted to hear: ‘You can do whatever you want.’ While I always appreciated the inherent trust they had in me, this was always a death sentence to the project. The reason is not because I didn’t enjoy being creative or exploring new avenues for a project. Nor was it necessarily related to whether I found the project interesting. The problem was the statement wasn’t true. I couldn’t do whatever I wanted. I could only really do ‘whatever I wanted’ as long as it was in line with their unarticulated, potentially sub-conscious, ideas of what they wanted the project to look like. This kind of statement invariably led to unmet deadlines, heated discussions, and general frustration.
In my own journey as an artist, it’s taken me a while to understand and appreciate why this statement is not true. Surely, this kind of freedom would be any designer’s dream after being bound up by profiles sent over by marketing or constrained by budgets and corporate colour schemes. But, for me, this statement—‘You can do whatever you want’—comes from a misconstrued understanding of who the artist is in relation to the world around her. The modern art era heralded the autonomy of the artist, ‘liberating’ artists to new heights of near divinity as in their autonomy they had unique access to the Other – that which is not ourselves. Wassily Kandinsky, in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, puts artists at the top of his spiritual pyramid that is taking humanity towards heaven. The artist and his work sit at the apex and act as a guide for the rest of humanity as we all move towards the spiritual that is beyond.
While there are many theological critiques that one can give for such a position, let me offer a personal one. As humans, I don’t think we are meant to carry the weight of autonomy that has been given to artists. William Dyrness, in his book Visual Faith, reminds us that artistic autonomy is a fairly recent idea, instituted by the Romantic movement and then built upon by later art movements. Before the Renaissance, artists were not called ‘creative’. Instead, artistry was ‘seen as a kind of stewardship of the creative order, or the religious tradition, not absolute creativity’ (115). Dyrness considers a Biblical understanding of artistry and notes that while all Christians are called to model Christ, ‘artists are called in a particular way to serve the created order.’ They are limited by the creation around them and the call to dominion in Genesis 2 has special relevance to artists. ‘…Through these senses the artist hears the call to servanthood’ (154).
In the same way that I needed parameters set around a job in order for my creativity to flourish (and to preserve the client-designer relationship), God has set parameters around the artist by His creation (we don’t create out of nothing in the way God does) and by calling us to serve and steward the created order. As an artist, we never sit down with a blank canvas or screen, but we start with the world around us in both its creation and its limitations. As a servant, I’m challenged to ‘look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others,’ and when I do, what I create becomes much bigger (and more fulfilling). In my experience, true artistic freedom comes once an artist lets go of the burden of autonomy.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Eric Merrell