These days, calling someone amateur is an insult. If you’re an amateur, you don’t have the “skillz to pay the billz.” By amateur, we generally mean an inept know-nothing with no expertise—a hack.
But I want to rescue the label amateur from its current dishonor. It’s my opinion that the greatest potential in the arts today comes from amateurs. We need more of the amateur spirit, not less. What do I mean?
Some musicians have an unmistakable sound. It only takes a few seconds to audibly recognize Billie Holiday in her penetrating rendition of “Love for Sale,” Glenn Gould and his emotive interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or even the Punch Brothers in their progressively intricate compositions for bluegrass ensemble. What makes these artists so distinct? This question lies at the center of every musician’s creative journey. As an artist, one is always seeking a more unique self-expression through his or her medium. Unfortunately, this search is so ambiguous and esoteric, it drives many to give up before that desire can be fulfilled. No musician is born fully realized—creative self-discovery is a rite of passage for all artists. However, by examining the elements of creativity, it is possible to demystify the process and practically cultivate one’s own distinct musical identity.
Those elements can be condensed to two broad categories: tradition and originality. Every creative output inevitably traces back to some combination of these two aspects. The specific utilization and appropriation of each strongly influences the formation of one’s musical identity. One without the other leads to stagnation and artificiality. In contrast, the artists who experience the most distinct creative success are the ones who stand firmly on the experience of past tradition in order to step forward into new original territory. Let’s unpack this a little.
Have you ever wondered why most Christian movies fall so flat? The vast majority of the Christian films produced in the last few decades rank among the worst movies ever made. In fact, at least one of them, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, had the dubious honor of being IMDb’s worst-rated movie of all time. (It’s currently tied for last.) It nearly swept the Razzies in 2014 too. One of its wins was for Worst Screen Combo: Kirk Cameron & His Ego. Ouch.
Some of the mockery and scorn leveled at Christian movies certainly stems from ideological differences. Most of the people who call Christian movies “lame” and “preachy” don’t belong to the choir. But as I’ve written before, much of the criticism leveled against Christian movies is completely legitimate, and we should take it seriously.
If you’re anything like most artists, and you probably are, you have a desire to become a great artist—a master. I have found very little information on how one goes about doing that. Most people talk like you either have genius in you or you do not. Though there may be some truth in this idea, mostly in terms of God’s discretionary privilege to grant gifts as he wills, this article will lay out the three stages of learning that every virtuoso without exception has had to attain. What God has given each of us in terms of raw talent is his business. But your self-awareness, discipline, and commitment to growth is your business. Let’s get to it.
Imitation is the beginning of any learning process. The first step in becoming a master is imitating the masters. If you are a painter, that means trying to mimic the methods, subjects, and styles of famous paintings. You find out what you can about how the masters used light, color, brush types and strokes, formats, and media. And you copy them.
[Some people might be wondering why a Christian arts organization is conducting a survey to determine how Christians and non-Christians perceive mainstream Christian art. This article should explain our thinking. Oh, and, if you haven’t already, you should take that 2-question quick and easy survey.]
Last night, I watched the movie God’s Not Dead, and it was a little better than I was expecting. Sure, it had many of the problems most Christian movies have: an “emotional” score that undercuts actual emotion, underwhelming “celebrity” appearances, poor to middling acting throughout, bad writing at times, and an acceptable but unremarkable degree of overall technical craft. But it was also actually moving at times (when the music got out of the way), only intermittently preachy, and semi-occasionally believably written (i.e., some of the dialogue actually sounded like someone could have said it in real life).
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, is up there with Brian Wilson’s Smile as one of the greatest works of art never properly completed. But Dead Souls, at least to me, is so much more troubling because of the circumstances of its failure to launch.
Dead Souls was intended to be a literary trilogy paralleling Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three parts of the divine comedy are Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The first part of Dead Souls, the only part ever completed, pictures the protagonist Chichikov (whose name is meant to remind the reader of a suppressed sneeze) as a sniveling, scheming, petty worm of a man scraping for honors and wealth he never intends to earn or justify. It’s the Inferno portion of Gogol’s piece, and Gogol realized the ugly Chichikov (and the opulently indifferent feudal Russia) masterfully. The second part, what fragments are left of it, was to be Chichikov’s redemption through suffering (the Purgatorio portion of the narrative). Gogol was never satisfied with it. He burned almost every manuscript for it he wrote. Critics have wondered what happened to the project—and Gogol. His fictional output basically ground to a halt before his death. Most critics think the key to the whole thing is Gogol’s conversion to Christianity in 1840. As Robert Maguire explains: