Like it or not, practicing an art means wrestling with power, including, in St. Paul’s phrase, the “powers and principalities.” Powers of destruction, on one hand, and sustenance, on the other. Destruction that can, as we’ve seen too many times, include the artist. Hence, the fascination with Faust. With madness. Alcoholism. And on. Self-absorption and inflated self-importance rather than humble service.
We hazard much, often without the slightest awareness of the risks afoot. For the Christian, these involve Satan’s dominion over “the world,” which includes the realm of the arts; in Asian teachings, we can turn to the traps of Maya, that spider web of worldly attraction and deadly illusion. Either way, cause to be wary. Need for disciplined faith. Yes, let’s introduce something we’ll call Satan, just to thicken the drama.
Which raises an ancient point of conflict for a Christian artist: I’m not at all sure art is a proper activity for a Quaker. Through much of Friends’ history, most of the arts were considered superfluous and dishonest engagements taking our attention away from true worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is the way one expressed it while returning an unread novel to a neighbor.
Yes, “we Quakers read only true things,” or used to. The exclusion of not just fiction but theater and paintings and sports as distractions from worship. Traps of the flesh?
And yet: discipline is essential in spiritual growth. Self-discipline, route to true freedom. And where is the mind without imagination? I continue to read and write fiction and poetry. I love symphonies, string quartets, and opera. I’m a baritone or occasional tenor in four-part a cappella singing. When I practice my art, I am fed by this love/compulsion/infusion.
So we’re back to the ways and spirit in which we engage the powers and principalities, and the ways we order our lives.