As artists, we give things worth.
And as doctors, writers, musicians, cashiers, and barristas. Humans all.
But I can't speak for barristas- so we're going with artists for now.
There's my neat little hypothesis, all layed out at the start so I can write you all the way back to it like a good little high-school english student :)
Every now and then, I feel a blog post coming on- and more often than not, they are a long time in the making...usually it takes a good few broods to come to the point where I feel the need to write.
That's today- summer is coming to a close, the wind is crisp and the omnipresent New-England smell of something-burning-in-a-good-way is starting to waft in from everywhere. But rather than talk about pumpkin-spice-everything, I want to talk about something else that's been on my mind (as ever, it's something I need to sort out for my self much more than something I have any authority on- but that is what the self-indulgent blogosphere is for right? and hopefully someone else out there will get something out of it all) I want to talk about worth.
(And, as usual, it'll probably involve me talking about art and God and stuff. So if you're hear just to see some Pokemon, better skip it- more pokemon are on the way eventually :p)
When I don't think too closely, I seem to fall back on the strange idea that worth is objective- that we determine worth according to a system. You know- like money and stuff?
But I think we all know, on further reflection, that it isn't quite right. I'm not an econmonist, and can barely handle simple math (which is why I never worked at Coldstone creamery, tootally different story...) but it seems like that's too simplistic.
When the glove of a beloved baseball player can be sold for thousands of dollars on ebay- ordinary objects sold for FAR above their basic material value, in general- you have to acknowledge that some alchemy is transpiring that isn't purely scientific.
Somebody's screwing with my simple concept of what something is worth. It's got some of that icky subjectivity all up on it. And I'm not fond of subjectivity- it makes all my boxes leak into one another and it's really hard to tidy up my world-view that way.
It seems, to me, that we ascribe worth to things when they are loved. So it follows that we give worth to things when we love them.
Put cynically: The more people love something, the more it can be sold for; the more worth we communally agree it has.
A simple and slightly embarrassing example- but who else hasn't suddenly noticed someone, simply because they were loved or desired by someone else? Suddenly you sit up and take notice, because there must be something you weren't seeing before. Nothing about that actual person is changed, but now the fact that somebody else is interested in them makes you interested.
Bluntly: Ladies in relationships are highly desirable to single dudes (I'm lookin at you, beardo). It seems like people or things who are desirable are, if you follow, desirable because they are desired- it snowballs until nobody knows how on earth someone like Kim Kardashian got her own reality show. Alright, bad example, but-
What does this have to do with art?
I think that when we make art- the best of our art- we love.
We pick out something, and we notice it.
An artist pours all their attention into the things that people otherwise might pass over- the curve of a neck, the crook of a tree trunk, the wrinkling of the nose, the way someone's hand falls just-so on the table, the rough hew of a wooden door, the little bit of green in the blue of the sky as the sun starts to lower itself, the way the moon hangs faintly behind the clouds in the afternoon. I think it's why a lot of us have weird fixations- hairless cats, old worn and ripped things, snakes, strange color combinations, ogres- because we're paying closer attention to overlooked things and finding the beauty.
We notice, and we point people's attention to the details we love most.
That's what makes stylization so alluring- we are simplifying the visual statement to direct your attention to this-kind-of-arm or that-kind-of-smile. We create patterns from our love and attention.
You adore something by focusing all your attention on it. Art is a dimension of love. And from love we begin to derive worth. If we're being not-so-cynical.
So when we make art- we are making value. We are adding value to the things we draw. We are noticing the beauty in something, and showing others who might otherwise never look- and they are looking with fresh eyes at the world around them. They start to notice, too.
A spot becomes worth something because someone painted it. "This is the exact field he painted, and he stood right here!" (for the MA locals, see: Walden Pond)
Somebody noticed this place. There must be something you weren't seeing before.
Something is worthwhile because it is loved.
Someone is worthwhile because they are loved.
And here's maybe where God steps from behind the curtain (he was there all along, sneaky guy). And it's also where this becomes personal.
I spend so much of my life scrabbling for worth- trying to place myself on an objective ladder- a scale of worth, deciding where I fit and why I matter. I think we all do this to one extent or another, and when you really pull it out and look at it, it's pretty ugly: I'm more-handsome-than-so-and-so but less attractive than what's-his-face. I'm more talented than those people, but far less accomplished than she is.
We let these things determine our worth for us, but are baffled when someone comes along and tells us "you are beautiful." or that very perturbing "I love you".
Is anyone else tempted to pull out the lists and show them how wrong they are? "Well, you see- you're clearly mistaken because you haven't seen what's-his-face. You'd know I can't possibly compete. You're wrong."
I've been struggling with this whole concept lately- because I spend a lot of my life moving between wildly different contexts. I recently went to San Diego for Comic Con, and it was an incredible experience (as it often is) to be a nerd among nerds. It is beautiful and heartening to find others who care and value the things you care about and value. Especially when those things are Pokemon. And in that context, I found that I (absurdly) felt important.
(I often feel the same way on the internet- hits and likes and comments make me feel worthwhile and important. A lack thereof is a hit to my self esteem. I'm sure nobody can relate to that :p)
I felt that I had something to contribute- my art, my interests- I fit somewhere on the worth-ladder, and it made me feel good. I make a kind of sense in nerd-world. I fit.
But returning home is a different story.
The world away from nerddom can be jarring for a variety of reasons, but I'll pick a simple example: I came home to that most dreadful of summer passtimes; a day at the beach. I've always been self-conscious about the way I look. Freelance illustration hasn't done me any favors :p I've spent my whole life chasing a kind of professional worth, and as a result, at the beach, I feel like I don't have anything to contribute. There's a paradigm at work, and fuzzy art-hobbits don't measure up particularly well against bro-guy and his dudebuddies. And being a Brony isn't the same thing.
There are all kinds of beautiful people on display, and if my personal worth is determined by how much I am worth according to the beach paradigm, then I am pretty much a non-entity. I feel pretty worthless at the beach, when just days before I felt on top of the world at a convention of nerds. Weird.
By the time we move on to mini-golf, and I begin to regain some sense of personal worth based on how well I angled that tiny orange golfball under that comically proportioned wind-mill, I begin to think something might be seriously effed up about the way I'm choosing to determine my own value.
But then I think about love. And when I think about love, I think about my parents. I have never had a child- but I can imagine some part of what it must be like to hold a squalling little baby in your hands. And it doesn't matter whether it's handsome or whether it's got great plans for a new graphic novel- it's amazing because it's alive. And you love it because you love it. It's impressive enough to them, even now, that I live and think and breathe and try and struggle and hope. I don't need to accomplish anything to earn that love.
I am not worthwhile because of what comic-con tells me I'm worth. I am not worth what the beach-paradigm of beautiful summer people imply- because I have other kinds of worth, and because you could look rad at the beach and be a pretty crappy dude, and my talent could wax or wane or I could lose my right hand in a car accident and then where would I be in nerd-world? Also, art is neat but it's a shallow place to fix your hope of 'mattering' to the world.
I think this is an important point- both paradigms are broken. The art/work-as-worth paradigm as much as any other. I've seen online and in the art community (and coming out of art-school) a tremendous push towards the mentality of you-are-your-work. The idea that your work, your art, what you bring to the table, determines what you amount to.
I can't stand it. It blows my mind, in particular, when I've found people are jealous of where I'm at while I, all the while, am jealous of the next guy. Working in the video-game industry, illustrating a book, having achieved some measure of 'success' at a young age isn't enough- if you are fixing your hope that attaining those things will make you feel more worthwhile, please stop. It won't. You will always be hungry for more, and we just perpetuate the cycle by telling that lie over and over again.
I think sometimes we feel the need to work ourselves up into this frenzy about the all-importance of our work because otherwise it costs us too much to do it at all. It's the culture in game-development (and film, and illustration, and...) that keeps people away from their families and crunching at their desks until the wee hours. But it's not all-important. It's beautiful and good and edifying and fun. But it's not all important. You are not worthwhile because of what you produce.
You are worthwhile because you are loved.
And not just loved by the people in your life that you care about. Because people's love is fleeting, and even a parent's love is subject to change. Art-worth and body-worth and intellectual-worth all have merit, but ultimately fall short- I will spend all my life chasing after those things, and never ever feeling full. Never feeling worthwhile enough. There will always be someone more beautiful, more intelligent, more talented, more popular, more accomplished, better dressed, and more motivated.
You are worthwhile because you are loved by God.
That's a hard one to get my head around. And to be perfectly honest- I'm still trying to get my head around it.
But my friend (and pastor) Andrew is fond of bringing this thought back again and again; what would the world look like if everyone walked around knowing they were truly, unconditionally loved at the depth of their being? What would people be free to do? What would we stop chasing? How much more could we in turn go and love others. It would be incredible.
And I think he's right. That's what's on offer in Christ. That is close to he heart of what this whole Christian-faith things is about.
It is not a political agenda, or a set of commandments constituting a checklist for worthiness; it is first and foremost a belief that we are loved. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" John 3:16
That is a dream worth striving towards and a hope worth hoping. How could it not profoundly effect my entire outlook on life?
Out of that place, (which is a place I can rarely stay for long before my attention and energy gets sucked away by short-sighted desires to prove my importance) I get so excited about art-making.
Because we can participate in loving, through what we do.
And when our worth comes from somewhere else, we are not earning worth for ourselves when we make art- we are giving it away to others.
That is one of the ways that making art can be like praying a prayer.
Like thankfulness made manifest.
We can love and show others the worth in things they might have overlooked when we set pen to paper.
And so we can be about our Father's business.
That is incredible.
And if that keeps me at my desk till the wee-hours, then so be it. But I don't want to be driven to make art because I have some sense that it is going to justify my continued existence as a human being...because I've been made to feel that it is me. My work is not my worth (neither is yours)
That is something I need to remember on dark days. And something I often feel like I have little-to-no grasp on. Some days it's really hard to love or care or hope or anything- it's really easy to give up. I'm never sure about anything, and it's just as easy to give up on art as it is to give up on faith. Despair is the easiest thing in the world- I think it's easy to despair when I am convinced that my worth depends on how well the next piece turns out. How impressed people are by me, and realizing that I fall very short by those standards.
And yet, I am blessed beyond what I can hold- I haven't earned a bit of it. I don't deserve the family or friends I have, but all I can do is offer thanks for the love that has been poured out for me. Thank you all, and more than that thank God for the love I don't deserve. "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance." Psalm 16: 6
I didn't earn any of that.
Maybe we don't earn worth. Maybe we're given it for free.
Maybe we can give it as freely as we receive it.
I hope you are blessed and feel loved today- truly truly. Wherever this finds you.