In the history of western civilization, there has been a canon developed, encompassing all of the greatest works of painting, sculpture, music, writing, architecture, and other various aesthetic disciplines. While these disciplines don’t serve any life sustaining purpose (eating Michelangelo’s David would likely not provide enough calories for survival, and may otherwise cause some discomfort), they provide us with a great deal of pleasure, and help us to identify with various aspects of the human condition as experienced by people in other times, cultures, locales, etc.. Given that we have this great canon and history of the arts and other non-essential disciplines, why should we continue to pursue the creation and perfecting of these various art forms? Surely we have enough, don’t we? While a developed palate to appreciate these arts is something that should be desired, crafted, and otherwise upheld as an appropriate goal, a developed taste is not all that we should be seeking to create within ourselves or within students. Basic education in any field will allow students upon completing their particular training to have accessed, and had some minimal, unhoned, and rough understanding of a particular field. A more intermediate education might allow the pupil to interact with what they run into, and give them the basic tools required to critically think and approach whatever they might run into. But, we should not simply be seeking the ability to review, critique, or otherwise enjoy the masterful works of ages past. It is better for an individual to produce art (or any other non-essential thing) at mediocre quality as an active producer, than it is to appreciate masterful works of bygone ages.
While it may be the case that the painting or sculpture produced by the typical art student is less objectively beautiful, powerful, or communicative than the work of any master of the same discipline that has gone before the student in the eyes of an impartial audience, the creator of the work of mediocrity will certainly partake of greater pleasure and draw greater meaning from their own work. While this does not change the objective fact that the work of the master is greater than that of the student (and this should be kept in mind by the student, to keep him from falling into uncontrollable narcissism), it does not diminish from the fact that the work of the individual will bring both greater joy and pleasure to its creator than simply viewing or otherwise experiencing the work of another. It is both appropriate and wise to recognize that no artist creates from altruistic motives. Those that create create either for their own pleasure, for the pleasure of an audience, or in most cases, both. We should not expect them to do otherwise. J.R.R. Tolkien did not write about Middle Earth because he knew it would make others happy, he did it because Middle Earth was where his heart and mind truly belonged, and because it put food on his table. Alison Krauss did not (does not) lend the recordings of her vocal talents to the world out of a selfless or altruistic desire to give an audience peace and comfort, but rather because it is her means both to produce great, cultural art, and her lifelong meal ticket. There is no shame in recognizing these things, but there is in hiding from it. For any artist to produce, they first have to desire to produce. What those desires are born out of can be debated, but we do know that acting upon them brings those who create pride in, and happiness with a great deal of their creation, simply for the fact that they created it.
While since the beginning of time there have been those who create and cultivate, nearly as long there have been those who merely consume. Civilization has given these individuals or groups a name, the title of “barbarian”. The primary trait of barbarism is voracious consumption of anything that a barbarian can find, without in turn producing anything. This in turn forces barbarians to always be takers, and never givers or creators. While not in the sense of Norse seaward pillaging, or Celtic turf wars, I myself have an incredibly barbaric understanding of the arts, particularly the discipline of music. I consume so much music, so quickly, and so regularly, that by now I not only ought to know all there is to know about music, but I ought to be able to create my own, but I cannot. This is not for any want of opportunity, time, or any other necessary factor, it’s simply a product of my direction of efforts into other areas and disciplines. However, this does not make my individual understanding and consumption of music any less barbarous. The same could be said of any generation, were we to sit on our hands and simply consume the art and culture of others. While it may simply be difficult to find the particularly strong trees because of the woefully diseased forest, it would seem that ours may be one of these generations. We can in some minimal, barebones sense appreciate the great works of other times, but we have produced very few, if any, of our own. Our art for a substantial stretch of time has been subpar, primarily due to lack of production as a whole. The less players there are in any particular field, the lower the quality of the competition will be. This will not limit the truly great, but it woefully pulls down the level of play for the rest, and for those spectating. Were more producing, the level of mediocrity would rise, and with it the standard of excellence. Were more to create, there would be less vicarious, barbaric spectating, and more individual action and production. This is what has given us great works of art in the past, and it is what will give us great works of art in the present and future.
While it is true that for the collective whole (including those observing, creating, or some of both) a greater number of producers is both good and warranted, it is also important to understand non-essential production from an individual standpoint. Creating or producing anything non-essential for survival is about joy and pleasure for the creator or producer. The acts of studying, practicing, and producing in any non-essential discipline (painting, music, athletics, writing, etc.) will nearly universally bring more pleasure to those performing them than those observing them. Although both are great delights, I delight far more in pitching in a recreation baseball league in the summer than I do in watching the world series in the fall. I find greater enjoyment in writing my own works than I do in reading the works of others, no matter how good the other’s work is, or how bad my own may be. Appropriate pleasure ought to be sought by individuals actively, in contrast to our current attempts to enjoy it vicariously. It is certainly much easier to watch a professional throw a ball with force, accuracy, and movement, than it is to learn to do it one’s self, but observing the professional performing this act should be more a means of inspiration (or a service as a reminder of when one could once do similar things) than a way for an individual to seek some kind of “high” through enjoying the performance of another. This is not to say that all people should be seeking to master every discipline, but it is to point out that we each ought to have our own. The dominion mandate is much less centered on getting enough calories for the day than it is on creating beauty, through effort, practice, and harmonizing complexity, gardenizing jungles. More joy will be brought to any individual who goes out and cultivates dominion (mediocre as it may be) than one who merely watches it happen.
It is clearly better for both individuals and civilization as a whole for a greater number of persons to produce non-essentials such as works of art at mediocre quality than to simply consume (even appreciatively) the great works of masterful creators and cultivators of times past. The continued production of arts and other non-essentials brings pleasure to the individuals creating them, creating furthered enjoyment for both the individual makers and the collective whole of society. The ability and effort to continue producing to match or exceed our consumption of others’ work keeps us from becoming cultural barbarians, making us givers rather than takers in the grand scheme of history. As we become givers rather than takers, creators rather than consumers, we get to experience the process of learning about the arts, learning to appreciate and critique the arts, and finally to produce our own, instead of vicariously drawing some sense of joy and accomplishment through the labors of others. If we as individuals, as the church, and as all the image-bearers of God understand this, we can gain access to the great conversation, not merely as auditors, but as orators, proclaiming the glory of God and the beauty of His creation through the beauty we cultivate ourselves.