The Servant Artist
The following is an adaptation of a keynote speech given by the author at Franciscan University at Steubenville in the Spring of 2018.
There is much that can be said about artists – most of it said by artists themselves. They are often bold and aggressive, obnoxious and arrogant, while also being insecure and shy, child-like and childish. They think of themselves as tortured because they suffer from an insatiable yearning that no amount of effort seems to relieve. They endure an itch that cannot be scratched. They stand in the midst of humanity and apart from it.
Insanely, they pour themselves into their work and then offer it to complete strangers to tear apart.
I admit that artists may be many things, but the best artists are servants.
A servant to whom – or what? There’s a good question.
Speaking as a Catholic, I believe artists must be servants of God and His work of redemption in the world. (The specifics of that work and how it appears in an artistic form is more than I dare to address here.)
I also believe an artist is a servant to art.
It sounds pretentious, even absurd, to write such a line. I immediately think of the egotistical artists who tried to excuse their self-indulgence by claiming to be at the beck-and-call of their art, like a kind of uncontrollable Tourette’s syndrome.
When I state that an artist is a servant to art, I mean the strange phenomenon in which the Creator yields to the Created. It’s a profound mystery to me. How else is it possible for me to become one with something I’ve written and yet be completely detached from it? How can I feel, without joking, that the best of anything I’ve written seems better than I am as a writer? How can I say without irony that I wish I could be as smart or as wise as some of the characters I’ve created?
It’s a wondrous thing to create anything because artists usually disappear into their creations. As a storyteller, I submit myself to a plausible and compelling plotline and follow it wherever it takes me. I yield to the integrity of my characters (which is why writers talk about characters taking on lives of their own, taking action the writer hadn’t planned). I discover them as I create them. Their voices are their own, not mine.
A friend of mine who has written a particularly successful series of novels was blasted by his fans because a character they loved had been killed. Tired of their complaints, he said, “I didn’t kill him. He was dead when I found him!”
It’s a great paradox: to create and to submit to what we create.
Even our identities are affected. I know of artists who yearn for anonymity even while burning with the desire to communicate. For myself, I do not write for people to know me but to read or hear or witness what I’m chronicling in my stories. I happily disappear into my creation. Sometimes I fear being consumed by it to the degree that I no longer exist.
E.M. Forster wrote: “The poet wrote the poem, no doubt. But he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read… We forget, for ten minutes, his name and our own, and I contend that this temporary forgetfulness, this momentary and mutual anonymity, is sure evidence of good stuff… Literature wants not to be signed.”
And yet art is signed. If not with a name, with a style, a particular point of view, a unique approach. The creator can’t help it. He must do something to suggest that he is alive, even if he is lost in the very thing he’s created.
Without Ebenezer Scrooge or Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, would anyone remember the name of Charles Dickens? For what would Mark Twain be remembered without Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer? What would we know of William Shakespeare unless we had Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Othello? Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Bach and Mozart, Walt Disney and John Ford… we remember them because of their creations.
At the very heart of it, artists fear the curse of being “the dead unremembered.” This is why artists yearn to create something that transcends them and their time and, hopefully, reflects the eternal.
Is that what great Art does?
I want to believe that long after I’m gone, long after my name has disappeared, what I’ve created will survive. I pray it is of a quality to last. If it is disposable – something readily dismissed or tossed aside – then I was a fool to invest so much of myself in it.
And that’s why I love the story of Hurum-Abi.
You probably don’t know him.
In the book of Second Chronicles (the sequel to First Chronicles), the great King Solomon had decided to build the long-awaited Temple for God. But he needs help, so he writes to the King of Tyre – a man named Hiram – and asks for supplies and help, including “a man skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze and iron, and in purple and crimson and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving.”
Astonishingly, King Hiram replies that he has just the man. Hurum-Abi. He writes to Solomon: “I have sent a skilled man, who has understanding, Hurum-Abi… who is trained to work in gold, silver, bronze, iron, stone and wood, and in purple, blue and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and to do all sorts of engraving and execute any design that may be assigned to him…”
So Hurum-Abi goes to work for Solomon to get the Temple built.
Hurum-Abi gets the one mention. We read little else about him. But behind that reference is a man’s life. Perhaps he had a family. He had friends. He had a life somewhere in Tyre. And he left it all to perform a task – to bring to bear his talents to help create a House for God.
Presumably, Hurum-Abi’s life went on after the Temple was completed. He did his work and went home.
And so we come to this statement at the beginning of chapter 5 in Second Chronicles: “Thus all the work that Solomon did for the house of the Lord was finished.” Not another word about good old Hurum-Abi.
Yet his legacy – small as it was – stands in Scripture. He had wisdom. He was skilled.
He was an artist. He was called. He was dedicated. He was the man of the moment, who played his role in the time he had. And in the end, he was anonymous.
I think about that a lot. When all is said and done, I’m a writer. It’s all I have ever been. I’d be terrible at anything else.
I’ve spent my life nurturing what talent and skills God has given me to do this job. I pray to be the man of the moment, who plays his role in his time with dedication and perseverance. And if, in the end, I go home and the chronicle never mentions me by name, but it acknowledges the work I did and how God used it for His purposes, then I’m happy with that. I know – and God knows – that I did the best I could with all I had. For Him.
I was good old Hurum-Abi.
What a wonderful legacy that would be… for any of us.