Success in the Arts

When I speak to young people about writing, I wonder if they will have the discipline and fortitude to endure the years of hardship that most apprentice writers must experience. I also wonder if they will have the wisdom to cope with success, should it ever come their way.

As an aspiring author in the 1960s and ’70s, I had a powerful drive to succeed. If I had been pressed to define the term, I would have said that a successful author is one who is able to support himself and his family through his writing. He should be able to make a living with his craft.

But there was more to it. I began to notice that many of the “successful” people in creative fields suffered fractured lives that led them into depression, burnout, alcoholism, drug abuse, hedonism, and divorce—estrangement from faith, family, and community . . . everything that really mattered.

It seemed a cruel hoax. After an author, actor, musician, or artist had mastered his craft, after struggling and clawing his way to center stage, there he encountered a mockery of his ambitions, a dark mirror image that was, in fact, the direct opposite of success.

“Success” is a powerful concept in American culture. We are often described as “success-driven.” We want our children to succeed, and we use success as a standard to measure a life and a career. We might suppose that anything so important would have a clear definition, but that is not the case in artistic professions.

I think it is important that people in creative fields define themselves and their ambitions outside the context of popular culture. Popular culture offers fame and fortune but has no moral center. It is a fire that warms itself and uses artistic people as fuel. The fire burns hot for a while; then the ashes go to the dump.

It is a familiar story and should remind us of the question Jesus asked in Mark 8:36. To paraphrase: “What is left of you after you have become a star?”

Until fairly recent times, art was viewed as more than the self-expression of an individual. It served a community and had moral, ultimately religious, functions: to present a coherent vision of who we are as human beings and to provide guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in the short span of time we have on this earth.

The sense of community that nurtured and inspired artists in the past is hard to find in the present day, but it is not impossible. I have found remnants of it among people who try to view experience through the lens of a Christian worldview.

In such environments artistic people can find a purpose, an audience, and a professional identity (some call it a “vocation”) within the same stream of thought and belief that has nurtured great writers, composers, artists, and thinkers for the past two thousand years—four thousand, if we include our rich heritage from the Old Testament.

In that context, the artist serves something higher than himself. His art should be more than a summary of his lust, nightmares, and petty desires. And even though success in America is inextricably linked with money, success in the arts should deliver more than a fat bank account.

Christian artists must balance the needs of the flesh with the needs of the soul, bearing in mind that some things should not be put up for sale. If you are writing or performing for someone else’s children, while your own children live as orphans, you are not selling your talent; you are selling your children—your soul.

Further, there are some songs that maybe you should not sing, some books you should not write, some movie roles you should not take, and some words you should not say.

Popular culture might not understand that kind of thinking, but our grandparents’ generation would have had no problem understanding it. There are some things you should not do for money.

From a Christian perspective, something is amiss when the artist entertains his audience but corrupts himself and the people he loves. As Francis Schaeffer once observed, the artist’s ultimate work should be his own life.


This article first appeared in World Magazine.