So What, Who is an Artist, Anyway?

We are meditating on the profound interconnections between the Via Creativa and the Via Transformativa.  In his classic work Art and Artist psychologist Otto Rank defines the artist this way: “One who wants to leave behind a gift.”

“To My Old Brown Earth” by the late Pete Seeger.
From PBS American Masters series “Pete Seeger: Power of Song” in 2007.

Isn’t that an interesting definition of an artist?  Doesn’t that give you pause?  Doesn’t that include almost all of us?  Are we all desiring to leave behind a gift?

What is implied in this definition of an artist?  First, that we are in touch with our mortality, that we all know we are leaving.  Sometime.  Why not leave a gift behind? 

But what is a gift?   A gift is a positive thing.  A special thing that gives joy or meaning to others.  A good thing.  A blessing.  Maybe a unique thing, a part of oneself, a deep part of oneself. 

A gift of physical and spiritual nourishment to the next generation: a self-sustaining food forest. Photographer unknown; from Appropedia

Do we all want to leave a deep part of ourselves behind that is a gift and not a poison, a blessing and not a curse, something good, something that gives others delight and joy?  Isn’t the drive to leave something good behind a big Thank You for having lived?  Do we all desire to say Thank You as we leave?

If so, then we are all artists.  Let me say it again, we are all artists.  We are all co-creators with the Holy Spirit, therefore we are all artists.  We all have gifts to give, gifts of ourselves, our deepest selves, therefore we are all artists.

“Mother and Child.” Photo by Raul Angel on Unsplash

Whom are we ultimately giving our gift to?  Rank declares: “The artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning in life, to God.”

In my recent book on Names for God wherein I offer 89 “wonderful and useful” names for the Divine, number three is this: “God is the One to Whom We Give Our Thanks.”  I tell the story of Dorothy Day who as an atheist and communist at the time became pregnant but was so overcome by the wonder and beauty of bearing a new living being inside her that she converted to Christianity.  Why?  “Because I had to give thanks to someone” she said.  God is the One to whom we render our Thanks.

Rank is by no means alone in his insight that we are all artists.  Navajo painter and shaman David Palladin taught the same thing.  Toward the end of his life he declared that he was sick and tired of white people telling him they were not artists.  “If you can talk, you are an artist” he would say.  Translating your experiences and feelings into language is art.  So get over it.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, “Otto Rank on the Artistic Journey as a Spiritual Journey and the Spiritual Journey as an Artistic Journey,” in Matthew Fox, Wrestling with the Prophets, 199-213. 

Matthew Fox, Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God…Including the Unnameable God, p. 4.

Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

Banner image: “Kiva Painting For The Snake Priest.” Painting by David Chethlahe Paladin. From Painting the Dream: The Shamanic Life and Art of David Chethlahe Paladin, by David Chethlahe Paladin with a foreword by Matthew Fox.

Queries for Contemplation

What does Rank’s definition of artist as “one who wants to leave behind a gift” do for you?  What might it do for transforming society?  Education for example?

Do you recognize yourself as an artist?  Why?  Why not? What is your gift you are eager to leave behind?

Recommended Reading

In one of his foundational works, Fox engages in substantive discussions with some of history’s greatest mystics, philosophers, and prophets on today’s social and spiritual issues on such challenging topics as Eco-Spirituality, AIDS, homosexuality, spiritual feminism, environmental revolution, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism, Art and Spirituality, Art as Meditation, Interspirituality, and more.

Too often, notions of God have been used as a means to control and to promote a narrow worldview.  In Naming the Unnameable, renowned theologian and author Matthew Fox ignites our imaginations by offering a colorful range of Divine Names gathered from scientists and poets and mystics past and present, inviting us to always begin where true spirituality begins: from experience.

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.

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