Imagine All the Artists Living a Masterpiece

All true creation resides in the Creator. In a strict sense, the human being is not capable of creativity. Everything that we “create” is made up of building blocks taken from the world and the mind of God.

This is a fact that too many modern and postmodern artists don’t understand. It is one of the great ironies of the past century that artists, in trying to be more “creative,” more “original” and less “derivative,” have found themselves able to fulfill this dream only by stripping down the arts — by eliminating, voiding and denying their basic foundations. In the visual arts, line, color, medium, space, frame and object have all been victims of the desire for novelty. In music, rhythm, melody, tone and harmony have suffered a similar fate. Left to his own devices, without the aid of God or the muses, man’s “creativity” turns out objects (or non-objects) that are meaningless, empty and interesting only to the truly devoted aesthetic nihilist.

What human beings are capable of is what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation.” In The Silmarillion, he uses the creation of the dwarves as an analog of human creativity. Aulë fashions the dwarves and imbues them with a sort of half-life. They live and move, but they don’t have any life beyond the will of their maker. Iluvatar (God) sees these creatures and, because of his love for Aulë, grants the dwarves something that is closer to true free will.

No artist can read this without understanding exactly what Tolkien is referring to. There is a moment when the limited creatures of the imagination seem to take on a kind of life; when they cease to merely act out the ideas of the artist like wooden puppets on a stage. The blue fairy descends and, with a flick of her wand, renders the artistic creation real. Characters begin to make decisions and to do things that the artist never expected. The line between contrivance and inspiration is crossed.

Contrived art is work that never reaches this point. There are several things that can cause this. One is a lack of faith on the part of the artist. The artist desires to control the imaginary world, to be the “creator” who decides what is going to happen in and with the work. The humbling recognition that the imagination must be impregnated from without is never achieved, and the result is work that might be intellectually “interesting” but that has no life within it.

The other possibility is a lack of properly developed imagination. The artistic imagination is a sort of receiver, an array for picking up inspirations. If it is not particularly powerful, the signal will not come in very strongly; there will be static and gaps, and the artist will be forced to try to fill in the missing pieces out of his own creativity. This produces works in which the “signal” cuts in and out. Some scenes will seem powerful and engaging, but there will be large pieces of “dead text,” scenes that seem unnecessary, musical phrases that don’t do much of anything, parts of the canvas that don’t contribute much to the whole.

Christian artists may suffer from either of these problems. We may say that we are consecrating our work to God, but still retain a desire to be in control. We may even fear that, if we allow the imagination to do its work, evil will sneak in by the back door. This fear can cause us to fall into that excess of vigilance that characterizes fearful pride. More often, though, the problem is a lack of well-developed imagination: We produce works that are rather trite and slightly embarrassing — fantasies made incarnate as works of art. These can be maudlin stories of facile conversions or insipid holy pictures or end-of-the-world martyrdom tropes acted out on film.

In the latter case, the inspiration may be real, but there is no possibility of realizing it in a convincing way. The imagination must be trained. It must learn to see all the details of a specific situation, to “hear” the unique voices of the characters that populate it, to “see” in color, to replicate the entire panoply of sensory input that makes up real human life. Only in this way can the inspiration be fully experienced by the artist and, in turn, properly communicated to the audience.

The audience, though, must likewise bring the imagination to bear. The artist is like a radio tower that both receives and transmits; the audience is like a radio that receives. If the imagination of an audience is dulled, the fullness of the inspiration will never plant itself in the mind that receives it.

We are all called to make of our lives “a masterpiece,” (see Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists), but we cannot do this unless we understand what a masterpiece is. The great masterpieces of our God — Scripture and creation — are works of an immeasurable imagination. If the imagination is dulled, it will not be able to fully receive and understand these works. It will miss out on the glory and grandeur of the world.

Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at