The otherness of artists

October 31, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Having spent most of my life in Winnipeg, a city of about 750 thousand which apparently has as prolific an arts scene as a city of several million people, I’ve developed a great love of the literary, visual and musical arts. It’s also occurred to me that I’m by no means the only Mennonite of this generation with these inclinations – you might have noticed that quite a bit of this Young Voices section of the Canadian Mennonite has been devoted to various young Mennonite artists. I seem to have a lot of friends with Mennonite connections of one kind or another who are not just into these things in their spare time, as a hobby – they’re actually making a career out of visual art or music or writing. They’re not only dabbling in the arts, but possess real artistic talent. So it got me thinking about the connections between being a Mennonite and being an artist – there’s got to be some link there, right?

What makes art good, in my opinion, is that it depicts or evokes something familiar and yet novel and truly original – that’s where its transformative power lies, its power to speak truth and foster change and reflection. There is an element of extraordinariness to good art, then, which maintains a distance or “otherness” from the mainstream way of seeing the world. Artists, in this sense, are removed or step outside of the accepted norms into an alternative perspective. So they forge their own path, and in doing so create something that has never been before. In theology, God is said to have created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing, so the difference is that artists create something new, but out of something, out of the raw materials and God-given creativity and inspiration they have available to them.

What does all this have to do with Mennonites, though? Well, clearly, the Mennonite tradition has a long history of being “other” – of being outcasts and/or rebels, of living in a subculture outside of the mainstream. Of course, such seclusion is not always a good thing. Instead of promoting creativity, small, isolated communities can also squelch it, and those in power can demand conformity and uniformity; this has happened in the history of Anabaptism. But at their best, such communities cultivate in their members an alternative, often subversive perspective. Looking at the Mennonite church in Canada today, I see this as a real strength, and as a key reason why so many of us are involved in the arts.

The Canadian arts scene more generally is already outside of the mainstream in many ways, since despite popular opinion, we’re not just a tack-on to the U.S. – there’s no such thing as “North American culture.” We are our own animal(s) up here, and because of this, the independent and grassroots art scene is thriving in Canada. To this already alternative voice, Mennonites of our generation are adding their still-more-distinct voice, with some fantastic, downright brilliant results. Of course, the “thriving” and “results” I’m talking about usually don’t translate into colossal financial success (especially in the current economic climate). The nature of such original thinking is that the mainstream doesn’t recognize it, and doesn’t reward it; a lot of good art simply doesn’t sell, since it doesn’t fit the commercialized mould, or else its genius isn’t recognized till much later (such as the famous Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, who died in poverty).

In this sense, the old saying that artists must suffer for their art is true. As the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks once said, “Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home.” Of course it’s easier and less lonely in some ways to go along with the popular view. It’s also usually a lot more lucrative, since art doesn’t guarantee you an income, especially if you’re true to the otherness of your perspective. But then again, the Anabaptist tradition prepares artists for this too, since it provides a precedence for standing up for what you believe in, even if that involves making certain sacrifices. All the various cultures of Mennonites have this in common; it certainly isn’t limited to Germanic/European Mennonites – it’s a sense of adventure, creativity, and fiercely independent thinking. It’s the courage to choose to be constructively instead of purely critically “other” than the mainstream, to purposefully live on the margins, despite the loss of status or financial security that involves. When it comes down to it, isn’t that what discipleship, the heart of Mennonite theology, is all about? So here’s to the artists among us: keep up the good work. I think we could all learn a thing or two from you.

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