Faith, Art and Community

In April of this year the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany won the Stella prize for female writers and promptly shared a hefty chunk of her prize money with the remaining five shortlisted authors. Tiffany claimed it felt fantastic to share her winnings. She said it was “a way we can celebrate the many, rather than celebrate the few.” Her story really intrigued me. In a period of economic austerity and increasing competitiveness, Tiffany’s attitude struck me as compellingly counter-cultural; an act which embodied my understanding of what artistic community should aspire to. As a writer and arts facilitator I believe that community should be an integral part of how our city builds a sustainable, and indeed quality, arts and cultural scene. As a Christian I believe that God - having wired humanity for relationship in family, church and society - is passionate about community. Through creative partnership and collaboration, I have personally experienced the value of community. The Biblical adage “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” (Proverbs 27:17), has proven itself painfully accurate, and my writing is a sharper and more powerful act for all the brave souls who’ve offered encouragement and critique. Despite the isolated nature of novel-writing I couldn’t have completed my first book without the support and inspiration of the incredible community of writers and artists who call Belfast home. Community, in the truest and most honest sense, is integral to a healthy arts scene. Artists rage against stagnancy in their work. In my experience the meeting of creative minds, whether they be artists, business professionals, teachers or politicians, can be a vital weapon in this war; breathing fresh life, innovation and imagination into tired practices. The short story writer Raymond Carver expresses this eloquently when he writes, “the places where water comes together with other water. Those places stand out in my mind like holy places.” Like Jacob wrestling God for a blessing, the marrying of actively, creative minds has always been an awkward, messy process and yet for me, a spirit-filled experience; a place from whence emerges the most innovative, challenging and precious art. Art of any depth requires outside influence. For most artists this is a difficult journey, painful, exhilarating and best practised within a supportive and challenging community. However, Carrie Tiffany’s act points towards an understanding of artistic community grander than mere collaboration or even support. Over the last few months I have been ruminating on what it would look like to incorporate the counter-cultural values of the Kingdom of God into the arts community and I see these same values embodied in Tiffany’s desire to honour the many alongside the few. Primarily, as artists we must operate from a place of security rather than fear. As artists who pursue life with Jesus our identity is found first in God and then, not in the artistic role, but in the art we create; scratchings at, and signposts to, the bigger beauty, truth and reality of the Creator. We strive to pursue excellence and discipline in our work, secure in the knowledge that we are gracefully accepted in spite of our failings. A serious artist, whether subscribing to a Christian faith or not, will want to shirk the self in pursuit of “Good Art.” Community is a fabulous, and arguably God-designed space, in which to practice this fine art of dying to self. As artists our motivation should be “Good Art” not individual success or fame. True community should bind us to one another and as such a success for a fellow artist will be a win for the whole community, and an individual disappointment, a shared sorrow. The desire, as expressed by Tiffany, to honour others with whatever influence you are given, is an opportunity to move beyond the self and encourage the entire artistic community. Though simplistic, and perhaps obvious, to those of us familiar with the Biblical model of the Body of Christ - each part equal and essential - such a radical idea of community sits uneasily in the contemporary art world where funding cut backs, forced competitiveness and scathing critique often fosters a spirit of fear and negativity. If our arts scene, often critiqued for its provincialism and stagnancy, is to evolve towards excellence we need individuals like Carrie Tiffany who are prepared to upset the prevailing culture with a full, and outworked understanding of what radical artistic community should be. Jan Carson. Jan Carson is a writer, arts facilitator and theology graduate based in Belfast. Her first novel, "Malcolm Orange Disappears" is due for publication in early 2014.
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3 Responses to Faith, Art and Community

  1. Puran Agrawal commented on Contemporary Christianity:

    Thousand hurrahs for Carrie Tiffany for sharing her prize money with other shortlistd authors. Her gesture is definitely ‘couner-cultural’ as it would have been if she had donated the whole prize to a charity. But I am not sure in what sense her act embodies “what artistic commuity should aspire to.”

    “Community” is the buzz word nowadys in most public discussion. Even politicians are cashing on it, remember Cameron’s Great Socierty.My problerm is in understanding what it means, especially in a culture which is totally individualistic and egoistic. Take a number of churches in local area.What would it entail threm to act as a commuity? Occasional sharing of certain activities, including worship? Joining togerther for a prticular cause in pettioning or demonstration? What form would an artitic commuity take? Is not the predominant ethos of arts and artistic community a praise for individual achievement? Do not the myriad of prizes such as Orange prize and Man Booker prize for literature represnt and celebrate such an ethos?

    It would be a great help for someone like me who believes in creating community spirit in as many different ways as possible,if some one like Jan, and others who share her belierfs, will spell out more concretely and in more details what a particular community would look like, especially given the fact that most of us live fragmented and isolated lives, and this is true of most of the church-goers.

    Puran Agrawal

  2. Puran Agrawal says:

    Thousand hurrahs for Carrie Tiffany for sharing her prize money with other shortlistd authors. Her gesture is definitely ‘couner-cultural’ as it would have been if she had donated the whole prize to a charity. But I am not sure in what sense her act embodies “what artistic commuity should aspire to.”

    “Community” is the buzz word nowadys in most public discussion. Even politicians are cashing on it, remember Cameron’s Great Socierty.My problerm is in understanding what it means, especially in a culture which is totally individualistic and egoistic. Take a number of churches in local area.What would it entail threm to act as a commuity? Occasional sharing of certain activities, including worship? Joining togerther for a prticular cause in pettioning or demonstration? What form would an artitic commuity take? Is not the predominant ethos of arts and artistic community a praise for individual achievement? Do not the myriad of prizes such as Orange prize and Man Booker prize for literature represnt and celebrate such an ethos?

    It would be a great help for someone like me who believes in creating community spirit in as many different ways as possible,if some one like Jan, and others who share her belierfs, will spell out more concretely and in more details what a particular community would look like, especially given the fact that most of us live fragmented and isolated lives, and this is true of most of the church-goers.

    Puran Agrawal

  3. Osmond Mulligan says:

    How refreshing to hear of Carrie Tiffany’s generosity with her prize money!
    Firstly, it is brave of her to share the spoils, but secondly, it is good that she has the humility to do so publicly. A lot of Christians are afraid to let it be known what they are doing for others, in case they are criticised for appearing to be self glorifying. I f good works are done for the sole purpose of doing the will of God then it should not matter to us what others say. If we acknowledge that all we are and all we have been able to achieve is the result of God’s gifting to us, then any glory should be given back to God who is the source of our ability and motivation.
    This is where real community is enriched; when all of us can rejoice in the gifting of others in that community, even in their temporary elevation in the minds of the wider world. rather than quibbling about someone’s motivation, let us rejoice together when one of our number is honoured, or has truly achieved greatness. This is just be as true for groups or Movements or Church de nominations as it is for individuals. Let us all celebrate what God is doing elsewhere even if He is not (able) to do the same in our fellowship.

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