Gifts

A few months ago at the prompting of my friend Ruth, I fashioned a phone case out of an old Bible. I hollowed out the pages of the pocket-sized scriptures in a way that enabled me to couch my iPhone inside. When closed, it simply resembled a book. When open, the iPhone could be used without hindrance.

People who saw my phone case said almost without exception that I should make more of those cases and sell them on Etsy.com or in some other similar venue. I thought this was a pretty good idea, so I scoured going-out-of-business bookstores and garage sales and thrift stores for small cheap books and Bibles that would make good cases. Friends gave me small books they found here and there as well. Before I knew it, I had fifteen or so books ready to be transformed into iPhone cases.

I began working mostly in the evenings and on Saturday mornings as I watched movies and documentaries. I enjoyed the work. The method was methodical and meditative, requiring concentration but not so much that I couldn’t allow my mind to wander. For weeks I worked on the cases here and there as time allowed.

But I never completed a single case for selling.

I did complete two cases to give away though, both to my friend Simon who had supplied me with many small books. I completed both his cases in a single morning. The rest of the books are now stacked in my closet half finished, tiny testaments to potential production waylaid by my wavering attention span and the transitory nature of my creative impulse.

Or not.

I don’t think I failed to materialize the cases because I lost interest. I also didn’t cease production because I found the work too laborious. I think something deeper was at work in my psyche.

I LOVE to create, but I only love to create things to give away. I don’t like to create to sell. Creating to sell takes all the joy out the creative process for me. Materialism makes my making a means to a monetary end instead of a way to being beauty and joy into the world.

I am frequently chastised for this view, either directly or indirectly by other artists I encounter in person or in print. They argue that if I am doing good work there is nothing wrong with being paid for that work. They see my reluctance to ask for money for my creations as evidence of my fear of being judged. Additionally, they claim that people do not value that for which they do not pay. They say that I will actually increase the enjoyment someone gets out of what I make if I ask them to exchange something of themselves for it.

First of all, the idea that people only value what they pay for belies a misconstructed system of value. People value gifts often times more than they value that which they purchase. Granted, people are less likely to listen to music they download for free than music they paid for, but that is because when they obtain free music, they most frequently aren’t being given that music. They are taking it. On a scale of worth, we ascribe the least amount of value to that which we steal, a bit more value to that which we buy, and more value still to that which we are given as gifts. Musicians who offer their music for “free” in exchange for email addresses or FB posts and/or include a digital “tip jar” are not giving their music away. They are selling it, and that music will likely never be valued as much or in the same way as the song the young lover writes and performs for her beloved. Professional musicians are trying to make a living from their music, and so they can charge for their labor whatever they want, but they should understand that what they are giving to their audience will never be a pure gift and will never be valued as such.

Secondly, my reluctance to ask for money for my creations may indeed be rooted somewhat in my fear of judgement. I admit that I am as wary of criticism as the next person. However, I do not believe that the market is the best source of criticism about my work. In fact, I believe the market is a very poor judge of artistic merit. People are willing to pay for all sorts of crap, from Chia pets to Michael Bay movies, so I would not take much comfort from gaining approval from “the market.” If one’s goal is to be successful in the marketplace with one’s art, then the market is the place where that success must be achieved. I am not interested in being part of the market economy in my art-making. I am interested in being part of that economy in my film criticism, though, so I submit my reviews to the market where I am judged alongside everyone else and by the same criteria. I simply prefer a different system of exchange for my artistic endeavors.

Finally, regarding the admonition that if a person is doing good work, he or she should be paid for his or her work, I will say this – I think there are (at least) two kinds of “work” and “pay.” In my life, in any case, there are.

One is the kind of work I do to earn money to pay for things – organize events, manage the website, and write for Reel Spirituality. I enjoy this work very much, it involves many of my skills and interests, and it tires me, but by a method I don’t mind. I expect a timely and extrinsic reward for this work. I do it for the coin, the connections, and the professional cache. This work preserves my life.

The other kind of work I do is work to rightly order the world, to bring beauty to broken places, and to rejuvenate and resurrect what is dying or dead, both in myself and in the greater world. I enjoy this work, but not always, though I don’t let my dis-enjoyment keep me from doing it. It also involves my skills and interests, but often I find myself having to work out of a position of weakness in this work, relying on God and my community for the strength to see the work through. And this work requires me to spend myself in far more profound ways than my other work. I pour myself out into this second kind of work until I have nothing left. However, the rewards for this work are intrinsic, and it is through this process of emptying that I am filled with a satisfaction unlike any I get from my for-profit job. These intrinsic rewards are not timely, though they are sure, sometimes coming months, years, and decades after the fact.

There is some overlap between the two kinds of work. I have moments in my job with Reel Spirituality which feel like the other kind of work. I organized a film screening once where the filmmakers were so encouraged by the audience’s response, I felt as if I had stumbled into the second kind of work without realizing it. I am blessed to have a job that is prone to such overlaps.

Also, it is not the kind of activity that determines the kind of work happening. Many of the tasks involved in the two kinds of work are the same. I write for pay, and I write to rightly order the world. The difference is my attitude and reasons for doing the work in question. Perhaps it is possible for the two works to be one and the same on a continuous basis, but I have not discovered the secret to doing that yet.

So, back to topic, should a person be paid if he or she is doing good work? Yes, and he or she will be, though in the first kind of work the pay is not guaranteed and extrinsic (If you’re not being paid correctly, you will quit.), and in the second the pay is guaranteed and intrinsic.

To sum up:

1) Gifts have greater worth than things purchased.
2) The market is a poor judge of merit.
3) It is good to be paid for work, though there are different kinds of work and pay.

So, I prefer to create and give without monetary compensation. The arguments against doing this are true when in the context of the market economy but false when placed in a different context, namely, that of gift giving.

Gift giving is not without goal, however. I do not create and give solely “out of the goodness of my heart,” without expectation of response from the receivers of said gifts.

I hope to inspire reciprocal giving on the part of the receivers. I want them to be encouraged/built up/challenged/spurred forward to create and give of themselves just as I have created and given. I want the world to be made right, and my creating is an attempt to make things right in small and big ways. I want everyone else to be about the task of making the world right as well.

Now, I do not mean to imply that creating for monetary gain necessarily negates any right ordering of the world. I do think creating for such purposes¬†diminishes it’s effect, however.¬†

By giving without requiring material recompense, I create an abundance in my receivers’ lives. Having received, they now have too much. They have more than they can handle, and they must give in an attempt to obtain equilibrium. I constantly feel like goodness and grace and beauty has been lavished upon me, and I create and give to spread that goodness, grace, and beauty into the world. I cannot keep it for myself. True love is too much for anyone to bear. When properly received, love demands the love of others outside the initial relationship, lest it consume us all. In the end, I believe it will, until only love remains.

So, I will continue to create and to give freely what I create. I will write. I will build. I will host film screenings and house shows and art exhibits and dinner parties. I will let the love that has been shown to me overflow into the world, as the smallest spring contributes to the great flood that will one day wash the whole world clean as new.

Gene Kelly Was Here

These blog posts were all written in the summer of 2011. They chronicle my time in Paris completing an internship as part of my studies at Fuller Seminary. I worked at an art gallery run by missionary-artists ministering to other Parisian artists and got to know the missionary-artists working there.

I am including them here for you to read because I think they work well together as a series. I wrote them as a kind of narrative collage about what it means to be a practicing artist whose first commitment is to Christ and who seeks to share the love of Christ with other artists.