At United Adoration retreats, we fill the area with visual art and begin the session with worship music. The idea is to create an atmosphere ideally suited to the creative process. If you ever attend one of our retreats, you’ll find a space so full of beauty and creative energy that you can’t help but feel inspired. If there’s a better way of spurring creativity, we haven’t found it yet.

I talk elsewhere about how art inspires us to create more art like it, and each artist builds on the work of previous masters. But there’s something else going on here as well. Something about seeing a world of creative expression awakens the spirit to create something of value, even if it’s totally unrelated to what the artist experienced. And one way out of being stuck as an artist is to experience something of beauty – anything, to reawaken what was dead inside.

Why does this happen? I think I have an idea, and so I’ll let you in on a secret most people don’t realize: good art turns the audience into good artists. We as artists imagine we are creating something for others to passively consume. This is not true. When done well, art invites the audience to enter into the piece, to participate in its creation, and recreate the art for themselves.

This may sound weird to you, so let me give you an example. In writing, we have a rule, “Show, don’t tell.” So, if it’s important to the story for the reader to understand that Bob is sad, I don’t write, “Bob was sad.” I instead write something like, “Bob sank into his chair, a lone tear rolling down his cheeks.” This second version requires more of the reader; they have to picture what I’m writing and extrapolate that, and in doing so, they end up telling themselves a story about how sad Bob is, and the story they tell themselves will be more meaningful than anything I tell them.

This will look different for different arts. For musicians, you’ll likely find that you’ll write your life experiences into a song, and your listeners will hear the heartbeat behind the music and apply that to their own situations that are very different from yours and yet have the same emotional themes. In drawing, I was taught that I should not draw everything neatly within the borders of the paper, but instead draw such that the viewer imagines what continues beyond the edges of the sheet. Regardless of medium, the concept is the same. Instead of doing all the work for the audience, you’re leaving them room to participate in the piece and turning them into artists themselves as they recreate the vision for themselves. That’s the power of good art.

But why stop at good? What about truly great art? In any artistic discipline, there are masters of the craft, who create works that bring their audience joy and meaning. Such masterpieces also show the artistic community possibilities they hadn’t envisioned before and inspire them to do more. I don’t have to list examples; you’re already thinking of them as you’re reading this. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk about one: The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien saw a hole in society, a need for mythology. And so he set out to create something to fill that void. He succeeded. The entire fantasy genre was reshaped in his image, and there was an entire generation of authors who saw what he did and wanted to try it for themselves. They, in turn, have passed their love on to my generation, and much of what I write is a continuation of that stream. And I’m not the only one. Everywhere I go, I see the work of people building on the work of people, who were building on the work of what Tolkien did. I don’t think we’re done. Maybe the next generation can put the capstone on this edifice, but I doubt it. I expect future generations not yet conceived will be finding inspiration from this one man’s work and building ever higher.

This is what defines a classic. Everyone has their own opinion of what artistic excellence means, but the impact a work has is self-evident. Just as a pebble thrown into a lake spreads ripples, so art sends waves of inspiration through people’s hearts. And great art has a chance to send its storm surges far and its currents deep.

When I started this series, I defined an artist as a person of vision. So what are your influences? What masterpieces have left the work unfinished with room for you to build on what has come before? And what legacy are you leaving for artists yet to come, that they can be inspired and do even greater things with what you’ve started?

Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by Marwan Ahmed on Unsplash

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