In analyzing my experiences as an artist, I’ve come across a phenomenon which I haven’t found a satisfactory name for, so I’ll give it one: the artist’s conscience. In the same way that your moral conscience tells you if your actions align with ethical principles, your artist’s conscience tells you if your creation aligns with aesthetic principles.
Before we go any further, I want to clarify that when I call it a “conscience” I’m not saying that if you spend hours struggling to get your work just right and fail, you’ve sinned against God and man, though for me it feels just as bad. But no, God is over the moon thrilled to see what you’re making, and He’ll tell everyone in heaven how proud He is of what His kid made. The reason I call it the artist’s conscience is that it seems to parallel the traditional understanding of conscience in a lot of ways.
Your Conscience Tells You Where You Can Improve
As thrilled as God is to see what you create, I think He’s even more thrilled to see how you grow. And a conscience is a fantastic tool to help one improve. Imagine trying to grow in morality without being able to tell when you’re doing the right thing or when you’re not. Impossible, right? So it is with any creative endeavor. When you’re getting it right, your artist’s conscience gives you that boost of acknowledgement; it’s right and you know it, and you want to make even more like it. But when you’re making something and it’s off, your artist’s conscience will let you know about that, too.
If you’re like me, your artist’s conscience is screaming, “Wrong!” half the time you’re creating. And that’s discouraging. I think a lot of artists get convinced that they’re not real artists because they’re plagued by that persistent feeling that they’re never doing it right. And the sad part is, in reality, it’s that exact feeling that proves they’re artists because it shows they have a powerful sense of what art should and should not be, and it’s pushing them to do better. Without that voice, you’d never be able to get anywhere as an artist.
You Never Outgrow Your Conscience
Another thing I think most, if not all, artists feel at some point in their lives is that if they just got better at art, their artist’s conscience would stop yelling at them so much. And as far as I can tell, that doesn’t happen this side of heaven. Because your conscience grows with you.
Think about your moral conscience. As you grow to become a better person, you gain a deeper sense of what’s right and wrong, and you start to recognize the deep evil in what you previously dismissed as minor sins. So it is with an artist’s conscience. Rather than try to explain this, I’ll give you an exercise. Go find something you made more than 10 years ago that you were really proud of at the time. Look at it now. Are you still proud of it? Or are you horrified?
I’m betting you grew as an artist, and now that your conscience is more refined, it can pick up on more nuanced flaws than it could in the past. The better you get as an artist, the pickier your conscience will get, and so you’ll get that feeling of wrongness more and more often.
Your Conscience Is No Substitute for Quality Feedback
So, you don’t have to read the Bible for too long before realizing that the dictates of people’s consciences don’t always align with the law of God. (You can see this in 1 Corinthians 8:7 and 1 Timothy 4:2 just to name a couple passages.) Your moral conscience will sometimes send waves of guilt even when you’re doing the right thing, and it may cheer you on as you plunge headfirst into sin.
Similarly, with your artistic conscience, sometimes it will tell you that you’ve just created your masterpiece when it’s actually terrible, and other times it will tell you that your work is garbage, but when you show it to others, what you made inspires and impacts them for the better. This is why feedback is so important. Other people can help you see the mistakes hiding in your blind spots, but they can also keep you from throwing out your best work when a bad mood sets in.
I recently wrote a devotional during a United Adoration retreat, and I struggled so much in creating it that I almost discarded it. It was only after several people told me how good it was and what it meant to them that I changed my mind, ignored my mind telling me it was junk, and put it up on my church’s blog, after which multiple people told me it impacted them deeply. My conscience was wrong.
Of course, the opposite can also happen. Artists can be so full of pride that they see no need to listen to any feedback that would help them improve their work and grow as an artist.
The other limitation of your artist’s conscience is that it can tell you if it likes what you’re doing or not, but never what’s wrong or how to fix it. This is where feedback shines; an experienced colleague not only can tell you where they’re struggling to connect with your piece but also pinpoint the problem. They not only can see what you did, but what you were going for, and might be able to give you some pointers as to where you should go next. At the end of the day, your work belongs to you, and only you can make it what it needs to be. But good feedback can be a crucial part of getting it there.
Your Conscience Is Only One Part of Your Thoughts
I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot going on in my head when I make something. I’ll have ideas for what I’m going to create. And then as I’m creating the piece, my artist’s conscience will start telling me how it thinks I’m doing and whether I’m living up to its expectations. Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes alongside me and collaborates on the project. Sometimes it seems more like God is sitting back to watch what I make. I prefer the first, but I think both are good.
And then there’s someone else who comes in to wreck everything. I’ll start feeling like I’m no good, like this is all a mess, and I’ll never get it right. I’m working on the wrong project, this piece has no value and no one will ever care about it. I’m a horrible artist, and I should just quit. These are accusations, and they obviously come from the Accuser. But if my guard is down, I’ll mistake them for my own thoughts and even worse start to believe these lies.
Your conscience can only tell you if you’re hitting the mark or missing it when you’re working. If it can’t tell you what you’re doing wrong or why, it certainly can’t spin a narrative about how you’re a complete failure and you’ll never amount to anything. That kind of thinking comes straight from the devil, and you can toss it right out of your head without a second thought. It’s nonsense from the father of nonsense, and you don’t need to let it trouble you even for a second. At the end of the day, the voice you should listen to above any other, even your own artist’s conscience, is the voice of God. Because that’s the one you can trust no matter what.
Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by Ahmed Raza Kz on Unsplash