Does Character Matter in an Artist, or any Profession?

Contrary to what much of the modern world will claim, character is the fundamental requirement for excellence in every field. 

In the late 1990s, President William Jefferson Clinton had an affair with one of his interns. He then lied to a grand jury about the case. During the controversy leading up to his impeachment for perjury, his defenders argued that his lack of character, in this and many other circumstances, did not matter. The economy was booming and the world was at relative peace. They said that Clinton was a good president, and that his character did not matter.

We can ask the same question about artists, “does the artist’s character or lack thereof impact their art?” The answer must begin with defining character. A Christian would say that a person of good character would display the following attributes – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Most non-Christians would generate similar lists. The US Army defines character in terms of the Army values, which include loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Barack Obama spoke of “initiative and enterprise… hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.”[1] The sentiments if not the words of the Ten Commandments occur in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the other major religions of the world.  Press and politicians from London to Lagos agree. We can conclude that there is widespread agreement throughout the world, across cultures, and through time, on what good character actually is.

But does bad character affect the performance of ones’ duties, accomplishment in his or her profession? Many people would contend that it depends on the profession. Few people, even those who don’t go to church, would accept an adulterous pastor in a church. Jimmy Swaggart was kicked out of his ministry for his dalliances. Conversely, few would reject an adulterous doctor in a hospital, unless he was sleeping with his patient or his employee. Those who contend that a person’s character only matters in some professions are forced to delineate professions in which character matters, professions in which it doesn’t, and why.

We need to define “artist” before proceeding. For our purposes, an artist is someone who produces original (but not necessarily unique) work in some material (paint, wood, stone, fabric, word, sound, movement, etc.) for pay and/or for personal satisfaction. By this definition, Rembrandt and a painter who copies his work, would both be artists, but a school child hesitantly completing an art assignment would not. Similarly Handel would be an artist, but a singer in a church choir performing the “Messiah” at Christmas or Easter may not be.

Let us return to our definition of character and see how each attribute might affect one’s skill in a profession or other task, especially as an artist.

Love – a decision to care for, serve, and highly regard others.

Can a doctor be a fine clinician without choosing to care for and serve others? Can a general inspire his men without doing the same? More to the point, can an artist create his best possible work without considering who will be “consuming” it? No painter can succeed without pleasing his patron, the one paying for his time and his paint. No song writer can eat without writing a song that someone else wants to sing or play and an audience wants to hear. Without some degree of love, no artist can succeed.

Joy – a positive sense of fulfillment in one’s activities and situation

Seeing a man or woman who enjoys his or her work is a delight. Since they like it, they tend to do it more and be better at it. Conversely, seeing someone who is miserable in their chosen field is a drudgery. All else being equal, an artist who experiences joy from his or her art will produce better art.

Peace – a sense of calmness and security

Anxiety makes the heart pound and the hand tremble – both problematic for the painter and the sculptor. Worry confuses, distracts, and impairs the memory – equally a concern for the writer of books or songs. Fear discourages innovation, and even action, a poison pill for any artist.

Patience – the ability to handle the ups, downs, and delays, of life with grace

Sometimes artists will feel loving, joyful, and peaceful, and other times they will not. A patient artist, like a patient teacher or a patient pastor, will be able to produce high quality work consistently, regardless of his feelings. He will not lose his temper with sponsors, agents, or the general public.

Kindness – the practice of doing the little things and going farther than you think needful to benefit others

A fine artist will know that the difference between a good piece of work and a great piece of work is found in the little things. In addition to inherent talent, picking the perfect move and expression, not just an adequate move and expression, distinguished Fred Astaire from his high school dance teacher.  These little things require more work, and more time, but are the price of excellence.

Goodness – a personal commitment to do what is good, regardless of circumstances

Should a businessman trust a financial advisor who told him to cheat a competitor? Should a patron trust an artist who signed his name to someone else’ work? People may argue about what is good in a given situation, although there is less argument than some moral relativists would have us believe, but each artist must have some understanding and commitment to do what they feel to be good.

Faithfulness – loyalty to self, others, and God

A few artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo can be excellent in many realms of art, but most cannot. A few extremely gifted people can take up art late, or quit early in life, and produce masterpieces, but most cannot. Good artists commit to their field, and stay there. The same is true for their relationships to others and to God. This is no different in other fields – the best doctors are committed to medicine, the best teachers to education, and the best athletes to their sport. Larry Bird, one of the best NBA players of all time, practiced basketball for hours, even on his off-days, throughout his career.

Gentleness – the ability to tailor one’s understanding, emotions, and actions to the needs around them

George S. Patton was a hard charging American general in World War 2. He led his Third Army to major victories, and was a favorite on the home front. While touring a field hospital, Patton encountered a soldier with no apparent physical injury. The doctor explained that the man had battle fatigue, now known as post-traumatic stress. Seeing the other men in the hospital, some with gaping wounds or missing arms or legs, Patton slapped the man with battle fatigue, ordered him back to the front, and stormed away. Hospital staff were outraged, and word got back to Eisenhower and the American public. Patton almost lost his command.

Artists can be hard charging and brash, but they must know when to be gentle. They must have the sensitivity to match their attitudes and their work to those they are serving. Picasso’s Guernica abstractly illustrates the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, but Guernica only works by contrasting the bizarre and threatening shapes with the viewers’ knowledge of and feelings for the misery and agony of the conflict. The context is all-important – someone without prior understanding and emotion will not get much out of this famous painting.

Self-Control – the ability to control ones’ thoughts, words, and actions to do what needs to be done regardless of the circumstances.

Some writers and sculptors wait for inspiration to grab them before they begin work. They want the feeling before the labor. Other writers and sculptors begin work and find that inspiration comes while they labor. They discipline their thoughts and words to be honest, if not necessarily pleasant, and show gratitude in all things. Those that wait for feelings to come before action might produce some fabulous work, but those that act first, knowing that feelings will follow, as will inspiration, produce excellence over a lifetime.

Objections

“Wait!” a reader might protest, “if what you say is true, then only angels and saints can be artists. Many artists have shown terrible character and still been great. What about Wagner (composer), Picasso (painter), and Hemingway (novelist)? What about Rousseau (political philosopher)? These men produced amazing art, and political philosophy, and yet had unseemly personal lives.

This objection is sound to a point. These examples were geniuses in their fields, which allowed them to produce work that most of us can only dream of. However, to do what they did, they still had to have character, at least some aspects as noted above. If Wagner had not had self-control, at least some, he never would have finished the Der Ring des Nibelungen. If Picasso had not been faithful to his work, he would not have been able to start up again after all his earliest paintings were destroyed. If Hemingway had not shown kindness, manifested as sensitivity and understanding, to men at war, he could not have written For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. No one is utterly bereft of good character, and the wider world does not hear much of people with uniformly poor character – they usually live and die in obscurity.

Geniuses can sometimes do a one-off masterwork, but to produce marvelous work for a lifetime, like J.S. Bach, requires character. In summary, then, for the artist, the general, the physician, and the President, character counts. In fact, it is the most important thing.

But what about our evaluation of art? The conclusion is the same. God uses geniuses with poor character to produce phenomenal work, but not consistently and not for long.  He also uses people of less genius but good character to produce amazing work, such as Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr, who wrote Silent Night.

Conclusion

From the perspective of the artist producing the work, and the perspective of the art lover enjoying it, we are entranced with talent. Everyone wants talent, everyone talks about, and everyone envies it in others. We talk less about industry, which seems so pedantic. We talk least of all about character, although it is the most important of all. Perhaps that is because each person knows that he or she has as much industry and character as he or she wants to. Developing talent requires hard work, but building character requires us to deny ourselves and bend our wills away from our own desires and towards others. Character is foundational to everything we are and everything we do. Whether artist, priest, physician, or president, character counts.

[1] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/01/21/inaugural-address-president-barack-obama

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