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 is a writer, arts facilitator and theology graduate based in Belfast. Her first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears” is due for publication in early 2014.