Aspiring artists and creative people should find the second half of my conversation with Ryan Clark from Demon Hunter both highly educational as well as inspirational, especially in the practical sense. How do faith, art, and culture intersect for the believer? Where do we draw the line when absorbing “secular” influence? These are a few of the questions Ryan and I discuss together below…
Schwab: We have probably both noticed (and even been frustrated by) the way Christian culture has sacrificed quality art–visually and musically–for the sake of “message.” In many ways Christian commerce itself exists because Christians are looking for “godly” replacements for secular counterparts. Walk me through your take on why this may do a disservice to not only art but faith, the church, and Christian culture as a whole. We are all familiar with the phrase “Be in the world but not of the world.” How do you think this applies to the average guy who loves heavy music or violent video games or TV shows like Game of Thrones? How do you think guys can balance faith and a genuine desire to keep their minds pure while not shielding themselves from good, honest art?
Clark: I think a lot of the people who consider themselves Christians as well as artists tend live in a Christian bubble of sorts. By “bubble” I mean is that there is a limit on the amount of culture you absorb. The problem with this mindset is that it’s going to inevitably water down whatever you are doing from a quality perspective. You see this in all aspects of culture and the net result is that Christian “art” is not as good as its secular counterparts. In the current age, if you are blocking yourself off from this whole other world of music, art, and culture in general, then it’s definitely going to put a ceiling on your potential. I would say the most important thing for a Christian artist to do in any realm, would be to understand where you stand in your faith, understand the lines you are not willing to cross, but be willing to absorb different elements of the culture with a Christian perspective. That’s only going to help and benefit your art.
For me, if I put on a record, listen to it, and it’s completely the opposite of everything I believe in spiritually, I use that as ammunition for my songs. And if the music itself is really good, I can actually use that to influence the music I write. But from a lyrical standpoint I am going to try to debunk the argument or speak from another angle. I don’t throw out one whole group of bands or artists based solely on what they believe. I feel like I can pull inspiration from them on a creative level, and if I disagree with them, then I want to do something that is just as quality and as passionate, but through the lens that I view the world. That’s how I have always approached not only listening to music, but watching TV shows or movies. If you shelter yourself, you are limiting what you are going to be putting out.
I will say this: It’s a grey issue. It depends on how you react to various parts of culture that come through your eyes and ears. Here’s an example from a different perspective: You see drug dealers and murderers go to prison and get saved and they become extremely legalistic Christians because they need a rigid set of guidelines in order to keep them on the path. For them, it’s I am not going to cuss even once or take a sip of alcohol. And that’s probably what they should do. For a lot of those guys, if they take an inch, the consequences could be life and death…if they take a sip of alcohol, the next thing they know they are back in their former lives as gang bangers. I know for me, the line doesn’t exist before listening to Morbid Angel or Dark Throne. I can take bands like that and completely separate myself from what they are saying, or think what they are saying is silly, and not have it affect me negatively or start to skew my beliefs. I think it’s different for everyone. Some people might be more easily affected by that kind of thing, and that’s absolutely fine. That’s why it’s a hard question to answer when kids are like, “Hey I threw out all my non-Christian cds and now I only listen to you guys. What do you think about that?” I kind of answer that in the same way: Well, it’s a personal conviction, and if you feel like that music is going to manifest itself in negative ways in your life or in your faith, then definitely take note of that and do whatever you need to do to not allow that.
It’s important to note, though, that there is another line which I would call the “objective morality line.” That line exists for the better of culture and Christians in general. It’s the line that separates “dark art” from obscenity, and I think it’s pretty easy, if you have discernment, to tell when that line has been crossed, so we don’t necessarily need to examine that one any further…
Schwab: Have you ever been met with opposition to your work because of your faith? How did you respond? Have you ever been opposed by Christians because of your art? How did you respond?
Clark: It definitely happens more on the music side of my art than on the visual side. On the visual side it only happens with other Christians. We (Invisible Creature) have pushed the envelope in terms of visual art and what is “ok” for a Christian band to portray. Some of our concepts are “edgy” for some people. I feel like a lot of those walls have broken down and it’s not as big of a deal as it was 10 years ago. We have made a conscious effort to push people outside of their comfort zone in that respect. I feel like that is important for us to do, so that, in some small way, we can help Christian culture as a whole have a more balanced perspective on the arts and mainstream culture…
With music, we have gotten it from both sides. In the old days, (with Focal Point and TFU) we didn’t completely wear our hearts on our sleeves. The biggest flack we got in those days was from hecklers who were there for the non-Christian bands we played with. I think the biggest response we ever had was to a Focal Point song that was blatantly about abortion. Again, some of that stuff can act as fuel. If you have the most unpopular opinion in the “scene” then it can make you feel pretty punk rock
Schwab: (Laughing) Yeah… of, course!
Clark: Ha! You know what I mean? That’s why I named the new Demon Hunter record True Defiance. If every fish in your particular sea is swimming in one direction, and being a Christian is the most punk-rock thing you can do, then that makes me feel awesome. It actually truly defines the word “punk.” This worldview that I have is actually helping me fly in the face of culture.
Clark: For me, it was such an organic thing. I didn’t go to school for it or even set out to do it. I just threw it up there and it stuck. What I will say is this: Never underestimate your relationships. I can’t tell you how many times we have done design work for a company-whether it’s a record label or something else. I do a job for them, and let’s say the company folds. The art director moves on to a bigger company with bigger budgets, and then they hire us again. Sometimes the first company doesn’t fold and they keep hiring me. Then, I have two clients based on the same contact! Or Joe Shmo from a local band that I had a friendship with gets hired to play in some worldwide touring band. Then there is a potential design relationship there. The point is, give your relationships a couple of years, and you never know what they might lead to.
Also, I would say, immerse yourself in the field you are pursuing, whether it’s music, design, or something else. For example, if you do album packaging, don’t just limit your influences to album art. Become familiar with other mediums and companies who do related things, their processes, their concepts. If you just work with bands and labels and managers, you are going to have no idea how to work with a corporate art director for Target or Nordstrom. Educate yourself on how companies outside your specific target “market” operate, because those opportunities exist out there, and you want to be ready to adapt to them. Or in the music realm, if you play metal don’t just listen to metal for “influence.” Listen to all types of music. Nine times out of ten that will help you to progress as a musician as well as help you to put out something unique. There are like three metal bands who are current that I listen to…everything else is from other genres and just goes into the metal blender that becomes Demon Hunter.
One other piece of advice: if you are a designer, specifically, go outside of things you find on the web. Buy books. Go to art galleries. The way you respond to tactile, physical objects is so much deeper than just looking at images on your computer. And if you play music, go see shows of bands outside of the genre you play. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to see band that is completely not metal that has given me an idea for our live show.
Schwab: God expressed himself through all of creation. From mankind to the heavens to the earth, we can see that he is an amazingly creative being. As we were also made in his image, we each have the ability and desire to create and express ourselves through various media. Art is worship, and you don’t have to be a professional to find great joy, and even a confessional in the act of creating art. Is there a different between art for commerce and art for worship? Talk a little about the function of art as worship…
Clark: I think there is something to be said about using your creativity and abilities to the utmost you are capable of. Even if you are doing a flyer for a show or a wedding invitation, that can be worshipful. It has to do with the mindset with which you create and how you view the process and inspiration. There is a more obvious version of that…for example if I am designing album packaging for a Christ-centered band and I do it to the best of my ability, I am also worshipping.
I have always wanted to be known as a guy who does such quality art that it can stand next to anything out there. Then, my reputation as an artist will precede and validate my reputation for being a person of faith. In other words, people will take what I believe more seriously because they see the work that I do. I would hope that my music or my art wouldn’t just be in the “Christian” category, but it would be competitive with anything out there no matter the worldview. That desire, to me, is worship…to show that God is big enough to motivate us to be excellent no matter what we do.
Worship can exist in any work, so long as you do it with the proper motivation…between you and Christ.
The Tin Soldiers is an essay/devotional for men who are looking for help to determine their purpose and calling. It is also a book that takes a deeper look at some of the most prominent issues men face today.
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