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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Life After Art" (Matt Appling)

TITLE: Life After Art: What You Forgot About Life and Faith Since You Left the Art Room
AUTHOR: Matt Appling
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013, (160 pages).

There was a time in which a typical child would be thrilled to have the chance to play, to draw, and to paint with pretty brushes. There was a time in which prim and proper expectations are relaxed so as to unleash the creativity and the chaos that only children can imagine. When the child grows up and leaves the art classroom, what happens to the art, and more particularly, what happens to the artist in the person? This question is cleverly dealt with in this unique book written by an arts teacher who is not just passionate about art, but also deeply convinced that life in itself is a way of art. A pre-kintergarten through six grade art teacher himself, Matt Appling spends his time writing, reflecting, teaching, and promoting the idea of life and art through his website. He believes that the artistry in each person is a gift from God.

In six succinct chapters, Appling begins with a proclamation that all children are artists. They are risk-takers. They are not so disturbed by what is good or not good in their work. They simply do it. Unfortunately, the moment the child leaves the classroom, the artistic capacity starts to leave the child as the child grows up in a competitive and a challenging adult world. The logic of fear of failure inhibits the faith in trying and testing. They gradually lose the three childhood traits: 1) that creating was important; 2) that generosity is part of creating; and 3) a lack of self-consciousness as one gets totally immersed in the creating.

Appling laments that one starts losing the creative charm when one begins to think creating is unimportant; that art is not creative; and that arts per se are self-limiting which leads one toward laziness. As a result, adults soon start to manufacture a world that is increasingly lacking in creativity and beauty. Survival concerns overwhelm creative activities.We prefer functional activities over fictional imagination. We forsake art and creativity in exchange for survival-based activities and busyness. What works becomes more important that what is worthwhile doing. Such a life may be practical but it lacks beauty. Slowly, Appling turns the story from children in general to the children in us.
  • What if our creation tells us a lot about ourselves?
  • What if we are filling our physical spaces with "junk" instead of clearing them out for a space to be creative?
  • Are we willing to continue exchanging a life of creativity with a toilsome routine of non-stop practicality?
  • Is sacrificing our creative bent worth it over the long run?

Appling declares no. There is hope. There is a way back to the creativity in the classroom. There is life after art. What we need to do is to learn how to re-create the environment that gives us fresh hope of life in the first place. Do not be content with mere "good enough" but be passionate to become the best person we are created to be. We learn that risk taking is a way of life and is a necessary step in any creative activity and ability. The freedom to fail is not about the risk of failure per se, but the liberation of oneself toward unleashing the best of us.

Finally, Appling reminds us again that our creativity is all possible because we are created in the image of God our Creator. It is because we are creators on earth that our natural selves cannot stop creating; cannot stop thinking about creating; and cannot help but create. Suppressing such creativeness is essentially suppressing what is human.

So What?

When the child leaves the art classroom, what happens to the art that the child has learned? If the world outside starts to dull our creativity and our sense of artistry, perhaps it is time to return to the art room, the one we all loved as children years ago. In order for creativity to flourish, one needs to learn to give and take directions not in terms of conformity that suppresses one's freedom but in terms of enhancing the creativity within the boundaries given. Some of the memorable quotes from the book are worth noting:

  • "In math class, you could not improve on a 'right' answer. Right answers were 'good enough.' You could not come up with a 'better' answer, or exceed the teacher's expectations. Life is not like math class. It is like art class." (50)
  • "Much like the case of the hunters, creativity appears to be something of an instinct that people follow, whatever circumstances they live in." (56)
  • "It is precisely that ultramodern thinking that causes most Christians to miss the truth of the Bible, many other Christians to become disaffected with the Bible, and non-Christians to scoff at the Bible. We are stripping all the beauty out of the Bible and demanding that it provides us with a formula instead of faith." (63)
  • "There is a great focus today on the amount of trash and waste that modern man produces, and we prioritize reducing waste. But think about the mental landfill that we've created with all of the junk that fills our minds. It dwarfs everything we throw in the trash can." (78)
  • "An amateur artist tries to erase a mistake. A master artist learns how to work with a mistake." (105)
  • "But consider this: perhaps the anxiety that you feel about your life, your purpose, and all of your hopes and ambitions is due to the fact that you have been looking at them all wrong." (132)
  • "A little bit of beauty can change everything." (139)
Let me offer five thoughts from the reading of this book.

First, this book reminds us that there is a childlikeness in all of us even if we grow old. I learn long time ago that there is an impending second childhood when one grows old. Now, I believe that there are more than two childhoods simply because this childhood never really goes away. One can suppress it. One can try to inhibit it but one can never eradicate it completely. For to do so would be deleting a part of us. Remember that Jesus calls us children? That must be for a reason.

Second, in a world of progress that is defined by scientific advancement and technological prowess, we need to learn to appreciate life and creation for what it is. Enjoy nature. Appreciate the simple things in life. Do not be fixated by machines and the kinds of manufactured brilliance to the point that we forget the most beautiful things in life are also the most simple. In fact, a lot of created things in life are due to proper observance of the natural world we live in.

Third, the stories of arts and creativity in the book give readers a renewed hope that art in itself is not necessarily a path toward poverty. See the creative giants like Jim Henson, whose puppetry ideas have charmed children all over the world in the Muppet Show. Remember Theodor Geisel who created the Mr Seuss cartoon character? What about Shigeru Miyamoto, where people easily remember his design and games at Nintendo?

Fourth, this book is not simply talking about creativity, it is also speaking to the creativity inside us. Wake up! Pick up your creative energies and create something! This is that sign that makes this book worth reading, buying, and gifting it to friends. When the reading of this book awakens the child in us, when the pondering of the ideas triggers the inner desire to want to create, to admire creation, and to be creative, this book would have been worth more than the sticker price. There is no price tag for creativity, for creativity in itself is priceless.

Finally, there is no need to dig too deeply for a reason just to enjoy art. Just admire or appreciate art for what it is. If we can do that, we will be better at appreciating life what what it is. That way, enjoying art becomes a metaphor for enjoying life.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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