Review of The Artisan Soul

The Artisan Soul.jpg

After perusing The Home Design Doodle Book, I picked up The Artisan Soul: Crafting your Life into a Work of Art by Erwin Raphael McManus (2014). How odd to wax poetic over a doodle book and then have very few good things to say here. I will not finish the book. My reading reduced to a skim. The reviews on Amazon on overall quite positive. My experience was not.

The moment I read the author thought he should not have hidden his naked body but danced joyfully in the front yard, I thought perhaps something was off about this book.

The first chapter was wonderful.

“The great divide is not between those who are artists and those are not, but between those who understand that they are creative and those who have become convinced that they are not.”

I wrote about this recently in my article, “What is Art?”

“There is an order to the creative process: we dream, we risk, we create.”

That is beautiful and deep, though I cannot say he expands on it more. Once could write an entire reflection series on that quote.

There are other reflections on the way that as art comes from us and we are made in the image of God, so beautiful art will, essentially, reflect God. The best art is authentic to who we are. This is why it is so jarring to see ugly “art” in the fine arts because it reflects our brute nature rather than our angelic nature.

Soon, his theology gets a little wonky; his philosophy a little sloppy. I think he actually says we are all drawn to the good, without referencing Aristotle.

It contains a reflection on craft distinguishing it from product. A craft is handmade. A product uses people. I could think of tidier definitions.

This highlights how things that are not part of the fine arts can still be done as an art, along with how those who are creating in the field of fine arts, can create garbage or art that is not moving. It is an important distinction.

Artists love without reservation. They give their hearts completely and leave nothing on the table. They are naked and unashamed…but not without struggle. This path is not an escape from life’s wounds and disappointment. To live from our souls is to pursue our greatest passions and expose ourselves to our greatest pain. We cannot live to create and be surprised that we have traveled through failure. We cannot live a life of passion and not know sorrow… All creativity emerges from struggle. All art is born out of the pain of labor. The artisan soul must be both tender and tough.

Wonderful insights and great explanations as to why it seems the great artists all suffered so much. Not because art makes us suffer, but that suffering finds expression and hopefully, healing, in art.

All well and good. The subsequent chapters I take issue with.

In Chapter 2, McManus discusses the role of our internal voice/narrative. He writes that some think a narrative of pessimism (despair) means only darkness can be authentic. He proposes a narrative of hope (optimism – but it’s not really) can show authentic art to be happy and about love.

The fault here lies in conflating pessimism/optimism with despair/hope. In psychology, these are particular terms. I think is one is making an effort tot write a book, it is important to have one’s terms clear. A better interpretation of his point would be an interior narrative of hope can make our art transcendent, lifting it out of darkness (negative emotions, brokenness) into light (love, self-gift).

In Chapter 3, McManus writes interpretation is more important than truth, and truth exists because God is trustworthy. It hurts to even repeat that. The fault here lies in a belief that truth can and cannot exist. It gets us into the realm of “your truth” and “my truth.”

A better interpretation would be truth exists regardless. By trustworthy, I think the author means reliable. Reliability is proven by experience. If someone earns our trust, in that we seek answers from him, it is because of how well they conform their lives to the truth. Others we can trust will answer in a particular way (honest or dishonest). That implies reliability. Interpretations of life are unique, but if they do not conform to reality they are insane. If they do not conform to a transcendent truth, they are limited, often depressing or vapid. Truth matters a great deal because it grounds interpretation to something anyone can access, even if one might interpret it differently. It is the thread that unites us.

In Chapter 4, McManus discusses the concept of vision or imagination. He writes, “Imagination is more powerful than knowledge.” Quoting Picasso, a point is made that Picasso’s gift came not with technical genius but imagination. The child imagination is praised. Yes, children have imagination. They do not yet possess not knowledge or skill. The fault here lies in believing imagination and knowledge are opposed to each other.

A better interpretation would be imagination without knowledge belongs to the child while imagination maintained in the adult is refined and focused by knowledge. Learning the art can be seen as having the imagination (creativity) to apply the skill in new and interesting ways. The author also touches on concepts of wonder and awe, which are different. This chapter wanders more than previous chapters. By now his writing feels tangential as well as repetitive.

I could read no more. If one will write about God like this and one is Christian, then let him reference Christian theological tradition. I know this may not be promoted in some Christian denominations, so I do not blame the author, but this book is not for me. Too many insights we have come because we are nested in a culture with a knowledge that has been passed down. What we think we access all on our own has been seeded by our culture and academic tradition. Let us give it some credit. And let’s define our terms.

Leave a Reply