How To Make Art That Lasts
“…vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2
Lately I can’t get enough of what is, in my opinion, the artsiest and most candid book in the bible, Ecclesiastes. I think it speaks directly to the way creatives think. Sometimes I even imagine Ecclesiastes’ writer sitting at his desk, much like a songwriter, staring off into the distance with the gears in his head turning to the point of migraine. He’s thinking back on his life as he tries to make sense of it all. He painfully sifts through his thoughts as he pours them onto paper but ends up with more questions than answers. He wants to say something important. He wants his work to mean something, but he ultimately realizes it’s all in vain, “of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12, emphasis added). I can relate.
In fact, many artists and theologians in history have expressed this same realization of the vanity of life. The theme of vanity surfaces in the Baroque Vanitas still life paintings (example pictured above), Greek thought, Shakespearian tragedies, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Dada Movement, and satire, to name a few. To the creatively-bent, there’s a certain dissatisfaction we feel when we realize that our lives revolve around making things out of nothing that we know ultimately don’t mean anything. The truth is that everything we’ve created or will ever create will be created in vain.
…and now that everyone’s good and depressed, let me explain why this should be a comfort to those of you who are dissatisfied with the art you’ve been making.
Hidden behind the need to create art is a need for an expression of ourselves beyond ourselves; the desire to be a part of something bigger than us—something of substance, something that will outlast our mortality.
But how can we ever make anything of substance when everything is vanity?
If you translate the original word for “vanity”—hebel or hevel—in Ecclesiastes 1:9, it means “breath” or “vapor.” So essentially when Ecclesiastes says, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” it’s saying, “breath of breath! All is breath.” Breath is fleeting. It doesn’t have any lasting substance. It’s here one second and gone the next. It’s meaningless. After searching the world and all it’s wisdom and riches, Ecclesiastes concludes that everything on earth is as meaningless as breath and all that breathe must die.
However, in Genesis, when God breathed the breath of life into man, the word hebel was not used to describe God’s breath. The Bible uses another word to describe God’s breath, ruach, which not only means “breath,” but also “life” and “spirit.” When God breathed into man, man became something of substance beyond the vaporous, fleeting natural. He was given “life” and a “spirit.” He was created to be an eternal being. He was created to live forever.
Only things that are God-breathed will ever have any lasting value.
Since God is the only one who can breathe life into creation, anything we make is ultimately just a combination of things God has already created. Acknowledging this makes our job as artists a whole lot easier. To find creative satisfaction, we only need to recognize our role as God’s sub-creators. Our whole duty then is to fear God, keep his commandments, and make art that reflects his God-breathed creativity.
"The end of the matter; all has been heard.
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man."
– Ecclesiastes 12:13