[First published in the Broad Street Review 29 Oct 2013 as What do artists want?]

HammerWhenever artists pick up pens or brushes or instruments, or jab fingers at computer keyboards, they start a reformation. They are—whether they realize it or not—closer to Martin Luther, who grabbed a hammer and pounded debating points into a church door, than to Pete Seeger, who sang only “if” he had a hammer. Artists are active, not subjunctive.

It was 496 years ago today, on October 31, 1517, that Luther hammered the 95 Theses onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Each one of his “disputations” was a shot across the bow, stating, in so many words: You think it’s that, but I say it’s this.

Every artist does the same. A poet, a composer, a writer, a performer, a sculptor says, “You may think you’re fine in your silence or your noise or your play or your labor, but I say you’re no such thing. You may think it’s that, but no. Look over here, it’s this.”

What artists want

Every critic follows Luther. Everyone writing for the Broad Street Review hopes to reform you, to take you from your path and show you another one. BSR has just scuttled and rebuilt its website, just so that your path to reformation is easier, so that BSR is easier to read, and is quicker to poke around in and respond to.

It’s not too much to say, I don’t think, that artists want to make better people. If that sounds too high-minded, think of it this way. We want to rouse you—and our own selves, of course—out of the complacency that incessantly attends our ways.

We all have different, perhaps contradictory, ways to do it. But we all grab a hammer every time we play, sing, write, mold, tint, build, or speak.

Searching for transformation

And doesn’t every reader or audience member hope for the same thing? We go to a play or a concert or a museum starry-eyed, hoping against hope that, by the end, we’ll be changed somehow.

The artist, writer, or reviewer should be free to express whatever is necessary to achieve that transformation. But “self-expression” isn’t the goal; what a silly idea. The goal is to make better people. To do that, the artist must serve others.

In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Two ideas, not contradictory, but complementary. Luther beautifully holds them in tension, and so does the artist.

Happy Reformation Day!