Practicing the Art of Visual Dissonance
Good storytelling always involves one very important thing: conflict.
I was afraid of getting fired a couple weeks ago.
I was working on a new creative concept for a series on Corinthians. I knew I wanted to design something different. The thought of using Corinthian architecture seemed cliché and boring.
So I spent one afternoon in my office reading and re-reading 1 & 2 Corinthians. It’s interesting. We read books of the Bible so much that the stories, the culture, and the mystery lose their potency. I really tried to read it differently this time – to pick up on themes, emotions, and visuals I could use.
Paul was writing to this community of young believers caught in the tension of living in a very liberal, progressive city and learning to grow in their faith. He wrote about trading immorality for righteousness, pagan gods for Jesus, and self-indulgence for caring for those around them.
Telling this story visually absolutely can’t be ‘G’ rated. So I designed. I pushed the liberty my employers gave me. I did things even I thought might be going too far.
I put it all on the line for something that may or may not have worked out. I tried telling an important story visually using images of a pagan god, an anonymous harlot, and a man torn in two.
Good storytelling always involves conflict.
The problems the character must overcome make a story interesting. The more interesting the conflict, the more interesting the story becomes.
Conflict (specifically cognitive conflict) is common in art and design. Dissonance is simply a mental state of conflict or incompleteness; visual dissonance presents something that doesn’t seem to make sense at first but keeps the viewer captive and wanting more information to complete the story. Visual dissonance is a way to captivate, intrigue, and make the viewer want to know what happens next.
In classic art, artists depicted social issues that embarrassed the establishment. Many contemporary artists present visual statements about art, religion, and social conditions. All of these art movements are intended to motivate the thinking person to find a deeper meaning in the works.
I think church artists tend to err on the side of literalism and safety as opposed to intellectual and theological honesty. We find stock imagery of a white man with their arms raised in a field because we believe this is the visual representation of worship.
Or we want to make a piece appeal to a younger demographic, so we find grungy type and vector birds then call it good. We do so with out even asking ourselves critical questions. Either we never thought we could, or we don’t have enough self-confidence to ask such honest questions.
So many artists (including myself) haven’t dug deeper into their souls and realized their art can be so much more. We’re visual mocking birds – a carbon copy of what other churches do. We’re hoping someone else will do the thinking for us so we can piggyback on what they create.
It happens all the time.
If you’re an artist…designer…video guy in the Church, you owe it to yourself, your church, and God to be honest in your art.
Design and color trends come and go. They have their place. Beautiful art is necessary. However nothing is more refreshing than when an artist is honest in their work. When we find work like this, it makes us stop and pay attention. It provokes, makes us uncomfortable, or even gives us hope.
Sometimes good art is going be emotive or offensive.
But so many pastors, artists, and creative leaders fear this. Heck, I fear this. But we’ll never move past the man in the wheat field if we are afraid we might make people uncomfortable. For art to reflect our own humanity and brokenness, it’s going to be messy sometimes.
I’m not saying – and it’s impossible – to create challenging and potentially offensive works of art all the time. Things need to be communicated in a clear, functional, and strategic way. But I encourage you to look for fresh and unexpected approaches to your art.
The unexpected will always be remembered more. We must look for new and inventive ways to communicate. When we find ways to provoke, offend, surprise, captivate, and intrigue…that’s when people begin to pay attention.
I am convinced that the journey of an artist is as difficult as it is important. Join me in this this journey, won’t you? Avoid the seductive temptation to look back in fear or get stuck in your present circumstance. Instead, focus on what’s next. Ask the questions no one else will and take others on the journey with you by what you make and how you live.