One of my favourite pieces of writing by Dorothy L. Sayers is her 1946 letter exchange with C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote to Sayers inviting her to contribute a volume to a planned series on Anglican theology for youth, to which Sayers replied that ‘her conscience prevented her from writing for the purpose of edifying readers’. Lewis answered with a mild dig at the idea of ‘artistic conscience’, which set off a series of three lengthy letters in which Sayers defended her understanding of the responsibility of the artist (including the comment that ‘you can’t divide the conscience into “artistic” and the other sort. It’s all one…’).
Two characteristics of the artist strike me as I read Sayers’ letters to Lewis. The first is that the artist works in response to a vocation: ‘One must do what one is called to do’. The artist is called by God to communicate a vision that she sees, or an understanding she has gained, through the medium of art. Sayers does not count any opportunity to edify as a genuine call; she compares artistic creation for the purpose of edification to mixing a medication for those whom one looks down upon. Instead, she writes, ‘You’ve got to come galloping out shouting excitedly: “Look here! look what I’ve found! Come and have a bit of it – it’s grand – you’ll love it – I can’t keep it to myself, and anyhow, I want to know what you think of it”’. This excitement to share, rather than a compulsion to ‘make up a dose’, is the mark of a genuine call.
The second characteristic of the artist in Sayers’ letters is contemplation. Sayers does not use this word herself, but she does present the vocation of the artist as one of waiting and listening. Indeed, a better word to describe the artist’s action might be obedire, to ‘listen to’ or ‘obey’. When the artist hears and receives a gift which excites her, she obeys the invitation to share it. Sayers uses the metaphor of a cistern to describe this source of the artist’s creative material. If it is empty – if the artist does not feel she has been given anything to say at the moment – she should
STOP…Get back to something you can tinker at quietly and honestly…till the cistern fills up again. It will fill up. It always does. Always – if you don’t fuss it and get in a stew about it. And if you haven’t been pumping anything into it. And when it does fill up, you will have no doubt whatever about it: you will know what you have to do. You won’t choose it: it will choose you. 
For Sayers, the artist is a person who is called to a contemplative vocation, and who delights in sharing the fruits of that contemplation with others through the creation of artworks. Artistic creation is a necessary part of the vocation; a contemplative who is not also a craftsman is not an artist. But contrary to Lewis’ focus on an artwork’s potential value for edification, Sayers focuses on the artist’s inner delight in making as the raison d’être of artistic creation. ‘The only rule I can find,’ Sayers writes, ‘is to write what you feel impelled to write, and let God do what He likes with the stuff’.
Do you think that love of creation is sufficient reason to justify making art? Or do you think an artist must also consider whether or not his art will edify? If you are an artist, how do you keep yourself open to hear the words or images you may be given?
1. The entire collected letter exchange can be found in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 722-31 (23 Jul-7 Aug, 1946), and The Collected Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, vol. 3, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1998), pp. 252-60 (31 Jul-8 Aug, 1946).
2. Sayers, p. 254, 31 Jul 1946.
3. Ibid., p. 253.
6. Ibid., p. 254.
7. Ibid., p. 259, 8 Aug 1946.