The Burden of Autonomy

When I was working with clients as a graphic designer, there was one statement that I never wanted to hear: ‘You can do whatever you want.’ While I always appreciated the inherent trust they had in me, this was always a death sentence to the project. The reason is not because I didn’t enjoy being creative or exploring new avenues for a project.  Nor was it necessarily related to whether I found the project interesting. The problem was the statement wasn’t true.  I couldn’t do whatever I wanted. I could only really do ‘whatever I wanted’ as long as it was in line with their unarticulated, potentially sub-conscious, ideas of what they wanted the project to look like. This kind of statement invariably led to unmet deadlines, heated discussions, and general frustration.

In my own journey as an artist, it’s taken me a while to understand and appreciate why this statement is not true. Surely, this kind of freedom would be any designer’s dream after being bound up by profiles sent over by marketing or constrained by budgets and corporate colour schemes. But, for me, this statement—‘You can do whatever you want’—comes from a misconstrued understanding of who the artist is in relation to the world around her.  The modern art era heralded the autonomy of the artist, ‘liberating’ artists to new heights of near divinity as in their autonomy they had unique access to the Other – that which is not ourselves.  Wassily Kandinsky, in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, puts artists at the top of his spiritual pyramid that is taking humanity towards heaven.  The artist and his work sit at the apex and act as a guide for the rest of humanity as we all move towards the spiritual that is beyond.

While there are many theological critiques that one can give for such a position, let me offer a personal one. As humans, I don’t think we are meant to carry the weight of autonomy that has been given to artists. William Dyrness, in his book Visual Faith, reminds us that artistic autonomy is a fairly recent idea, instituted by the Romantic movement and then built upon by later art movements.  Before the Renaissance, artists were not called ‘creative’.  Instead, artistry was ‘seen as a kind of stewardship of the creative order, or the religious tradition, not absolute creativity’ (115).  Dyrness considers a Biblical understanding of artistry and notes that while all Christians are called to model Christ, ‘artists are called in a particular way to serve the created order.’  They are limited by the creation around them and the call to dominion in Genesis 2 has special relevance to artists. ‘…Through these senses the artist hears the call to servanthood’ (154).

In the same way that I needed parameters set around a job in order for my creativity to flourish (and to preserve the client-designer relationship), God has set parameters around the artist by His creation (we don’t create out of nothing in the way God does) and by calling us to serve and steward the created order.  As an artist, we never sit down with a blank canvas or screen, but we start with the world around us in both its creation and its limitations.  As a servant, I’m challenged to ‘look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others,’ and when I do, what I create becomes much bigger (and more fulfilling).  In my experience, true artistic freedom comes once an artist lets go of the burden of autonomy.

What do you think?

Photo Credit: Eric Merrell


  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: blackwatertown

    It’s always good to get that instruction “Oh just do whatever you fancy” in writing. Helps with getting paid.

      1. says: Anna

        I wonder whether or not even in freelance writing when a client says (or a publisher) “do whatever you want” there are still some limitations to that freedom. for example, i’m sure if you wrote one sentence and submitted that they wouldn’t be very impressed. By this I mean that there still may be implicit limitations as to length, style, and format even where content is generally unrestricted though i suspect that where a topic in the very least is given then that supplies some boundaries…hence, I think your ideas are also applicable to writing as well, though it is a good point to raise how and whether it does apply in all artistic forms.

  2. says: Bruce

    Eric — as a graphic designer, you might enjoy this bumper sticker (URL below) I designed that I think complements your discussion.
    Cheers, Bruce

  3. says: tim


    While I appreciate the search, or need, for limitations you bring up, I wonder if God’s creation is really enough of a limitation. Is that a bit like a freelance writer being told their only limitation is that they need to use words. There’s not much that couldn’t be included within such paramaters, and it seems the weight of creativity still rests upon the individual artist. What does Dyrness suggest? or does he primarily diagnose?

    Perhaps vocation could place limitations or give a purpose, or point-of-view, in a society defined by individualism. Still, vocation is not far from the romanticism of the artist expressing that which is uniquely individual as being the highest form of art, which brings us right back to where we started.

    Do artists need another “a” word in their lives? Could we dare suggest authority as a commissioner? But from where? The church? The academy? The individual artist’s community? But we’ve learned authority is antithetical to creativity. Haven’t we?

    Thanks for intriguing.

  4. says: Wes

    This is a great discussion! I am glad that you raised the relationship between authority and creativity, Tim, because I think we often put a false dichotomy between these. We see this in our Christian lives in general, and the relationship between the authority of Scripture and the creativity expressed in our ways of living. God has “commissioned,” as it were, a particularly artful way of living, and creativity and freedom is found in living according to this commission. Perhaps a similar thing is true with art proper.

  5. says: Sara

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments and contributing to the discussion! Tim, thanks for raising some interesting points and questions. Let me attempt to add my bit.

    Dryness’s comments about the artist as servant and steward are in the context of considering what opportunities have emerged for Christians within the arts and he is specifically looking at the relationship between art and discipleship. Dryness writes: ‘However creative they [artists] are, they can do nothing without making careful use of the sights and sounds into which they are born. (152)’ Dryness doesn’t really offer a further suggestion of parameters outside of the limitations of materials — whether that be trying to get words to say exactly what you mean or paint to do exactly what you want it to do. So, you’re right, the weight of creativity is still on the shoulders of the artist, but in my opinion, that’s different than autonomy. I think that the weight of creativity is part of the vocation given to artists – to image and thus make visible the world around then. But there is something very different between the burden of creativity that is hedged in by creation (and the God of creation as the ground) versus the burden of coming up with something out of nothing (autonomy). And while in actuality, we know that this is always an illusion in practice (even if an artist thinks that it is possible), I think that the burden manifests itself in the life of the artist. It’s not coincidence that once artists started to see themselves as autonomous (20th century), they also started to declare themselves as G/god (Paul Klee is one example). So even though artists aren’t actually creating from nothing, they think they are — and that’s the problem. In the eyes of others and him/herself, the artist starts to take on an elevated status, setting themselves over and above others. As well, if you’re autonomous, you’re not responsible if the viewer doesn’t understand your work because the orientation is yourself, not the other. From my perspective, it’s a matter of where one starts. (Inspiration, maybe?) Autonomy would say that inspiration comes from yourself – from somewhere deep inside separated from the world – whereas, creativity (or perhaps a better word is making) would start from the world around them and go from there.

    Regarding authority and creativity — this is a really interesting statement. I think that the modern agenda has made authority antithetical to creativity and in my opinion, this is where it started to go wrong. If artists are called to serve, does this not assume an authority? I’m not 100% sure what I think so I would appreciate any comments and Wes, I think you’re started us in a good direction considering the authority of Scripture and creativity of living. It’s interesting to consider your post on jazz, improvisation, Scripture and Christian living in relation to this — we can’t go looking in Scripture for an authoritative manifesto on ‘Christian’ art but God gives us Himself as Creator and we are ultimately servants and stewards of His creation. I know that I’m going in circles a bit but yes, I do think that authority and creativity need each other. What I’m less sure about is where the authority should lie. In Scripture, yes. Which institution? I’m not so sure of the specifics of how but it does seem to me that the church is the best institution to hold this tension.

    1. says: tim


      Thanks for the clarification between creativity and autonomy. It was helpful.

      I think this discussion is very interesting in relation to Jenn’s post, “Where does our service lie, pt. 2.” She hits the nail on the head concerning O’Connor’s view of limitation and its relation to the artist. O’Connor wrote “I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of human limitation” (Mystery and Manners, 131). Also, “Fiction is the most impure and the most modest and the most human of the arts. It is closest to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope. . . . We are limited human beings, and the novel is a product of our best limitations” (M&M, 193). For O’Connor art may well be what is best about us, but this occurs in and through limitation, not despite it.

      Concerning authority – the lack of response to what you’ve written perhaps speaks volumes on its own. I know my own silence has a lot behind it.

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