Kent Sanders | Unlock Your Creative Potential

Unlock Your Creative Potential

Will Your Art Outlive You? A Lesson from Gothic Cathedrals

When I came to teach at St. Louis Christian College in 2004, one of the courses I was assigned is Introduction to the Arts. It’s a basic survey course covering visual art, architecture, music, theater, and film from a Christian philosophical viewpoint.

The area I knew the least about was architecture. I had always been fascinated by it, but never studied it in-depth. Over the years, as I have learned more about architecture, it has become one of my favorite subjects.

I’m especially drawn to Gothic cathedrals. These medieval works of art represent one of the pinnacles of human ingenuity and creativity. Designers, laborers, and craftsmen worked for decades, in some cases centuries, to complete these massive projects.

My personal favorite is Chartres Cathedral in France. Built from 1194-1260, it’s one of the oldest Gothic cathedrals. Chartres is famous for several iconic features, including its beautiful stained-glass windows, a medieval labyrinth, and a purported relic of the Virgin Mary’s tunic.

This clip from the fascinating documentary Chartres Cathedral: A Sacred Geometry will give you a sense of its magnificence:

Consider the mindset of the artists who built Gothic cathedrals. They worked to build something they knew would outlive them—not only by decades but by centuries.

That’s a stark contrast to today’s creative world, where we don’t normally think in centuries or decades, or even years. We think in weeks and days, hours and moments.

Today, most of our creative work is designed for quick consumption. We share social media posts that we hope get “liked” within 30 minutes. We publish blog posts, podcasts, and videos that we hope go viral within a few days. We release books, movies, and albums and hope they will be seen or downloaded thousands (or millions) of times in a few months.

I’m not saying those things are bad. I engage in all those mediums, and more. But is there a way to balance the need for relevance and timeliness with a more long-term perspective on our creative work?

Maybe a better way to frame the question is: Will your art outlive you?

This is the question I’ve been turning over in my mind lately. I’ve come to three conclusions about creating art that outlives us. These are imperatives we must follow if we want to make an impact over the long haul.

1. Take the long view of your art.

It’s easy to get frustrated when something we create isn’t an immediate hit. I’ve been there. I’m still there most of the time.

What truly counts is not any individual work, but a body of work that is created over a lifetime. Think about artists such as Steven Spielberg, The Beatles, or Stephen King. If they had stopped after one hit, would we remember them?

Perhaps. But they kept going, even through failures, and today they are known as creative giants.

It’s not about one blog post, book, painting, or album. It’s the collective impact that your work makes over the years and decades. That means we can embrace failure as a learning point and decide to improve the next time we launch something.

2. Make something physical.

I know some creatives who work in purely digital formats will disagree with me, and that’s OK. But I would pose a question: How will someone 100 years from now experience your art?

Blogs, podcasts, digital music and photos, and online courses are great … but will your great-grandchildren be able to interact with those? Will they even know your art existed?

No one can predict what the technology of the future will be like. That’s why I believe it’s important to create something physical that can be passed down to future generations.

One of my most treasured possessions is a tattered notebook that my grandmother Louise used to write her poetry. She died when I was three years old, but when I look through the notebook at her poems—many of which are quite good—it’s almost like she’s there with me.

That’s something you can’t get on a computer screen.

In terms of writing, I think every author should create a print book. Not only is it more prestigious than an ebook, it’s something you can pass down to your kids and grandkids.

Whatever kind of creative work you do, I would strongly encourage you to consider what kind of physical artifacts you can leave behind for future generations.

3. Focus on being a producer, not a consumer.

This is an area where I struggle quite a bit. I subscribe to too many email lists, buy too many books, and attend too many webinars. (Correction on that last part: I sign up for too many webinars, then download the replay video but never watch them. I totally don’t have a folder on my computer called “Training” where I store these dozens of unwatched videos.)

One of the most helpful things I’ve read recently is a short article by Srinivas Rao, Why I Write 1,000 Words Every Day. He refers to this as a keystone habit that unlocks many other good things.

Another recent article that was super helpful is by Mark McGuinness, Forget the Career Ladder: Start Creating Assets.

These articles, taken together, have pushed me to stop consuming so much and start creating more. Sure, it’s important to stay up-to-date on trends in your field. Books, courses, blogs, and podcasts are great. But if you constantly consume but never produce, what is the point?

They key to long-term success—and the key to leaving something behind for future generations—is producing quality work. But we can’t do that if we’re constantly consuming and never producing.

If you and I take that approach, we will not only be building for the days and years to come … but the generations to come as well.

There are a many ways to begin producing more:

But the main point is that you must take action in order to move your creative dreams out of your head and into reality.

I get it. It’s difficult to focus on the long-term because there are so many distractions in the present. But for the sake of our legacies, and especially for the sake of future generations, we must begin taking a longer view of our lives and creative work.

If you’re interested in learning more about Chartres Cathedral, or Gothic cathedrals in general, I’d recommend the following resources:

What are some other suggestions for taking a long-term view of your art and creating work that lasts?

About Kent Sanders

I help people unlock their God-given creative potential. I live with my wife and son in St. Peters, MO. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or YouTube.

  • Good article Kent. I agree with you on the importance of creating a print book. I’m guilty of creating for the short term. You’ve inspired me to look longer at my process and how to pour into future generations.

    • Thanks, Melissa – I appreciate the feedback! Doing a print book has probably been the most creatively satisfying thing I’ve ever done. (Except for playing “Johnny Fontane” in my high school production of Grease … but that’s a story for another day, ha ha.) I really like what you are doing on your blog with color psychology and small businesses. Very insightful.