May your faith be spread like seeds across the earth... September 2002
Faithful Witness
Journal of the Friends Media Project
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Friends Media Watch In The Beginning Was The Word
                        by Dana Kester-McCabe
"Your art will not really begin to have meaning for someone else until you have lived enough to have something to say."
- Art School Tenet

As an egotistical young artist, I wanted to achieve the power to sway minds. I did not feel that simply painting pretty pictures would give me that connection to the audience I craved. As I grew spiritually, creatively, and emotionally, I came to understand that no amount of satisfaction gained from this goal could compare to the fulfillment of coming up with a truly worthwhile idea. And, then I came to realize that my personal experience was much less important than the idea it self.

One of the first things I was taught in video production was to "edit to the audio." I learned this on the job as a producer of television commercials. This meant that the length of the video clip should be based on how long the person on it was talking. And, if your finished project could only be a certain length, you had to add up the times of all the clips you needed to convey your message before you began to string them all together. As the people who were teaching me would repeat this concept over and over, it always made me think of that first verse from the Gospel of John.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
- John 1:1

Now, of course, my teachers were really advocating this: Write a good script with well thought out timing and add video images to go with the speeches in that script. There were numerous practical reasons for this, ranging from having limited chances to get the audio correct when out on location, to having all of the specific words contractually required by the customer conveyed in the commercial.

But those production lessons had deeper implications for me. I have come to see that verse in John as meaning this: The ideas that inform a life with integrity and compassion are the core of our relationship with God. The words in our hearts and minds, that inspire our intentions, help us to make them realities. No matter what creative endeavor I have been engaged in, the concept I am trying to communicate - the Word - comes first. Any editing I do should support - The Word.

As an artist this comes down to knowing what you want to communicate. Pictures are very powerful, but the words that accompany them, or the context in which they are presented can cause the audience to perceive them as something very different. So writing a good script for any mass media production is essential. This takes time and thought. More importantly, it takes integrity.

Integrity is not just the final outcome of an action. It is forethought, thought in action, and follow up thinking. In two words it is a: holistic approach. The artisan should have an expectation of the audience's potential not just their limitations in understanding the ideas being communicated. The execution of those ideas should be accomplished with careful consideration. And if, once presented, those ideas are misunderstood, efforts should be made to repair the production or to clarify it in some way.

Recently the pop singer and video artist, Madonna, produced a new collection of songs and videos. Just before its debut she pulled one of the related music videos from release. It carried an antiwar message. It had been produced before the start of the U.S. military action in Iraq. She said that while American troops were engaged in combat she felt the video might seem unsupportive and disrespectful. This was a very expensive decision. I, and other commentators, can only speculate on her true motivations. Was she afraid it might hurt album sales in a politically volatile climate - or did she truly fear her artistic message would not be received in the spirit it was intended if its release were poorly timed?

She promoted her new album in interviews by explaining her actions and the spiritual lessons she had learned about the dangers of materialism and seeking only personal gratification. These words came from an artist who made personal wealth and hedonism the rallying points of several of her earlier works. Her current efforts did not assure the success of the new work, which was purchased right away by longstanding fans, though it has not sold well otherwise - so far.

I would still like to see her antiwar video, simply because I am interested in the topic. I suspect that is not going to happen now. But if I do get a chance to see it, there will be a lot of ancillary meaning that will color my perception of it. Sadly, no matter what she may have learned from her spiritual studies, her actions are colored by an historic impression of her as being self-centered. Though, I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt. Call me na´ve. I would like to think that she was now inspired by nobler aims. After all: "...they who are with out sin can cast the first stone..."

No matter how good our intentions, it does not take much to divert the public's opinion of a project. Living down a reputation, is only one example of the challenges in maintaining a holistic approach to production integrity. When working in mass media there are a whole host of jobs that contribute to the outcome of the project. If the team works in concert, with dedication to the purpose of that work, fewer issues will distract its ultimate audience from the ideas it conveys. It is also true that a lie can be very convincing when it is connected with a series of truths that touch common emotions. But if personal profit is our primary motivation, it is hard to keep that from infecting the delivery of our message - no matter how noble it may be - even if an artisan is good at concealing these impulses.

Likewise we cannot always predict how our work will be corrupted or misused once it is broadcast. For example, in the news today is a story about how the U.S. government is using songs piped repeatedly into prisoner of war camps to break down the resistance of the captives. They are using songs from children's television shows like "Barney" and "Sesame Street," as well as heavy metal rock and roll. When I first heard about the "Barney" song I must admit was amused. But when they said "Sesame Street" my reaction was different. I am very sentimental about that show. I admire the integrity that went into its production. I quickly was reminded that it is wrong to use anything at all as an agent of torture. I wondered if the owners of any of that music had any legal recourse to this perversion of its purpose. There may be a letter writing campaign in there somewhere, which I think I will pray about. It opened up a huge can of worms in my mind about the practicalities of assuring protection of copyright. I hope others will think and pray about this too.

So how do we as "Faithful Witnesses" insure that our own work is as successful in its delivery as it is in its conception? We can attempt to maintain a commitment to integrity in our work and personal conduct, and observe a discipline of prayer, meditation, and worshipful discernment in community with others. But, the fate of that work is largely out of our hands once it is broadcast. There may be some legal remedies when it is co-opted inappropriately. But, creating a work for mass media consumption takes a leap of faith. Certainly anything worth doing is worth protecting, but we have to decide how we want to spend our time. And, we must not be dissuaded by setbacks or challenges, either our own or those of other communicators. The hope is that a work of integrity will take on a life of its own and will survive any assault. In the end, it comes back to that well from which our work springs. The Word. By connecting with that of God within ourselves we will find the tools to connect with that of God in our audience.

Dana Kester-McCabe is a freelance graphic artist, writer and designer from Bishopville, Maryland.

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Copyright 2003 - Dana Kester-McCabe - All rights reserved.
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Faithful Witness - Journal of the Friends Media Project