I’ve been struggling over a quote that I’ve read from Madeleine L’Engle, who I personally think is one of God’s most precious gifts to the artistically inclined. Her books like Walking on Water have inspired me toward many endeavors and I have passed that particular book to several friends who all say the same: how wonderful it is.
Yet there’s this line in the book: “Art should communicate with as many people as possible…”
Really? Of course, the second half of that line reads “not just with a group of the esoteric elite.” And while I would agree that art doesn’t exist for the purpose of society’s elite, I also just wanted to ask a simple question in regards to the first half of L’Engle’s statement.
How accessible should art truly be?
Such a blanket statement is hardly easy to break down into a formulaic equation – discovering the precise amount of accessibility a sonnet or song should hold. But I do think we could have an intelligent discussion on such a topic.
The reason I’m drawn to this idea is simple: one of my strongest dislikes and quickest triggers to get frustrated concern this area of popular culture. Radio rock music, for example, where the Nickelbacks of our time continue to make millions hand-over-fist playing formula driven songs catering to the three-minute pop formula. These songs are as accessible as it gets, yet I hardly believe them to be artistic in any way.
Want your country song to be accessible? Mention the flag, God, America, kickin’ tail, and your silly clothing that goes along with all of these and you’re set. Accessible to all of middle America and a certified hit for sure.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. But I will say that this site alone holds evidence of fantastic, thoughtful artists who either have to get used to the fringe of pop culture – a niche within a niche, as Derek Webb told me one time – or else stop making music. It seems the most meaningful art around us, movies and music and otherwise, exists around the fringe, yet L’Engle here stresses the need for artists to pursue accessibility.
I am not a songwriter. Nor a poet or painter or any other sort of artist. But I feel I know enough about the subject as an appreciator that I do not want my favorite writers and directors and singers to move toward that idea of accessibility. It seems it would ‘water things down.’ And it seems my favorite artists end up scoffing at that notion anyway – as if they recognize the need to preserve the integrity of their art.
So what is the balance here? What does L’Engle mean by this? What’s the tension for an artist to make art for the masses and yet retain its integrity as art?
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.