In Memory of Peter Shaffer

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This morning, a friend showed me some snapshots of her vacation in Italy. As I looked at image after image of extraordinary artistry on display in places both sacred and public, she remarked, “Nobody does stuff like that anymore. You have to wonder why.”

I don’t have to wonder why. Those artists were paid, even commissioned, to bring beauty into those spaces. And their work could not be easily pirated and duplicated: The one-of-a-kindness of it was precious and preserved.

Okay, sure — even in those days, artists were “bought” and exploited. The world has never been particularly kind to creatives. But the age of the Internet has brought us, in some ways, to a new low. Beauty is so available, so easily ripped off and copied, that the world has decided it’s a waste to support new artists with a living wage. Why pay musicians or painters for something new? Why not just grab something off the Internet that already exists, alter it, and use it for your own purposes?

This is on my mind because I am just learning that Peter Shaffer passed away at the age of 90.

Shaffer was one of the lucky ones whose work was celebrated enough to give him a career as an artist.

Those artists who refuse to play capitalism’s games usually end up having only as much time for their art as most people have for a “hobby” — they have to do other kinds of work if they want to survive. And the world is deprived of what God might have revealed through their work.

Jeffrey Overstreet

And yet, his play Amadeus, which became a film I celebrate in my book Through a Screen Darkly, is a truth-telling work about the exploitation of artistic genius. It’s a lament for how true vision can go unrecognized while the visionary lives, and an acknowledgment that great work is often discovered and appreciated only when the inconvenient artist is no longer with us (if that work is ever discovered at all).

Amadeus reinforced for me what the Scriptures mean when they say that God shames the proud by raising up the humble. The Mozart of the movie is a foul-mouthed, bawdy, womanizing alcoholic. He’s everything the self-righteous establishment refuses to accept. But he’s gifted with vision that opens the heavens so that anyone — anyone — can hear echoes of the glory of God. That’s God’s way of saying that we can’t earn divine favor or win true vision like a prize. That’s God’s way of demonstrating unconditional love and grace, so that no one has any right to boast.

In Amadeus, how does the self-righteous “expert” on composition respond to evidence of God’s “unfair” economy? Like the religious leaders scowling over the devotion inspired by Jesus and his apostles, he’s consumed by jealousy and bitterness. In the end, the real genius lies in ruins, while the mediocre and self-righteous Salieri snarls in resentment.

It would be a complete tragedy, except that beauty goes on doing its work, calling us all to pay attention to the source.

Amadeus remains one of the most influential works of art in my life. It taught me to appreciate wisdom and beauty wherever I find it. It affirmed my suspicions that God’s most glorious revelations will often come from the most unlikely people — people who whose voices would be silenced at Christian schools for their troublemaking, people who would be rejected from church congregations for how they smell or how they won’t “clean up.” And it reassured me that even if I pursue excellence in my art, I am not guaranteed appreciation, respect, or even a decent income.

While historians will pick Amadeus apart, Shaffer’s fictional tribute to Mozart offers profound insight into how and why the world stifles creativity, exploits creative people, and celebrates mediocrity.

Mozart’s imagination is disruptive — it tells us that we haven’t figured everything out. Mozart’s imagination threatens so-called experts — it reveals them to be as petty and as prideful as anyone. Mozart’s imagination shows us that beauty can be found everywhere, regardless of our hierarchies. And yet, alas, Mozart’s imagination sets self-interested human beings to work in figuring out how they benefit from someone else’s genius. Thus, Mozart’s imagination ends up forced into the service of crooked systems.

Shaffer’s Mozart could amplify “the voice of God.” And so he was persecuted by the jealous, exploited by the powerful, and deprived of the support he needed.

Whether or not Shaffer’s Mozart is anything like the real Mozart, there’s no way to deny that the plight of this Mozart correlates to the plight of gifted musicians — gifted artists — today. I know so many people who invested heavily in artistic educations in order to refine and strengthen their art, and who now spend most of their hours doing something entirely different because even their best artistic efforts wouldn’t put food on their table or a roof over their heads.

I think of Amadeus whenever I’m reminded that I can either apply myself to my art or earn a living wage.

I think of Amadeus when I hear Christians condemning my favorite artists and entertainers for their moral failings. “What? You like that guy’s movies? You like that woman’s music? Do you know what kind of life he lives? Do you know what I read about her?”

I think of Amadeus when I see commercial entertainers stealing great ideas from unappreciated masters (who never made a “hit”) and turning them into box-office success.

And the exceptions? The artists who do find a way make a living off of their work? Don’t kid yourself — most of the art that plays on big screens is there because someone other than the artist is making most, if not all, of the money. The music that’s promoted and marketed? It may come from somebody whose work has earned them “success,” but it’s likely that they’re still owned by a company who receives most of the reward.

Those artists who refuse to play capitalism’s games usually end up having only as much time for their art as most people have for a “hobby” — they have to do other kinds of work if they want to survive. And the world is deprived of what God might have revealed through their work.

This is the devil’s world, for now. He’s doing all he can to keep good artists down, to stifle beauty, and to turn what glory is revealed into a “profitable” opportunity.

But he doesn’t have to win every time.

Who in your life today would give the world beauty and imagination if only they had more support? Who spends their days laboring on something other than their art in order to make ends meet? How many musicians, novelists, and painters might bless the world in life-giving ways if they were compensated for their work?

Amadeus tells the far too familiar story of an artist who became a living sacrifice for the sake of revelation, and ended up exploited, suppressed, ruined, or all of the above. Watch it again, and see if he reminds you of anyone you might know who labors in the fever of a vision, and who goes overlooked, unappreciated, or exploited. Let this movie work on your heart. Think of the artists in your life, those who have given you glimpses of something beautiful and true, and give them a note of encouragement today. And consider donating to their futures, even if all you can spare is a little each month.

Let’s see if we can turn loose a little beauty that doesn’t have strings, or parasites, attached.

[This article originally appeared at LookingCloser.org. Used with permission.]

Jeffrey Overstreet is a writer of fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism — and a teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith. Visit LookingCloser.org for more information.


3 Comments

  1. Rebecca Reynolds

    @rebeccareynolds

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. Amadeus is probably my favorite movie, despite its historical inaccuracies. Good choices were made to achieve the truest story, even if it wasn’t the most representative story.

    I refuse to waste large blocks of time sitting through most films, but I have watched Amadeus around 30 times over the course of my life. Possibly more.

    When I was fourteen or fifteen, I was absolutely transfixed by this film. At an intuitive level, I could tell that it was offering me radical wisdom about God and his gifts — about how the mechanics of the gospel worked — and I kept returning to it over and over, trying to unlock secrets that I felt were inside it. I wouldn’t be able to put words on what I sensed until I was in my 30’s, but the film’s characters, principles, and images stayed with me all that time, pulling me onward.

    When I look back on the major theological influences of my life (Lewis, Keller, Buechner, Sayers, the book of Romans) I find this movie on the list. It trained me to focus beyond my own identity as a creator (strengths and grotesque weaknesses) and keep my eyes on the beauty possible when a human being taps into a deeper current.

    I learned so much from this film about how creativity works and what it can cost. It warned me about the dangers of proud effort, and it promised such a lavish, unmeritted grace to the least of these.  For the astute listener, I suppose it is one of the most offensive movies ever made. For me it has also been one of the truest.

  2. Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    Great piece! And thank you for giving a nod to Shaffer. I was in a production of Amadeus in 2010 with the NC Symphony Orchestra. Each piece of music was played live — a thrilling experience. And hey! I think the film version is streaming on Netflix right now in case anyone is interested.

  3. Brenda Nuland

    I never looked at the movie from that perspective, thank you!  It is time to watch it again. I have been writing since I was a child and blogging for ten years but I would never call myself a writer because I wasn’t paid to write. Then something Lanier said was my life changing moment. To paraphrase, when she realized she is a writer because she writes even if she never had a book published. Such simple Truth.  One writes, they are a writer. One makes art using their God given gift… they are an artist in His eyes.

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