Three Aspirations for the Arts

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Assuming that artists are to be visionary prophets, what might that look like? I think it means pursuing at least three separate (though not mutually exclusive) goals.

Truth: Exposing the False, Reflecting the Real

Of course, the very notion of truth is often rejected by contemporary culture. The common assumption is that there are no shared foundations on which to base any statements or criticisms of the culture.

But if we are followers of Christ, then we have a duty not to be conformed in our minds to the way the world thinks (as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2) but to be transformed. Scripture is the foundation for that intellectual and spiritual renewal and the benchmark for our understanding of renewal. Now we can be oblique, we can be metaphorical, we can be allusive and elusive—but I would argue that we always have to be true. Do we not have the duty to expose the false in whatever form it comes?

I love this point by Calvin Seerveld:

Art, like anything else, is relevant if it supplies what is needed. Art that is popular is supplying what is wanted, but not necessarily what is needed, and may not therefore be relevant.

Let me give you an example. I was talking a while back to someone in our church who worked as a scriptwriter for a number of TV shows (including a big British soap opera and other well-known series that have been exported globally). She works hard to bring her faith to bear on what is a hostile and difficult environment. But one of her goals is always to be true to reality in plot lines.

So take one of the lies of our age: it doesn’t matter how many people you sleep with as long as it’s always consensual. It is easy for soaps to portray easy sex as having no consequences. But in the moral, created universe, that is simply not true. Sex has extraordinary power to destroy and damage some or all concerned. So when she writes about people having affairs, my friend ensures that there is no such thing as consequence-free sex, for the simple reason that there isn’t in real life. It is fascinating to see that this seems to be implicitly acknowledged in a number of the most compelling shows of recent years. The Wire and Mad Men are cases in point—both are gripping in large part because they show how sin has consequences.

Steve Turner picks up another example. The Catholic painter Georges Rouault, like many of his contemporaries, painted prostitutes, but the art critic Louis Vauxcelles noticed the difference: “Unlike Lautrec,” he wrote, “when he [Rouault] paints a prostitute there is no cruel pleasure in seeing vice exalted by a creature. He suffers and he weeps.”

Now I suppose you might apply Philippians 4 crudely and say that being confronted with something like prostitution is hardly lovely or noble. But take that line and you actually find yourself coming into conflict with Jesus himself. He never exploited prostitutes or took pleasure from them; instead he suffered and wept with them. And they with him. And they loved him for it. Like when he was anointed by the so-called sinful woman in Luke 7. Could we not expose the horrors of human trafficking through an integrated application of our Christian imaginations?

Sometimes this will entail reflecting the ugly in our world, because that is the real, that is the true. After all, what is a war artist trying to do? What else is Picasso’s Guernica seeking? That is a colossal work driven by the artist’s awakened rage at the horrors of war. But Flannery O’Connor puts it best:

My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse and for the unacceptable… Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

This is not to suggest that we should relish the ugly—there is of course a place for beauty—for there is a place for raising our eyes above the mundane and grubby to the transcendent.

Beauty: Exposing the Idolatrous, Reflecting the Wondrous

I put this in the same breath as idolatry because the Romantic movement in the last 150 years or so has idolized beauty to such an extent that some reacted against it by relishing the ugly and bestial. It was an understandable reaction—because it seemed to focus only on some unreal ideal—a feeling that perhaps harked back to art fixated on the Greek myths with heroes located in stylized Italian landscapes where everything was in its sun-drenched perfection. But it is not a helpful reaction.

Instead, I think beauty’s greatest purpose is to draw us in and point us beyond itself. We don’t worship beauty, for that is no different from any other idolatry. We don’t worship created things but the Creator. So the Christian artist’s challenge in portraying beauty is to use it to reflect the truly wondrous.

T. Bone Burnett, speaking to the L.A. Weekly, said:

If Jesus is the Light of the World, there are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light. That’s what I try to do.

A poet who did just that was Gerard Manley Hopkins. He responded superbly to the challenges of living in an urbanized and concretized world that attempted to suppress the wonder of the divine in creation. A lovely case in point is his poem God’s Grandeur.

Hope: Exposing the Baseless, Reflecting the Future

Back in 2011, the Royal Academy in London put on a fascinating exhibition exploring the development of Soviet architecture in the first two decades of the USSR. It was fascinating. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a huge scale model in the RA’s grand courtyard of the planned monument to the Third International outside St Petersburg. It would have been vast, dwarfing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was never built but it is a good emblem for the ethos. It is a dynamic helter-skelter-like structure, driving forward and upwards at an angle into the sky, symbolic of a confident modernity that knows where it is going.

The Soviet state would only commission art that glorified the state or was sufficiently “ideologically pure” (it was to inspire citizens about the guaranteed and glorious future of Communism. Everything—and I mean, everything—had to work towards this.) But this is not hope; it is politically imperative unreality, an idolatrous delusion. And it was oppressive. Look at some of the images from the era’s propaganda. It is crushing and inhumane. It brooks no dissent. It is the ultimate “Get with the program” kind of art. That is not liberating hope; that is bludgeoning jackboot art. There is nothing organic, real or plausible about this kind of hope. So, we need to clarify terms.

For the Christian, hope is fundamental. Without it we would desiccate and be crushed. And if our art is to be integrated, it should surely reflect that hope, in some shape or form. I’ve no idea how—that’s your job! But how else are we going to combat the prevailing cynicism and even despair of modern cultural life if we don’t somehow point beyond it to something more? That doesn’t mean we always have to have glimmers of dawn on the horizon, or paint a rainbow on everything. Certainly not. But surely one of our most urgent questions, and one of our society’s most pressing needs, is for us to find a vocabulary of hope. And at the heart of that hope must be God’s mercy in Christ and his Cross.

Here is Steve Turner again:

It is easy to state the bare facts of the cross. The difficulty is to do it in a way that is consistent with the rest of our art and that engages our audience. It is easy to write a song that says “the Savior of the world died on a tree/ in order to save you and me” but how many people have their perceptions rattled by such language? Art should be helping us see things as if we had never seen them before. “We need to clean our windows,” said writer J. R. R. Tolkien, “so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

Lest we get ideas above our station and become so wrapped up in our own creativity that we forget we can never do more than reflect the Lord’s great creative acts, check out this little ditty by Joyce Kilmer, rather wonderfully using the same rhyme that Steve Turner rightly mocked:

“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God could make a tree.”

Mark Meynell’s new book, When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, is now available in the Rabbit Room Store. Click here to learn more.


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