Thursday, January 06, 2011

How to Think About Art

Before I write about the nature of artistic endeavor, I want to be clear from the start that I am not a stereo-typical "artist." In speaking of art, I feel a bit like the guy who can play G, C, D, A, and E chords on the guitar. Sure, I can play basically every country music song ever written with those, but does that mean I can play the guitar? Listen first to Eliot Fisk play the guitar, and then you can tell me if the ability to perform a five chord progression qualifies one as a "guitarist."

I am, however, a bit of a wordsmith. I am also an orator. The proof of the former is that you are reading this. The second proof is that I am a preacher. Unfortunately, the art of oration is a bit of an under appreciated art form in this era of history. (Insert angsty sigh here to prove my artistry.) This does not qualify me to define what art is or does, but I'm going to give it a try for you anyway.

I am writing this, primarily, with the Christian in mind. I fear that many of my fellow Christians, especially evangelicals, have no clear grasp of what art is for and what it is should do. This is evident in the way that we condemn works of art like Harry Potter or "modern" art. Each is sniffed at or assailed for different reasons, and those reasons more often reveal the ignorance of the observer than it does the quality of the art. Yes, sometimes art is bad. But if art is bad, it absolutely must be bad for some other reason that "It offends me." Being offended is not the cardinal sin, nor is a measure of the value of something communicated. My wife may say, "You're being an idiot." I may say, "You've offended me!" My nearby friend may say, "Nevertheless, you're being an idiot." Not a very artistic conversation, but it can demonstrate that offense taken is no measuring stick for value.

So let me take a few criteria we can use to judge the value of an artistic expression, whether it be art by painting, by music, by oratory, poetry, or writing in general. These are made up criteria for myself. I use them to make certain that my personal sensibilities, which are sometimes wrong, are not getting in the way of a more objective consideration of what I am being presented. These are not in order of importance, but rather, they represent a series of questions I ask myself as I analyze art. Some questions I answer are not "stand alone", but naturally lead to other questions.

1. Is this piece presenting something that corresponds to reality?
I need this criteria when I am presented with something that is offensive to me. If I am watching a television show, reading a book, or looking at a painting, I ask myself if this is corresponding to reality. Even abstract art is attempting to say something about reality. If I am reading a novel, and one of the characters is flirting with adultery, it alarms me. I do not like it. But does this correspond to reality? Yes. Is it sinful for me to read about this? Not necessarily. If it were, the story of David and Bathsheba is too obscene to consider. So first, I ask if this corresponds to something in reality. Sin is reality. Simply presenting things as they are is not necessarily bad.
2. What is this art saying about reality?
I am reminded here about an art display I once saw where a man had taken a dead cow, put it behind glass, and put maggots and flies in there to display a rotting carcass. All that was missing was smell. The visceral reaction to that is, "That isn't art! That's just disgusting!" Well no, it was presented as art. This guy was "dead" serious. Was it reality? Yes. We die and we rot. Is it disgusting to look at? Yes, it most certainly is disgusting. So what was the man saying about reality? I think he was saying, "You are going to die, rot, and the maggots will eat you."

This is true, but is the piece trying to say that this is all we have to look forward to? Did it mean to do that, or did it only mean to spark the conversation?

Now remember, not every art piece is a Rembrandt. This very blog post is a work of art, if I may say so. It is low art, and it will be quickly forgotten. But it is serving a purpose. But hopefully, it may lead the reader to further thought. Dead, maggot filled cows will not be around in a 100 years like Rembrandt, but I thought that the artist who offered the dead, rotting cow was very brave, and he reminded me of a harsh reality. Death is real. Death is ugly. Death is coming. That isn't the whole story, but it is a true story and people need to be confronted with that reality from time to time, especially in a sanitized, clean, high-brow art museum. It was an unforgettable display to be sure. I'm still writing about it.

3. Does the art "keep it between the lines?"
I judge art on a continuum. This is most helpful in judging stories, movies, but it might apply to paintings and such. Imagine a line at the top that is called "cheesy" and at the bottom there is a line called "indulgently/erroneously wicked." I define cheesy as a movie whose message is, in reality, too good to be true. For example, and I hope I do not get hate mail for this, "Facing the Giants" stayed mostly above the "cheesy" line. Does that mean it is bad art? Not necessarily. I would say that it is what it is. It didn't win an academy award for a reason. Does that mean it is useless? No. It was entertaining, and there were elements that can lead someone to introspection and thought.

On the flip side, I recently played through a game called "Bioshock." Can games be art? Certainly they are, just as comic books are art. I think that Bioshock dipped below the "Indulgently/erroneously wicked" line. (I can't think of a better antonym for "cheesy".) The characters in the game were irredeemable. The story gave you no reason to feel any sorrow or sympathy for the villains. That is below the line because "good" stories should give us pause when we consider the villain. Great art does that. Consider gollum in "The Lord of the Rings." Was he a wicked little thing? Indeed, most wicked. Did the story move us to pity him? Yes, it did. There was a reason that Frodo didn't slay him outright. The ability of a story to help us see wickedness as pitiful is a mark of reality and it says something right about reality. Hope springs eternal for the redemption of others, and when they aren't redeemed, we should feel grief.

The reason I take pains to point out a few steps I take in regarding the arts is because I get the sense that many Christians feel that if a movie, painting, or book depicts wickedness then that movie, painting, or book itself is wicked. If this were the case, then the Bible would be wicked. Rather, a piece of art ought to deal with reality as it is, but not indulgently one way or another.

Finally, I want to be clear that not everyone has to enjoy or work at understanding artistic expression. I have an acquaintance who is a police officer, and his job is to troll the internet to look for child pornography. He has to sift through thousands of pornographic images every day and try to determine if those depicted are under age. I pray for him and others who have his job.

For me, it is important as a Christian to understand those who are around me. Why are they watching "The Office"? Why is this guy putting a dead cow under glass? What are the video games that children are playing teaching them about reality? What's right with it? What's wrong with it? I need to be able to have a conversation with someone, in a sane manner, that demonstrates that I have, in good faith, tried to understand what they are saying. Then, they will be more prone to give my words a fair hearing as well.


Nina said...

Hi, Brad!

Speaking of art, I'm going to be reading a book about art by Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey soon. It's called "Saving Leonardo" and looks like it's going to be a good one.

I also posted recently on my blog a link to a short essay on "good literature" that I think you'll appreciate.

- A fellow wordsmith

Brad Williams said...


Let me know what you think about that Pearcey book. I wish that evangelical Christians would think about the wisdom in art and how we might be able to better use it for the glory of God.