As soon as I come across a passage in a book or online, I should sit right down at the computer and start writing. If I wait even ten minutes, all the brilliant connections and thoughts in my head seem to just evaporate. I shan’t panic. I’ll take a moment to gather my wits about me. Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World is open on the desk. I did not read all of chapter seven, because I had already finished the tea in my cup and because the section on Gerard Manley Hopkins got my mind racing.
The name of chapter seven is “After This Our Exile: The Christian Poet in the Modern World.” That’s rather self-explanatory. In the first four or five pages of the chapter, Wolfe discusses the plight of Christian artists in the modern world, comparing then to the Hebrews who were captured and taken to Babylon. He writes:
It is only within the last century that the public truths and institutions of society have been radically severed from their Christian roots and the full force of modernity has been felt in mind and heart. In the cultural public square the Christian has come to be in the minority, to live as an exile from the major artistic and intellectual institutions.
I agree with the assessment, but that doesn’t mean that I think more Christian “art” needs to be foisted on the public, and I don’t necessarily believe that Wolfe does either. Artists need to create what they’re inspired to create. It’s as simple as that. I find many instances of transcendence and incarnation in songs, books, and movies produced by people who do not want to be classified as “Christian artists.” And why should they? Go into a Christian bookstore and see if you can find anything that qualifies as art.
Yes, that sounds cynical, but that line between art and propaganda is easy to cross.
The real problem—and Wolfe points this out—is that our culture has become so fractured and has done such a good job of not teaching the works of art/literature/music that were fundamental to Western civilization for millennia, that few people are able to recognize allusions and references to works such as The Odyssey, The Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and other classics books, to say nothing of classical composers like Bach and Hayden, or artists any less well known than Da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Monet. Therefore, most of what passes for Christian “art” (be it novels, music, or paintings) is about on par with … you guessed it, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. If someone who wants to lead another to Christ has nothing more than Bible verses (and perhaps some tired lines from Shakespeare) at their disposal, they end up creating shallow works that hit you over the head with lessons.
Flannery O’Connor tried to deal with this loss of a shared culture by making her characters and their actions so over the top, no one would be able to walk away from one of her stories thinking she had all the answers. Questions and nuance, remember, are two of an artist’s most important tools for leading an audience more deeply into a work, where something more profound than “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” can be unearthed.
After mentioning that the Romantic movement was responsible for art’s self-centeredness, Wolfe elaborates:
The point I want to emphasize is that the emergence of the self as a problem in Western art has been central and remains with us. However much we may deplore the burden of self-consciousness, it is not something that can be willed away. Nor has it been a complete bane for art. As Jacques Maritain once wrote: “Art cannot return to ignorance of itself, cannot abandon the gains won by consciousness. If it succeeds in finding a new spiritual equilibrium, it will be, on the contrary … by still greater self-knowledge.”
I hope not.
I’m kidding. I’ve never given any thought to Maritain’s assertion, but I have to say that I am incredibly tired of artists claiming that their work is all about self-expression. In a blog post I quoted at The Ruff Draft, art historian/critic/curator Daniel Siedell related the story of an art student presenting his work:
It seems to me that painting does something more than express an artist’s feelings, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. It seems wildly counterintuitive, but I would like to suggest that it doesn’t communicate—at least not in the way we typically assume communication to occur.
This dawned on me one morning ten years ago during an undergraduate studio critique when I watched a young student stand in front of his work and begin talking. He talked about how he felt, what he was trying to communicate, veering into psychology and philosophy, his upbringing, even his political ideas.
While he talked, the committee and I never talked about the paintings themselves. The committee discussion focused on his comments, discussing the ideas he was trying to communicate in the paintings.
No one on the committee bothered to look at one of the paintings and ask that young man to justify himself as a painter of those particular paintings: What are they doing in the world, here, in front of us? Why that line in the foreground? Why did the space created in this part of the painting disappear in that part?
I was horrified. For that earnest and intelligent young man, the paintings served only as an excuse to talk, to initiate a dialogue about a myriad of interesting topics, but nothing that we could accuse any painting of initiating.
We were helping him talk about his paintings but offering virtually no guidance, no critique of the mechanical concerns of painting itself. This disregard for the mechanics of painting is derived from the assumption that the artist is sending a message with her painting.
I’ve been guilty of trying to send messages with my poems and photos, and as it turns out, they are the ones I generally like the least.