Friday, August 29, 2008

patronage and the arts in Christendom, a minor rant

It has struck me over the years that evangelicals kinda suck at the arts. Would that it were not so but it has become so. And it is not really as Catholic and Orthodox might have it, some failure at a cultural level or a lack of liturgical finesse (though those came later). I might cynically chalk it up to a problem of patronage and a failure to understand certain pragmatic exigencies of how patronage works in the, uh, real world.

In some personal correspondence I had recently a shrewd fellow noted that it doesn't make sense for Protestants in America to suppose that if this or that person reads a few books on postmillenialism that some people will magically appear out of nowhere and start writing organ preludes at the level of J. S. Bach. I agree. Things like indulgences and other projects helped fund the very apotheosis of Christian art that Protestants longingly look back to without considering the connection venture capitalism had on the, uh, arts.

Some of the impulses to stamp out idolatry stamped out art because there is an impulse in Christendom to denounce someone else's art as their idol while your own art is, well, art.

Protestants can aspire to promote the arts and speak of the importance of beauty and meaning and truth and I totally agree. I just wonder if they get what that means.

And not coincidentally I am considering these things in light of Mark Noll's old book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which more or less surveyed the scene in the early Clinton era and asked, "Uh, WHAT MIND?" It used to be there. Bach and Bonhoeffer attest to rigorous cultural and intellectual development in simply the Lutheran domain. Jonathan Edwards was obviously an intellectual titan who made huge contributions to a uniquely American approach to intellectualism (more on that later) and on the basis of J. S. Bach alone even atheists have surmised that there is some retroactive justification for some of Christianity and Christendom. It is not surprising to me that the apotheosis of Western musical art came from a German Lutheran who had no problem working within his Protestant beliefs in a way that incorporated aspects of other confessions (i.e. a hat tip to the full mass when the Lutheran approach tended toward the Kyrie and Gloria if memory serves, which it may totally not!).

And yet in today's age no one would say that a faith that would be broadly described as "evangelical" or simply small o orthodox has yielded anything particularly significant in the arts, sciences, and possibly literature. For unbelievers the explanation is simply that Christianity is so utterly delusional and devoid of truth that it can't produce any significant art any more, or they may suppose that what produced the great art was nothing more than lots of money and that the patronage system produced the great art, not the Christian world view to borrow a phrase that seems to have been uniquely popularized by Francis Schaeffer.

Well, what if that accusation is true? What if the patronage system itself accounts for the great works of arts more so than anything remotely Christian about said patronage? How do Christians consider that? We would LIKE to be able to say that Bach would have written amazing music anyway since he came from mutiple generations of professional musicians ... but right there we are held back. A skill in the arts that passes on from generation to generation could be a manifestation of the social order of the time that most certainly included and was indeed fueled by faith in Christ at many, many levels. Yet there is, to put it crudely, the socio-economic variable.

And the question I think we are pressed to ask now is whether Christians are influencing the arts at the highest levels and lowest levels of culture. I would say that, yes, that's what we're seeing. But it should be noted that apparently observant Christians like Penderecki and Part are writing works that are, we must not, COMMISSIONED WORKS. I think that Protestants need to heed the wisdom of Heath Ledger's Joker in this year's blockbuster The Dark Knight, something on the order of "When you're good at something you don't do it for free." But Protestants apparently DO think that! At least it would appear to be the case because when I look at the works Arvo Part or Krzysztof Penderecki or Igor Stravinsky or Olivier Messiaen wrote that dealt with sacred themes I notice how many of those works were commissioned.

Now as a Protestant I can point to Frank Martin's wonderful Mass for double choir and say that, yes, Protestants have contributed some incredible music to the arts in the last century. It was withheld from publication and performance for decades, though, and Frank Martin considered it a work of personall confession and not necessarily a concert piece. And there didn't seem to be any commission motivating it. In other words, it sort of reinforces the point that because no one was handing him truckloads of money and because it really was a labor of personal faith the thing was dormant for a huge amount of time. And even more thorny a proposition is this, how many churches even bother to perform the work. Last I checked Frank Martin was even a Calvinist and yet this one remarkable mass is all Calvinists in the 20th century "seem" to have in the art of choral writing that I know of that seems to have stuck around. I probably just don't know 20th century choral repertoire by Calvinists enough or something. :)

Anyway, that's to say what is already obvious to me in another way, there may really be something to the allegation unbelievers have that the patronage system and not the system of belief itself led to all this amazing art. It could also explain why in the absence of such a patronage system we get rock and pop music, a musical idiom not subject to patronage in quite the same way. In the past the patron was a king, queen, prince, or arch bishop or other high ranking priests.

The present age has a studio executive or an A&R representative fulfilling a similar role. It's easy to complain about the evils of such a system if you're an artist who wants more recognition but the history of patronage reveals that in most cases patronage of the other sort is no less a bastion of artistic liberty than what we have now. The real geniuses were usually those who managed to thrive within and despite those restrictions. Some of the restrictions on musical art in the wake of the counter Reformation I could only compare to the confining restraints of Soviet socialist realism. Some of the restraints in Calvinist circles abolished anything even remotely like polyphony in favor of monody. Some of the more ridiculous arguments presented by the likes of Dabny argued against any instrumental music in church settings at all!

Now to be fair this is not just in Protestantism that some of these restrictions come up and there are sometimes theologically explicable reasons for certain restrictions. Stravinsky never bothered to set the Orthodox canon of repentance because it forbade instruments for theological reasons. Stravinsky, coming back to Orthodoxy later in life, noted that, and simply never bothered to set the thing if memory serves, whereas Arvo Part did set the whole thing. But I pick Calvinist screeds against instrumental music in corporate worship as an example of how even as far back as a century ago evangelicals were effectively shooting off their own feet in the arts in America. You certainly didn't see this happening in Europe or Great Britain so Noll may have a case that there is, to put it far more bluntly than he does, a uniquely AMERICAN kind of stupid in the arts. The way that seems to manifest not just in Protestantism but also, to go by the old rant of a book Why Catholics Can't Sing, other American Christendom, is the following weirdness: We American Christians want greatness in the arts, we just refuse to pay for it. Let the market decide. Well, the market has decided and the market has decided to suck. :)

Does that mean an old world patronage system is the solution? Meh. We have separation of church and state and I'm loathe to give that up, really. I think that at some level American churches need to consider whether the arts are useful and if so what investments should be made in them. I have been at a church that has been better at aspiring to promoting the arts than really knowing what to do with the arts.

Consider a story of a church from a few years ago. The church decided to hang paintings by an artist and the paintings included a painting of a severed goat head, a thoughtful reflection on Leviticus and the sacrificial system. But let's be blunt, the painting was of a severed goat head with no visible title for the painting. Some little old lady walks in the church one Sunday and senses demons around the severed goat head painting and complains about the evil spirits she sees and then there is a small furor. The pastors are frustrated and indignant that some lady sees a demon behind the severed goat head painting and a few artists pipe up that artists should not have to compromise their art for the sake of the ignorant mob. The artist eventually explains the whole thing in the painting is inspired by a biblical text and an explanation is put by the painting and the pastors feel like things should get resolved already and could people stop freaking out about

This seems to reflect every level of mistake possible. The artist does not consider the audience or venue in developing content, the venue and its owners did not seem to specify anything in the way of limits or restrictions on content, there was not likely any compensation for the art work actually created, and the art once installed was installed with the supposition that there was no real need to explain art. Given the homiletic approach taken at the church this was an especially unfortunate and ironic reversal since the pastor at the church generally takes a great deal of time to boil things down to the simplest level possible but the arts group didn't do anything until it was effectively too late and there was some lady seeing demons in the painting of the severed goat head. Unfortunate, unfortunate indeed.

Of course in churches where some kind of patronage system is at work there are plenty of restrictions and also money attached so that the artist does not have free reign or in many respects any meaningful input in terms of content. A chapel may pay X amount money for a particular theme or subject. In a liturgical tradition where a church may have a patron saint or particularly venerated contributor from previous generations the theme the artist of any stripe may have will be predetermined. If a new musical work is commissioned it is probably going to be for a particular festival day and have the content dictated by the hours, daily readings, or particular details of the liturgy prescribed for that day. Arvo Part's Berliner Mass inclusion of a tract dealing with the Spirit (if memory serves, and it may not because I lent the score to a professor who still hasn't returned it to me) shows a particular liturgical time is being considered.

None of that stuff seems to have happened in this church I've written about, or at least not in a way that makes any sense even to a regular attender.

I like the idea of churches aspiring to the arts but there is in some sense no way a new church can bother with such things. Jesus did not call churches to actually promote the arts, did He? So at some level a youg church attempting to make any meaningful contribution to the arts is self-deluding for the simple, understandable reason that it wants to make a mark on the society at large.