Monday, January 02, 2012

Bad art and evangelicals revisited

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/12/21/bad-art-and-the-tortured-beauty-of-the-cross/

It will occasionally come up for discussion, generally amongst trendier evangelicals, but also evangelicals who are genuinely passionate about the arts, that evangelicals are really bad at the arts in America.  As a comic book nerd I merely repeat an observation I used in my earlier blog post today--to say that American evangelicals do not have a history of making great art of any kind is an observation on the level of saying that Batman uses batarangs, or that Spiderman has web shooters that come in handy in his battles with Doctor Octopus.  Thank you Captain Obvious and General Observation.

If the alleged solution to this malaise, however, is to focus on the tortured beauty of the cross that will get us nothing more than a series of Radiohead and emo-screamo worship bands that will merely prove that no matter how emergent, post-modern, contextualized, or relevant you think you're being your kicking worship band is merely going to prove Eric Cartman's axiom to be correct in principle.  You find a band that has been around between ten to twenty years and come up with a suitably "Christian" replica.  I mean, Radiohead, seriously, guys?  They've been around for decades.  This just proves the whole point! Nothing will be accomplished except to repeat the same old problem evangelicals have had in making "Christian" art.

When I was at Mars Hill there were occasional dust-ups about certain art installations.  One of the more memorable ones was a big painting of a severed goat head hanging at the Ballard campus.  There was some title somewhere near the painting but not a whole ton of explanation what the painting was supposed to mean.  I used to be into visual media (before my macular detachment!) and switched over to music and prose and while I can respect the visual media and artists in it I feel as though I must confess something, visual artists almost invariably labor under the delusion that what they do is 1) important and 2) should require no explanation of any kind about what a work in a visual medium is supposed to mean lest that concede a point to the phillistine concerns of non-artists. I mean, God forbid that a visual artist might have to use words to explain what a painting or sculpture is supposed to be "about"!

So what happens?  Well, at Mars Hill the severed goat head painting got complaints from people who said it was demonic.  Goats and devils, you know?  The leadership thought this was all silly and pedestrian and I thought they were silly and elitist for taking that approach.  Deciding that when few people sing the songs because the leader of the worship band has a vocal range like Evie and is playing Smashing Pumpkins lite that this means the fault is the congregation is just blaming the congregation for a lack of zeal when the problem is some bands have committed to music that is more "cool" than liturgically useful. 

I noticed over in the comments section a person named Nate said that talking about "good" art is a problem when its a bunch of pastors who don't do anything in the arts get to talking.  Actually it can be worse when the pastors in question DO get involved in the arts because whereas before they were ignorant of the devices and crafts of the arts and could at least focus on liturgical concerns and doing actually pastoral stuff.  If the pastor has some artistic achievement, however modest, he then figures he's got a platform from which to pontificate about what is and isn't great art as though that were a meaningful goal in the work of the church.  In other words we might as well just throw in the towel and submit to the Christianese version of Socialist Realism.  It happens to have been true that some great artists created despite draconian theological and music restrictions but it must be said that if you've heard five masses by Palestrina they do start to all kinda blur together and I say that as a man who genuinely appreciates Palestrina's music.

As I wrote last year the odds of evangelicals in America producing "great art" (whatever that may be) are low.  The reason this is so unlikely is that evangelials, and particularly the more "relevant" kind is ironically due to what some of the newer evangelicals and neo-Calvinists consider a strength.  To wit, the lack of denominational roots or tradition that the young, restless and Reformed imagine makes them competent to innovate in the arts is exactly the reason they won't do anything that matters in the arts in the long run. 

We should not forget some rudimentary observations about the glory days of Christian art.  The first thing is the most obvious and most necessary to reaffirm for evangelicals who haven't been paying attention to any church history.  Fantastic Christian art, music, and literature tended to flourish in places that had state established churches!  Don't believe me?  Well, think about this.  Consider all that marvelous choral music from the Renaissance.  Catholic or Anglican (as in Church of England, folks).  Consider all that awesome music by J. S. Bach and pretend for a second multiple generations of that musical dynasty didn't exist before or after him.  Paid jobs in church settings and paid by royal courts to do his thing.  Haydn?  The Esterhazy estate two centuries ago before one of the descendents decided to write the screenplay for Showgirls.  From Haydn's symphonies to Showgirls is a pretty steep decline as artistic achievements attached to or funded by the Esterhazy name go. Not that I've actually seen the movie, mind you, I just don't need to in order to reach my conclusion!

But the second thing to consider is that even in settings where there was no state church or the money of the state backing great Christian art something else was afoot.  Here I can return to the O'Connor bit from Thornberry in the Gospel Coalition video (whose resemblance in black and white footage to Andy Dick continues to confound me). O'Connor wrote as a Catholic with a Catholic understanding.  Dostoevsky, famously, wrote from within the Russian Orthodox tradition.  The Puritans emerged as part of a reform movement within Anglicanism. 

But we don't have to just look at the strictly "high" art to begin to appreciate this point.  Even in "low" art where church music goes Christian art flourished in settings in which there was some liturigcally compelling reason to excel in certain arts.  Black American gospel music anyone?  The great tradition of shape-note music in the American South?  Celtic meditative hymnody?  All these are traditions of wonderful folk art that flourished because while the level of technical and conceptual execution might not be at the same level as J. S. Bach, T. S. Eliot, or a Rembrandt one did not have to be within a Lutheran, Anglican, or Reformed context to contribute in some way to the tradition.  The tradition was already there as a scaffolding to not merely restrict but to inspire and guide new creativity. 

Skepticism about high liturgical practices as "dead tradition" have done a lot to discourage artistic innovation in identifiably "Christian" art.  That this problem within mainstream Christian church music reaches its apogee in the professional career of John Rutter is not something most of the new evangelicals, let alone the young, restless and Reformed could even talk about.  They probably don't even know who John Rutter is. 

So, no, I don't think the main problem is that evangelicals have some problem understanding the distinction between common grace and special grace.  I don't think the problem is wanting an instant emotional high or response and to the extent that Gospel Coalition partisans don't endorse Second Great Awakening era emotional manipulation tactics in evangelism this would be an irrelevant point in considering the problems of American evangelicals failing to produce great art.  It is not even entirely significant that American evangelicals either needless elevate or demonize the arts.  No, I think the problem is more prosaic, there's no need for "great Christian art" in liturgical settings and evangelicalism is too much of a doctrinal smorgasboard to provide a basis from which to even identify what is 'evangelical' and to then move beyond that to define something as "bad", "good", or "great" art, music or literature.  Could Gospel Coalition partisans concede that great art can come from an egalitarian feminist evangelical?  I'm thinking the answer would be "no". 

Talking about an art and doing something in it are often non-overlapping spheres of activity in daily life but inevitably some bundle of people issue a manifesto.  It's just inevitable, Marxists and Christians will always be issuing edicts about what they think, why, and why everyone should see things that way.  When I see Gospel Coalition discussions about art this and that I keep thinking of Andrew Stanton, who gave us the wonderful films Finding Nemo and WALL-E and then mentioned "I also happen to be a Christian."  It's easy to jibber-jabber about what you're going to do but people do care whether or not you're doing that thing or have done it. 

In contrast to Gospel Coalition abstractions I would say the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer had something more substantial to say when he said some ten or fifteen years ago that in the realm of music the huge trend the academics have missed that is vital in understanding popular music is fusion.  In art music eclecticism is merely one of many subdivisions in concert music.  That rock and roll came to dominate popular music and is defined by a musical outworking of black and white cultural influences should be telling but in many cases the debates are about which kind of popular music should be used, the 20th century kind or the 18th century kind or what have you. 

Thinking through the implications of Colossians 1:15-20 and Galatians 3:28 would lead one to recognize that if Christ truly is reconciling all things to Himself and in Him there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female for you are all one in Christ then this means the Christian should not think in terms of high and low, art and pop, East and West, tonal or atonal but that Christ unites them all. While evangelicals in America in the early 21st century keep asking how and why evangelicals make bad art Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was explaining in the 1990s that eventually he was confident a real fusion of Eastern and Western musical values could happen.  Now fundamentalists might say this would lead to a one world government in the future.  Well, there will be a one world government in the future when Christ reigns over all.  Not quite the one world government some of you might have been thinking about? 

One of the things you can easily observe if you look at the wide variety of musical styles Christians have used throughout the world is that unless you're lockstep fixed on your own musical/ethnic preferences Christ has been praised in just about every musical style possible.  While I grant that Christians should lean toward music that is liturgically useful and of service to regional congregational concerns one of the things musicians and to a much lesser degree pastors should be mindful of is that if we take seriously that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself there is no "devil music". C. S. Lewis' Screwtape famously put it that the preferred thing for the enemies of God would not be some kind of devil music but mere noise or no music at all. 

To the extent that the harmony of music can be construed across time and culture as creative work that reflects upon the foundational "harmony of the world" it becomes, in Christian settings, a kind of teleological argument by example and practice no matter what musical style is afoot.  J. S. Bach seems to have profoundly understood this while many people agreeing with each other across a table can agree to the idea but do not necessarily demonstrate through their own creative work how they can begin to implement such a realization. 

If all evangelicals try to do is merely keep up with what has been going on we're just going to keep getting lame Christian knock-offs of Radiohead and emo-scream bands twenty years after those bands were popular.  We'll get pious retreads of beatnik poetry and movies like Fireproof.  Evangelicals adn the neo-Calvinists are just busy catching up to whatever is current and not thinking through things beyond that.  I don't think the problem is that some Christians prize the arts too much and others not enough, I stand by the proposal that Americans have opted for so much low liturgy and in much of the newer "innovative" church settings an eagerness to pragmatically come up with a Christian knock-off of the Smiths or the Cure or Radiohead or whatever that "Christian" art will remain a decade or more behind secular pop trends. 

Meanwhile Arvo Part's music caught on despite his being Orthodox and not necessarily composing just to be relevant.  That his work derives from the minimalists adn the medieval composers is not hard to establish but what he did was something that made sense to him as a musician, composer, and believer.  He did not necessarily go out in the quest to be "relevant" or make deliberately "great" art but  And there's plenty of people who understandably can't stand his music but Part works within Christian traditions in which what he does will have some liturgical use and is encouraged.  Tradition, properly understood, is not shackling but liberating but American evangelicals seem culturally and intellectually incapable of grasping this. 

Perhaps the greatest irony at work is that the more pretenses they make to being intellectual the more unable they are to grasp this simple reality while folk and pop artists have actually gone and made lasting contributions to Christian work in the arts.  Blind Willie Johnson didn't think through his w----v--- when he recorded "Dark Was the Night ... "  Do you think William Billings was spending a bunch of time on complementarian theology when he contributed music that has ended up in the shape note tradition?  Did Mahalia Jackson stop and think about the theological foundations necessary for how she embellished the vocal line in "His Eye is on the Sparrow"?  The trouble with Gospel Coalition round tables on the arts is that I can't square them with what I know to be historically true not just about how Frank Martin "may" have approached composing his Mass; I also can't square those Gospel Coalition round tables with having anything meaningful to do with how the Fairfield Four may have approached "Lonesome Valley" when that song ended up in the soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou? 

When J. S. Bach began assimilating German, French and Italian influences into a cosmopolitan international Baroque style and revolutionzed contrapuntal art, all paradoxically without introducing a single conceptual or structural innovation into musical form or style at the time, he did think through the theological significance of what he was trying to do but the thing is he did something.  Historians and authors discussing Bach have marvelled out how relatively little Bach actually left discussing his philosophy about how to put together music.  Bach apparently thought the music he wrote would actually serve as a good indicator of what he thought about how to compose music.  For those interested in learning by doing Bach apparently thought it was enough to teach by example. 

In thirty or forty years' time will anyone at the Gospel Coalition be remembered?  Meh, I'm not betting on it.  Will parents still be showing their kids Finding Nemo and WALL-E?   Will people still tear up when they hear a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"? As a friend of mine once put it, you could be the most stony-hearted atheist on the planet but Mahalia could still sing a song that would make you cry.  As a certain line from a film put it, a man ain't no man if he don't cry when Mahalia sings.  If you want to make "great art" and happen to be a Christian the first thing you should do is love God and the immediate outworking of that should be to love your neighbor as yourself.  Perhaps many of the problems in evangelicals in America failing to make great art, however we define it, is that they grasp that loving God part, and they may get that we should love our neighbor as ourselves ...

but when it comes to loving the neighbor, well, we love ourselves so much we don't have to worry that there might be a difference between loving ourselves and loving our neighbor as ourselves in a way that involves getting to know who that neighbor is.  We're too busy hypothesizing and pontificating about what we think our legacy should be to do any of the work of making one, let alone trusting that since our legacy is in Christ we have the freedom to work as though our legacy, if it even exists, simply doesn't matter. If Christ is reconciling all things to Himself then this means that both "good" and "bad" art are being reconciled to Him, too. Jesus warned that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  The workers in the vineyard who came at the end were paid the same as those who worked all day.  People can praise the Lord in a style that is merely decades old as well as in chants and songs that predate the birth of the United States. 


If Christ is our legacy and we truly understand this then we are able to work within the arts that comes from the freedom of knowing we don't have to worry whether or not we're making something "great".  As the makers of Batman: the animated series joked in an episode commentary, you never actually win the Emmy by going for the Emmy, you get nominated for the stuff you just decided you wanted to do because it's what you liked.  Evangelicals in America may always stink at the arts because they're always going for the Emmy.  They're even telling us they're going for the Emmy.  They have round table discussions with a camera aimed at them and the videos get posted on the Gospel Coalition where they talk about why so few evangelicals win Emmys or go for Emmys.  And then they wonder why so few evangelicals manage to win those Emmys.

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