Humbling the Arts PDF Print E-mail
Written by Douglas Wilson   
Saturday, 07 November 2009 16:49

One of the great needs of the age is that Christians need to learn how to reject art. Now I understand that this might require some explication . . .

First, a statement of the current problem as it exists in the world of artists and the arts. We have come to the point of high circularity where our culture defines art as anything done by an artist, and an artist as one who has the right and authority to produce art. The detritus of this approach can be viewed at a tax-funded gallery near you.

Because of widespread relativism in aesthetics, it has come about that art cannot be evaluated in accordance with any objective criteria. Rather art must be evaluated in accordance with credentials of the artist. But these credentials are necessarily something other than competence in the field, for competence implies a standard. In order to bluff one’s way into the status of artist, therefore, the right subjectivist aura must be confidently exuded. This aura is what might be called “cape and beret” credentials. The cape and beret need not exist physically, but a certain white nimbus of artistry must surround the artist at all times, whether or not it flickers around the edges. Consider it a deeply spiritual cape and beret. An aspiring artist must exude his genius in this fashion, or he must be uncommonly lucky.

I have been privileged to know gifted artists who were not acknowledged as such simply because they lived like regular people and didn’t carry on like Lord Byron. (“Of course, he can draw, but he is not really an artist.”) All of us have received, as an important part of our cultural inheritance, this pernicious myth of the artist. He has soul, and perhaps even rich brown eyes. He is widely misunderstood. He lives in a garret. He feels deeply. He fights the establishment orthodoxies. This last part of the myth has become increasingly difficult for him since fighting establishment orthodoxies has become the establishment orthodoxy. But regardless of the details, anyone who wants to be admitted into the land of the artist has to show some version of these papers to the border guards. And while we are on the point, few things are more painful to watch than to see evangelical Christians (who have heard the phrase “redeeming the arts” one time too many) trying to bluff their way past the guards. If artists get to “produce art” then just call yourself a producer, or painter, or writer, or whatever, and hope they buy it. They almost never do, but the neediness of some Christians demands the risk be taken anyway. Repeatedly.

All this did not come about as a result of happenstance. Our situation has historical antecedents, and not surprisingly, the source of our trouble here has been the Enlightenment. It has become commonplace in our circles to acknowledge that the Enlightenment was responsible for a resurgence of pagan categories that divided the realm of abstract reason from the world of particular concrete things—with each in an upper and lower story respectively. But the Enlightenment was responsible for another division as well. In its aftermath, we saw the divorce of science and art, with each realm being established as governed by its own separated priesthood—with no transcendent arche over either of them. Each realm became functionally autonomous, and in the early centuries it appeared that these two brothers would each make his mark on the world. One was represented by men like Galileo and Bacon while the other was represented by men like Beethoven and Goethe. But today the scientists are still at their gee-whizzery while the artists are laboring over thoughtful works involving feces, rubbish, cows in formaldehyde, and more rubbish, all of them under the revealing light of Wodehouse’s pale parabola of joy.

But prior to the Enlightenment, the medieval world produced a remarkable array of aesthetic achievement that was thoroughly integrated both with the techniques of science and with its surrounding culture. The arts were (comparatively) at peace, both with God and the world. As a corollary, the arts were at peace with engineering because they were not necessarily separated from it. From the stonework of the great cathedrals to the poetry of Chaucer, the medieval period was extraordinarily rich. This was all the more striking because the medieval world did not have artists in the modern sense of this term. In fact, the art was so good because there weren’t any artists.

Now obviously, the artistic achievements came from somewhere—somebody produced them. But the myth of the artist was not part of their cultural assumptions as it is part of ours. Most of the aesthetic work of the medieval period is anonymous. We still study their stained glass windows, their architecture, their music, and so on, but most of what we still find valuable is not signed. And even when we know the name of the artist, the assumptions surrounding this knowledge are different. No doubt the medieval period had their aesthetic egoists as well—we are all sons of Adam—but the clear bias of the culture was against it.

So, in place of the secular priests of the medieval period, we now have the priesthood of the scientist; and in place of the other-worldly medieval monks, we have the artists. The high arts thus came to serve in our day as a religion substitute. As a religion substitute the arts had to bring in an air of ethereal distance. This came about in a particularly virulent form in America, where in addition to replacing religion, the fine arts also had to serve as boundary markers for class distinctions as well. With no established aristocracy, and no established church, and a great deal of aesthetic insecurity, Americans established monasteries for the fine arts to keep everyone oriented. But weird things can happen in monasteries, and this is especially the case when they are established in the name of autonomy. So it was not long before these monks of high art were stepping in high cotton, answerable to no one. Art for art’s sake became the cry, and this was defended by pretty much everyone.

Artists fight for their status for obvious reasons. But the general public defends that status as well. Aside from an occasional joke at their expense, the public still tolerates the continued existence of these monasteries. The cost of this toleration is that the artists have to agree to keep largely to themselves. And so we have the spectacle of poets writing for poets and nobody else, painters painting for other painters, and so on. In the medieval world, the work of the artist was for the sake of the people generally, in just the same way that the work of the mason or baker was. Because the point was service to others, there was no incongruity in having aesthetic work done by the guilds, in just the same way that other work was done.

Once on a trip I was struck by a particularly beautiful bit of graphic design, and it was doing nothing but decorating a restaurant at an airport. Musing on this, it occurred to me that while contemporary painting is in a wretched state (compared, say, with several centuries ago), the aesthetic value of contemporary graphic design is light years ahead of the advertising of a century ago. Compare Vermeer with Jackson Pollock and you get half the point. The other half can be seen in a comparison of an ad for shoes a century ago and an ad for shoes today. Taking one thing with another, mutatis mutandis, current advertisements are aesthetically far superior to anything being done back when serious painting was still worth displaying on the wall. I mentioned this to a friend who pointed out an obvious connection—ads today are the work of a “guild.” Look at any striking ad and you are looking at the work of a team of twenty people. No tortured genius signs it. It was done for money, plain and simple. No misunderstood soul thought up the ad with the back of his hand pressed against his fevered brow. Intelligibility is prized since the company actually may want to sell their product while intelligence is also prized because the ad has to stand out. Creativity can and does flourish under such conditions. In a similar way, the best creative work being done in television is in the world of commercials.

This brings me to my stated desire to humble the arts. What is the meaning of this? Over the course of years, I have noticed that access to certain vocations is not as fiercely guarded as others are. If you want to be a plumber, then knock yourself out. More to the point, access to the vocation of “artist” is strictly regulated. Not just anyone can be a Brahmin. As one who has wanted Christians to be aesthetically and culturally engaged, and as one who has been part of this engagement, I have noticed a strange reluctance in humble but aesthetically gifted Christians. I have noted painters who do not present themselves as artists, writers of poetry who would not want to be described as poets, and so on. The quality of their art is not really the issue; the vows that must be undertaken by any aspiring monks of art are the issue.

I have decided that such reluctance stems from two sources. The first was that anyone who wants to live at the monastery had better be prepared to play the game. Any Christian who understands the game, and who objects to it, will never be admitted. If a desire to be admitted is strong enough, and the resistance is implacable, then this simply sets the stage for moral, theological, and aesthetic compromise on the part of the Christian.

This relates to the second reason, which is an unarticulated sense that the desire to strive for aesthetic recognition in this way was actually a serious temptation. Jesus taught us that if you do not want to be humiliated at a banquet, then the thing to do is to take the lowest seat.

Attempts to thrust ourselves forward will result in humiliation. He taught us that the first will be last, and the last first. The one who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Despite the clarity of this doctrine, Christians persist in wanting to become rich, recognized, feted, honored, awarded, and flattered. They imagine that the teaching of Christ would of course have to be obeyed by them in an invisible spiritual sense, deep in the recesses of their hearts. They would have to make sure the success did not go to their heads. Like the self-deceived, would-be philanthropist who daydreams about winning the lottery and imagines how much good he could do with the tithe, so Christians have wanted into the big time—so that they could then make a mark for Jesus. Along this line, Christians want to be actors and screenwriters and novelists and producers and poets and directors and painters, and then what a grand testimony we shall all have! But it never seems to occur to anyone that perhaps Jesus meant what He said in a more earthy sense. No one wants to be that nameless servant of Christ who did some of the spectacular wood carving on the north side of a 12th century cathedral—the anonymous fellow with the same social status as the 12th century butcher. As the blues song has it, everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.

What is needed are galleries of the arts for those who no longer want to be artists—and we would like this new online version of Credenda to develop into one wing of such a gallery. We want to learn how to become artisans—those in the process of learning to be craftsmen in a guild. We may be at an apprentice level, we may be journeymen, and some may even be masters. But all of us should be repudiating the concept of artist as an Enlightenment category, a category that is hopelessly compromised. We should want to learn how to serve others outside the guild by means of painting, poetry, music, short story writing, and all the rest of it. Of course there are obvious dangers in this—establishing a gallery in order for people to watch us try to be aesthetically humble has some obvious snares. But nevertheless, we really do not want to be monks of high art. Rather, we want to be puritans of all artisanship, high, middle and low. This simply means that we recognize the boundaries of artisanship as being far more catholic than the narrow and exclusive territory held by the so-called fine arts. And all works of such artisanship are on a continuum, and are not separated from one another by any ontological chasm. Both a folk song and a symphony are subject to the lordship of Christ. Both an illustration for a children’s book and a painting for the ages are subject to the lordship of Christ. At the same time, we recognize divisions in purpose and function, and we are not artistic egalitarians. Hence, we want to be puritans of artisanship.

This involves three basic tenets. First, the incarnation and humiliation of Jesus Christ is the arch-typical pattern for all who would be artisans—death is always followed by resurrection, and all resurrections must be preceded by death. Modern art is fruitless precisely because it refuses to die to self—it is a form of art that is all about self, barbaric yawp and all. Secondly, an artisan always works with his materials, not against them, and since all materials are created by God and declare His glory, it is most necessary for all the works of our hands also to declare His glory. And third, the world is filled with glories that none of us has yet seen.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 07 November 2009 17:00