Art Under Negotiation

One of the purposes of this site is to explore the meeting of Christianity with culture broadly, and with art particularly, whether that meeting is synthesis, negotiation, or conflict. That exploration grows more and more relevant as our society transforms into a post-Christian culture. Still, the meeting of Christianity and art is as old as the Church Universal. It is interesting to consider how the early Christians made their own negotiations in a pre-Christian culture.

Ancient Christian art, some of it dating from the second century, is preserved in the Catacombs.1In the 1800s, when the serious scientific study of the Catacombs began, the oldest artwork was dated to the first century AD. But modern estimates place it a century later. The Catacombs, as you know, is the collective name given to a web of underground Christian cemeteries excavated around Rome when the emperors were still pagan. Christianity was, in those days, an infant religion in an old civilization. The Greeks and the Romans had brought to a high state the arts of sculpture, painting, and architecture. These arts served causes of which the Christians could not have approved: the glorification of pagan emperors and pagan gods, an endless proliferation of images and temples. Yet Christians brought those arts, as they were able, down into the Catacombs, in frescoes and paintings and sarcophagi.

It’s not surprising. Humans must have art. Humans must especially have art in their sacred places. What is more notable is that the early Christians borrowed not only Rome’s art forms but, to a limited extent, its pagan imagery. The classic image of Orpheus taming the wild animals frequently appears in the Catacombs, doubtless as a type of Christ.2W.H. Withrow, The Catacombs of Rome (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1888), 266. Other pagan representations include Ulysses and Mercury, curiously placed in the scene of Elijah’s ascension into heaven.3Withrow, 267-68. In the Early Church, Ulysses was taken as an allegory for the soul’s journey home. There is no allegorical explanation for Mercury. There is some evidence, however, of pagan images being hidden or destroyed, indicating that not all Christians of that early time were sanguine about this artistic syncretism.4Ibid.

Symbols were very common in the Catacombs, etched onto countless graves. Some, such as the fish or the Christogram, were exclusively Christian in their significance. Others, like the ship, the crown, and the palm branch, were shared with the dominant pagan culture of Rome. As Withrow comments in his book, however, the common pagan symbols of serpent and dog are largely rejected, with the former appearing only in depictions of Eve’s temptation and the latter used only as an accessory in hunting scenes.5Withrow, 298. Dogs were symbolic of fidelity in Roman culture. It is easy to understand why the serpent was rejected, and perhaps Withrow is right in his speculation that early Christians shared the Jewish conception of dogs as unclean. Whatever the reason, the pertinent fact is that Christian art did not include all Roman motifs.

The symbols of the Catacombs encapsulate the early Christian use of the art that, created by pagans, surrounded them. They added much that was new, and infused much that was old with new meaning (the laurel wreath did not mean quite the same thing to Roman pagans as it did to Roman Christians). They retained cultural symbols and even nakedly pagan imagery. And some elements of pagan art they excised entirely. (Withrow also notices the far greater modesty of human figures portrayed in the Christian Catacombs than in pagan art.6Withrow, 264.)

Art is not Christian. Art is not pagan. Art is human. Like all things human, Christianity puts it in negotiation with the divine to find its expression and meaning. As illuminated in the Catacombs, Christians have from the beginning attempted the synthesis of faith with culture: the addition, the retention, the rejection.

And if the defaced pagan images are any clue, we have always been disagreeing about it, too.

Leaving Michael Jackson

The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland recently made its splash in the culture, telling the stories of two men who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young children. It was not really a revelation; reasonable people have suspected that Jackson was a pedophile for decades. But the documentary stands as a vivid confirmation of those old suspicions. There are still MJ groupies out there who, demonstrating why predators sometimes succeed in victimizing children despite flagrant warning signs, huff that you can’t just assume Michael Jackson was abusing all those little boys he lured into his bed. Everyone else is facing the truth. So we have begun – too late, but better than never – our cultural reckoning of the fact that the King of Pop was a monster.

Many fruitful, if unhappy, avenues of discussion might be opened, not least how parents can so thoroughly fail to protect their children. Our normal focus on culture, however, leads us down another road. Michael Jackson is gone, but his music is still here. As we see with increasing clarity who Michael Jackson was and what he did, should we continue to listen to his songs?

This relates back to a larger question, and a larger debate: How much can – or should – we separate an artist from his art? There are no definitive answers; at least, I don’t have them. But there are several considerations that will clear our thinking and aid our decisions.

First, does enjoying the art fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist? A more targeted version of the question: Does it fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist in a way that enables his abuses? For example, Bill Cosby might get a little richer if networks played reruns of The Cosby Show, but he would be no more likely to assault another woman. But it might have been argued, twenty years ago, that because Jackson used his fame and money to manipulate his victims, contributing to either would be wrong.

Second, what is the nature and severity of the offense? Very few people would discard a book or song or movie because the creator was an alcoholic. But alcoholism, as terrible as it is, is in another category than the predations of abusers.

Third, how closely did the artist associate himself with his art? Some artists – generally those whose art is essentially performative, but writers have done it, too – craft a persona, wed it to their art, and sell the whole package to the public. If your celebrity is anchored to yourself as much as your work, there is cognitive dissonance and probably some shamelessness in instructing people to take your art by itself. Michael Jackson’s self-presentation was always bizarre; now it seems sinister. There is, too, self-reference in much art, including Jackson’s “Scream”. Such reference can, with greater knowledge, be intolerable.

Good art is often made by bad people. This is a revelation to no one. We have all enjoyed art while knowing, or at least suspecting, that the creator was a bad person. Maybe, then, the real debate is not at all abstract; we all agree that sometimes you should separate art and artist, because we all sometimes have. Maybe the real debate is all about particulars: Should we separate this artist from this art?

It can be hard, especially when the artist abused children.

According to the Label

There is nothing categorically wrong with labels. Labels are short-hand descriptions, a fast and easy method of classification – much like words. There is nothing wrong with labels just as labels. But labels, like everything else in this world, can go wrong. Some labels are active lies; others (not nearly so bad) are so insufficient they create more confusion than clarity, or so vague they are almost useless in conveying information.

Which brings us to the label “a creative”. As you know, this word (recently converted from an adjective to a noun) has become a popular self-label in recent years. It’s thrown out in blog posts, claimed in profiles. It appears to be roughly synonymous with “artist” – not by definition but by use (one senses that the “creatives” are not accountants).

The primary failing of this label is that it lacks a clear and specific definition. If you tell me that you’re a creative, I believe you, but I don’t know what you mean by it. Are you a musician, a writer, a painter, an actor? Or is it less a single talent or pursuit and more a way of thinking? Let me put it this way: An artist is defined by what he does (art). Is a creative likewise defined by what he does, or is he defined by what he is (creative)? I don’t know. I don’t understand the label.

I’ve poked around the Internet and discovered eloquent and elaborate definitions of what a creative is; these people aren’t pulling definitions out of a Dictionary. Some people understand the label. But they don’t always understand it the same. If they were operating out of a Dictionary, we would have a simple and reigning definition. But since they are instead spilling four hundred words to define a creative as they understand one to be, the meaning of the label is fluid. And the usefulness of a label is inversely proportional to the fluidity of its meaning.

While the label of “a creative” is in one way too vague, it is in another too exclusive. The label is generally applied to people who are creative in an artistic sense, but there are a thousand other ways to be creative. A person who can take a recipe off the Internet and make it twice as good is creative. People who come up with new and better operating procedures, that engineer or programmer or CEO who can see the way around the obstacle – they are all creative. Whoever first invented the assembly line was very creative. By God’s many and marvelous gifts, the world is overrun by creative people. A label for creatives that acknowledges only one kind of creativity is flawed; it encourages a false distinction, an unhelpful delineation between us and them.

Labels matter – because they are categories, because they are descriptions in brief, because they share the fundamental purpose of all words: to build a bridge. It is important, then, to choose your labels carefully. Before adopting, or bestowing, a label, we must consider what information the label conveys, and what judgments it implies.

Seriously, Now

For some years, I avidly followed a certain political/cultural writer until finally – you know how it can be, between authors and readers – we drifted apart. I thought her commentary was simply declining. One symptom of this decline was an overabundance of the word serious. It wasn’t right or left or even right or wrong anymore: The new word – the only word – was serious. Our national diagnosis was a lack of seriousness and our national prescription was to get serious. Our leaders weren’t serious and they didn’t know how serious things were, but if everybody would just get serious we would all be serious and then things could finally stop being so serious.

I lost interest, but I had a thought: To be serious is not enough. And can’t a serious person be just as wrong as an unserious person and, in certain situations, even more disastrous?

This principle can be applied to art as well as people. You may hear much of serious art or a serious work, but the phrase tells little of the real quality or worth of the work. My favorite example of this disconnect between seriousness and worthiness is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. The most shocking thing about Tarzan of the Apes is that it is a genuinely serious book, a story written around ideas. The second most shocking thing is the book’s level of racism. Given the period in which Tarzan of the Apes was written, a certain degree of racism would not have been surprising; when racism is dominant in society, it is inevitably reflected in (some of) that society’s art. But even with that forewarning, the racism of Tarzan is surprising in its pervasiveness, in how deeply and how elaborately it is woven into the story.

These two elements – the book’s seriousness and its racism – are not at all in contradiction. Indeed, if Tarzan of the Apes had been less serious, it would probably have been less racist. Burroughs might have still, in the appearance of a minor black character, invoked cheap, false stereotypes, but he would not have taken such pains to present thoroughbred English aristocrats as the highest human type. That was Burroughs’ elucidation of the theory of eugenics. Tarzan of the Apes revolves around nature v. nurture, the effect of environment and the effect of genetics; it is also wrong about nearly everything, from the truth of eugenics to the likely consequences of a childhood totally without human interaction. But books, like people, are not any less serious for being wrong, nor less wrong for being serious.

All of this emphasizes the essential ambivalence of what we call seriousness. Serious is more a description than a judgment, more an attribute than a virtue or a vice. To be serious is not to be good, or even to be deep, but the ambivalence is greater than that. Serious ideas, cogently presented, are as likely to be false as to be true, and some of the most serious works are also among the most malignant.

So if anyone, or anything, is commended to you as being serious, remember that this could mean seriously wrong.

Bad Religion

If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

The release of A Wrinkle In Time has brought this quotation to the surface. It sounds profound and is, I think, deeply wrong, but I don’t want to attack a lone, disconnected sentence. It would be better to return the sentence to its proper context, attempt to understand it, and then attack it.

The statement is taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. After some meandering, L’Engle expands the idea:

Basically there can be no categories as “religious” art and “secular” art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore “religious”.

To understand what she means by incarnational, we must backtrack to an earlier passage, a sort of extended analogy that compares artists to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (it sounds less silly when L’Engle says it, but never doubt: It is really, in absolute and incontrovertible truth, just as silly): 

[The] artist must be obedient to the work … I believe that each work of art … comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one. 

The pithiest summation of all this is that art is religion. A more difficult, and perhaps truer, summation is that art is inherently religious because to create it is, consciously or unconsciously, a religious act – an act of obedience to the divine or, at least, to the transcendent. And this brings us back again, circuitously but logically, to the original statement that to be guilty of bad art is to be guilty of bad religion.

Make no mistake: The guilt is real. L’Engle lightly comments in Walking on Water that the writer of a “shoddy novel” has “reject[ed] the obedience, tak[en] the easy way out.” So to write a shoddy novel is a moral failing. Your bad prose flows from your moral weakness and the holes in your plot darkly reflect the hole in your character.

The equation between bad religion and bad art, and between moral failure and artistic failure, is false. It is flat nonsense to believe that a bad story must come from disobedience to “the work” and never consider that it probably comes from the eternal gremlins of artistic endeavors, lack of time and lack of skill. I put great emphasis on skill, more than on any nebulously-rendered obedience; it’s real and practical and necessary. In art, as in sports, no emotion, belief, or effort is enough in itself. You must have the skill, too.

Art is not an obedient response to “the work” that, L’Engle imagines, somehow already exists and wants to be incarnated; it’s not a religious act. Art is work, in the same way that cooking a meal or building a bridge is work, and like all work, it can be done badly or it can be done well. Certainly the religion of the art can influence its quality. But to make the quality of a work’s religion synonymous with the quality of its art is as wrongheaded as judging love by its poetry. (And if we did judge love by its poetry, we would know from the greetings cards we have all given and received that the world is a cold, dark, loveless place.)

There is excellent art that is bad religion. There is bad art that is excellent religion. Religion and art are not so closely bound as to make one bad or good as the other is bad or good. To think they are is bad religion.

Beside the Point

Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.

And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.

I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?

No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?

Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.

CSFF Blog Tour: Sabres, Cherubs, and Guardian Angels

During the blog tour of Angel Eyes, I wrote a post considering different aspects of the angels’ portrayals and their foundation in Scripture. Now that Shannon Dittemore has continued her series, I will continue mine. The portrayal of angels may be classified one of three ways: biblical (taught in Scripture), anti-biblical (contradicted by Scripture), and speculative (neither confirmed nor denied by Scripture).

So here we go:

Angels called Sabres worship God near His throne – The Sabres bear a resemblance to the four living creatures of Revelation, whom John saw around the throne and who “never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ ” They are also similar to the six-winged seraphim Isaiah saw flying above God’s throne, “calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ “

But the Sabres can’t be the four living creatures. For one thing, there are twelve of them, and for another, they aren’t covered with eyes. Nor does their description match that of the seraphim. Although the Sabres have some biblical antecedent, they are speculative inventions.

Cherubs are small – Pearla, the Cherub, is a small angel; the demonic counterparts of her “cherubic order” – “impish” spies – are apparently small, too.

The Bible makes some mention of cherubs, or cherubim. They were a prominent aspect of the holy art of the tabernacle and the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant was overshadowed by golden cherubim. In the desert, when Bezalel crafted the Ark, he made the “cherubim of the Glory” of one piece with its cover. Centuries later, when Solomon built the temple, they made “the chariot” – two sculptured cherubim who spread their wings above the Ark in the Most Holy Place.

It is clear that those sculptured cherubim – whose design God had given to David – had two wings. We’ll get to the importance of that later.

Cherubim, together with the flaming sword, guarded the way to Eden and the tree of life. The four living creatures Ezekiel saw were cherubim – angels with four faces, four wings, and a multitude of eyes. “When the creatures moved,” the prophet wrote, “I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.”

The walls of the temple Ezekiel saw – like the walls of the temple Solomon built – were decorated with cherubim. In the temple of Ezekiel’s vision, each cherub had two faces.

In chapter 28, God speaks: “You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you … You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. … Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.”

Pearla, the Cherub, was called “little one” by the archangel Michael. One cannot imagine Michael extending the same endearment to the cherubim guarding Eden, or the four living creatures, or the “guardian cherub” of Ezekiel’s prophecy. One word you would not associate with the cherubim of Scripture is “small”.

In making imps and cherubs small, Broken Wings is drawing from culture and art, not the Bible. Indeed, the small cherubs make a very different impression than the cherubim of Scripture. Yet given the diversity of cherubim even in Scripture – two wings, four wings, two faces, four faces, covered with eyes, covered with jewels – I am reluctant to call Pearla the Cherub anti-biblical.

God assigns to human beings Shields (guardian angels) – In Acts, after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, he came to the house of John Mark’s mother, where the believers initially thought he was “his angel”. Christians have believed in guardian angels since the beginning of the Church.

Two verses in Scripture support the idea. In Hebrews, the author writes, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” The Gospel of Matthew recounts Jesus saying, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels always see the face of my Father in heaven.” This is even more in the way of guardian angels, because it implies that God does attach specific angels to specific people.

The details of “our” angels, and how they minister to us, are unknown to us. Maybe the popular idea of an angel who is always near us is correct; maybe the angels watch from heaven; maybe they come, from time to time, as God directs. The “Shields” in the Angel Eyes Trilogy are a sound biblical idea, even though the specifics are by necessity speculative.

Not Too Great a Good

Some Christians place little value on art. But I’m not going to complain about them. I intend, rather, to complain about Christians who place too much value on art.

I am thinking right now of Tony Woodlief and his article Bad Christian Art. I ran across this article while reading Sentimentality And Christian Fiction (an essay you should check out) on Speculative Faith (a website you should check out). Woodlief wrote:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

I am certain that bad art does sometimes arise from bad theology; more often it merely shows it. But to treat art as a barometer for soundness of belief is to highly overrate art. Bad Christian art = bad Christianity is a false equation; it assumes a connection between good religion and good art that does not exist.

It’s unquestionably true that knowing God falsely means writing and painting and sculpting Him falsely. If that means writing and painting and sculpting badly, we will have to denounce as bad art every movie with New Age overtones, every humanistic piece of sci-fi, every sculpture made by a pagan and every song written by an atheist.

I think we all know better than that; I think we all would acknowledge that there have been great artists who have not known God, and some who have hated Him. And that should remind us of something that, in the great debate of Good Art and Bad Art, we sometimes lose track of: Art has value in and of itself – the same passing value of a good meal and a well-made table and all other good, earthly things. We might say of art, as Augustine said of beauty, that it is a good gift of God, but in order that the good might not think it too great a good, He gives it even to the wicked.

Anything can have heavenly value, but only through being offered up to Heaven. Art is no further from heaven, and no closer to it, than anything else. They say that you can peel a potato to God’s glory if you peel it to perfection. You can also paint and write and film to God’s glory, but that is the real value – not art for art’s sake, but art for God’s sake.

What is done for God must be done well. The mistake of Christians is not in wanting to find – or create – messages in art, but in forgetting that the art as well as the message should be good. The ham-handedly preachy movie and the schmaltzy, overdone book have errors that bear correcting. It’s good that someone points it out; maybe it will help us all to do better.

But we have to hold on to this thought: It may very well be that the preachy movie and the schmaltzy book please God more than the most beautiful sculptures of Greece. Because God never judges by mere appearances; He looks deeper and makes a right judgment.