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Monday, March 15, 2010

Religion and art--followup to a Facebook discussion

Yet again I return to this blog after a very long absence (the longest yet). I hope to post regularly, but we'll see what happens. At any rate, the occasion for this post is a recent Facebook conversation. One of my friends asked why Christians no longer produce great art. I replied that this wasn't entirely a fair generalization, but that the proportion of good art to "kitsch" probably is higher than it used to be, for the following reasons:

1. Both the Church and society in general are much more democratic and anti-elitist than they used to be, and
2. The elites are more secular than they were a few hundred years ago (maybe more so even than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, though that's a more dubious proposition.
So we have an elite "avant-garde" art that is largely secular; a pop culture whose movers and shakers are also largely secular but which has room for significant religious elements, often distorted and watered down by commercialism and the desire not to offend; and a Christian "subculture" (particularly among evangelical Protestants) that subordinates artistic standards to the demands of simple piety crossed with commercialism.

In this post, I'd like to expand and clarify what I meant by "kitsch" and how I think populism affects the production of art in modern Christianity (especially American evangelicalism).

First of all (not to rush in where angels fear to tread or anything), I'll define art. Art, as I use the term, anything produced by human beings which stimulates the imagination and thus causes us to experience reality in a different or more intense way. The peculiar virtue of art is its ability to transform our experience by uniting thought and feeling. The more radically it transforms our experience of reality, and the more profoundly it unites in itself the various other ways in which we experience the world, the greater it is.

A work of art is "bad" (aesthetically) insofar as it simply triggers an emotional or intellectual response without uniting and transforming our normal responses to reality. Both emotionally and intellectually, art can fail in two very different directions, either in the direction of excessive simplicity or excessive complexity. In both cases, bad art fails to stimulate the imagination in a transformative way, instead producing a response that owes its strength almost entirely to non-imaginative sources.

Emotionally, an excessively simple work of art appeals to one of the basic human emotions in a way that simply reiterates and confirms our non-imaginative response to reality. So, for instance, a bad love song does nothing to expand and transform the experience of romantic love. Someone who enjoys an unimaginative, artistically poor love song is doing so because the mere use of a crude formula pointing at romantic emotion is enough to awaken the emotion. Someone who enjoys a bad hymn or worship song, and feels closer to God as a result, does so because they already have pious emotions and enjoy feeling those emotions awakened and confirmed. As I use the term, "kitsch" is an excessively simple work of art that appeals directly to the emotions in this way.

Similarly, an excessively simple work of art may appeal directly to one's beliefs. Bad art is often didactic--that is, it simply reiterates what the hearers/readers/viewers already believe (or what they can be made to believe through non-imaginative means, including valid argument).

Therefore, a good rule of thumb is that art escapes the vice of excessive simplicity insofar as it can be appreciated by people not emotionally or intellectually well disposed toward its theme and/or argument. Great love poetry may be appreciated by people who have never been in love and do not want to be. Great religious art may be appreciated by atheists, or people of another religion, or simply people who don't agree with the particular theological claim being made. When James Weldon Johnson's God says, "I'm lonely, I'll make me a world," I recognize this as good art because I find it powerful and appealing even though I think I have very good theological reasons to reject the picture of God being offered.

But there is another kind of badness into which art may fall. An artist may seek so assiduously to evade excessive simplicity that he/she produces art which relies for its effect _solely_ on its complexity, on its failure to appeal to common emotions or accepted beliefs. Such art is in fact relying on the pride of its consumers: "this must be good because most people don't like it." In the case of religious art, a Christian with pretensions to sophistication may actually value a blasphemous or perverse work of art beyond what it deserves, even though it goes against the Christian's normal emotions and sincerely held beliefs. There may be atheists who similarly value religious art more than it deserves, but I have never met one.

Note that when I speak of "excessive simplicity" or "excessive complexity" I'm not claiming that there is some ideal level of complexity--indeed, I think simplicity and complexity are hard to define. I'm using the word "simplicity" to mean the direct appeal to emotion or belief, bypassing the transformative and unitive power of the imagination. And I'm using "complexity" to mean the avoidance of such a simple appeal--the deliberate choice of a tortuous path for the sake of an imaginative effect.

T.S. Eliot, reacting against what he rightly saw as the "dissociation" of intellect from feeling, attempted to reunite the two by means of deliberate obscurity, the use of unusual metaphors whose relationship to the emotions was remote and often paradoxical, and so on. C. S. Lewis ridiculed Eliot for comparing the evening to a patient etherized on a table. And in fact I agree with Lewis that this isn't one of Eliot's better choices. But Lewis was so hostile to Eliot that in my opinion he radically undervalued the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" taken as a whole. And Lewis himself was a much poorer poet than Eliot (not that this is a reason to discount his critical judgments).

The two errors--excessive simplicity and excessive complexity--feed on each other. The more anti-intellectual and simplistic the popular art of a culture is, the more deliberately obscure and self-referential and complacent its elite art will become, and vice versa. But kitsch and didacticism (using the word here for bad didactic art--in my opinion there is also good didactic art, but that's another conversation) are always going to be far more common than their counterparts. Not only are the cultural elites, who are prone to excessive complexity, by definition a minority of any society, but it is harder for even a member of the elites to fall into the vice of excessive complexity than it is for people who do not worship sophistication to fall into the vice of excessive simplicity. A highly sophisticated person may enjoy simple art more than its imaginative value warrants, although this will be experienced as a "guilty pleasure" (and really sophisticated people may make a point of enjoying "guilty pleasures" as a way of flaunting their sophistication, especially since the advent of postmodernism, since one of the perverse sophistications of postmodernism is the claim that artistic value is purely arbitrary). But most people are never going to be tempted to enjoy bad art that errs in the direction of perverse sophistication. The emotions awakened by bad art are emotions that even sophisticated people feel.

Hence, cultural sophistication does make it relatively easier to produce and experience great art. One of the purposes of a liberal arts education is to give people the tools (and habituate them to the effort) necessary to appreciate art that takes a somewhat roundabout path to the mind and heart (especially when the difficulty in appreciating a work of art arises largely from cultural unfamiliarity, as is often the case). And the more one learns to appreciate the great art human beings have already produced, the more likely it is (by and large) that one will produce great art oneself.

Therefore, even though plenty of good art has been produced by people who were not highly educated or among the elites of their society, a society that generally devalues elitism and sees democracy as a spiritual value is going to produce poorer art on the whole. And a religious community that deliberately crafts its worship to appeal to the "masses" will not, generally, produce great art.

I want to expand further on this concept of "deliberate crafting to appeal to the masses" and its relationship to commercialism and the mass production of popular culture. But this has already been a very wordy post.