Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Church and Art, Part III: The Beholder's Eye

In Part I of this series, I established that I disagreed with the way that Evangelical Christianity greeted the film The Golden Compass, for two primary reasons:

1) The film did not seem threatening to Christian beliefs, as it depicted a church and god that were clearly not the Christian church and/or God.

2) Even if the film was viewed as a critique of the Christian church/religion, the proper way to respond to critique is to consider it and then address the critique by showing why it's invalid or reframing the debate, not to refuse to consider the criticisms at all. Refusal to address criticism is not a sign of faith or loyalty, but of weak belief.

Given that, I wish today to address the question of why Christians habitually respond to challenging art in the same way that they did the Golden Compass film: by refusing to view it, and by attempting to censor it without considering or addressing the critique implicit in the art itself. I've thought a little about it, and my conclusion is that Christians, and fundamentalist Christians (cough*SBC*cough) in particular, lack a coherent philosophy of aesthetics on which to evaluate art.

What does this mean? Well, when a secular art critic looks at art, they evaluate it based on a number of metrics: Is it beautiful to look at? Is it thought provoking? Did the artist have a clear purpose or message in mind when she/he created it? Does it succeed in communicating that message? Is it valuable as cultural commentary, or as a symptom of a larger cultural moment? Does it make allusions or enter a dialogue with prior works of art, and if so, what does it add to that tradition/dialogue? There are many, many other ways that art gets evaluated on the secular art scene, but suffice it to say, there is clearly a deep and interesting aesthetic philosophy that motivates a secular art critic's response to a work.

Christians, on the other hand, seem to have a disturbing tendency to evaluate artwork based on a single metric: Does it seem portray a message that is sympathetic to Christian values? A painting that depicts Christian virtues, by this metric, is valuable art. A film that questions or demeans Christian values (as many Christians seem to suppose the Golden Compass would), by this standard of evaluation, is not valuable.

The problem with using this as the only, or even as the primary, metric for Christian art criticism is that it seems to get a lot of situations wrong. It allows for praising common kitschy Jesus art (as one sees in convenience stores and Family Christian Book stores, in the Left Behind series of books and many other so-called Christian novels, or in low-budget Christian films with gooey morals and terrible acting), but eliminates many extraordinary achievements of artistic technique as unworthy (The Dark Materials books, for example. Or most of the work by Titian or Delacroix, films like The Godfather or Citizen Kane, music like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen or Schumann's Dieterliebe or countless others). The problem with this Christian aesthetic is that it may applaud many works which seem aesthetically bankrupt by other metrics, like measurements of artistic achievement or cultural significance, while ignoring landmark works simply because they are not explicitly Jesus-oriented.

How, then, should a Christian evaluate art? I would argue that the answer is the same as for a secular art critic: by standards of beauty, depth of thought and message, and cultural significance. The (insufficient) standard that many Christians seem to use might be paraphrased as 'how holy is it?' or 'does it cause me to turn my eyes towards God?' It is not art's responsibility, however, to turn our eyes towards God, nor should that be its goal. It is our own responsibility to see to our spiritual condition, to consider the spiritual implications of a piece of art that we see, whether or not that art is explicitly religious. Therefore we should aesthetically evaluate art just as any secular critic might. The 'Christian' aspect of interacting with art should come not in evaluating what art is valuable to see, or what art is worthy or promotion, but instead should come after we see the art, in evaluating our own response as viewers. There's no reason to shy away from or censor controversial art. It's in examining not the art itself, but our own responses to that art that the valuable lessons lie.

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