Two notes on mediocre Christian arts
First, via Martin Roth, a thoughtful and provocative essay on the mediocrity in, and demise of, Christian arts.
Part of me has a great deal of sympathy for what’s being said here - which is, more or less, that much of Christian arts culture has bankrupted itself on phony displays of piety and the celebration of hypocrites and spiritual charlatans (Michael English is Exhibit A for the author, mostly for his sexual exploits outside the confines of his marriage). Mediocrity is discouraging for the discriminating mind, ear, eye - especially when it’s committed in the name of religion or faith or the divine.
And yet, another part of me thinks this is one of those things where the author went looking for what he wanted to find – in this case, evidence to justify an artistic disillusionment intense enough to make one wonder if it doesn’t have its roots in something more or else or other than just, say, Michael English putting (in the wonderfully euphemistic words of one of Arthur Miller’s characters) “knowledge in the heart” of a backup singer, or Tim LaHaye reducing Christian “fiction” to doctrinaire propaganda, or unscrupulous profiteers taking advantage of the kind of people who see a “Jesus Got ‘R’ Done” t-shirt and can’t live without one. The “demise” of Christian arts seems closely to mimic the line-blurring in western culture more broadly between the high, middle, and low/no brows; between the popular and artistic culture; between “artificial” and “reality;” between sacred and profane. But is this new?
Sure, there is a lot of crap out there. And it will seem all the crappier if you compare a “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumpersticker to a Mozart Mass. This kind of good-ole-days argument goes a bit wobbly, though, if you replace the bumpersticker with a clip of Michael English singing “I Bowed on My Knees.” Which is why I found the author’s reference to English as evidence of the mediocre in latter day Christian art particularly odd.
The logic seems to be that because English has lived a morally mediocre life, his art is/was equally mediocre. English, though, seems to me to be disproof of (rather than evidence for) the author’s thesis that we live in a time when “the sacred spaces are where the mediocre put their feet up.” But rather than argue the merits of English’s musical ability, I’ll stick with the underlying claim. If art is to rise and fall on the personal lives and histories of the artist – if, that is, we have to approve of Michael English’s personal choices to enjoy or be affected by his music – then I fear more than just Michael English’s music will be found wanting and mediocre. Or “syphilitic,” in the author’s word. Put this another way: Franz Schubert, who created some of the most magnificent liturgical music ever, died of syphilis (and yes, I know, it’s a dubious analogy given the underdeveloped state of therapuetic pharmaceuticals in 19th century Europe). But I certainly don’t care, any more than English’s dalliances with the BGVs diminish my experience of the music he created in his heyday. We’ve been down this road before. It was called Puritanism.
Of course distinguishing between the art and the artist has limits, just as we ourselves do. No matter how great their work, I don’t watch Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson movies anymore. Full stop. But my larger point still holds: we abdicate our rights and privileges, as well as our responsibilities, as functional members of a culture or society that values the arts if we insist on locating the moral or ethical center of art within the artist alone. To abdicate in this way is to place ourselves in the passive role of the consumer, whose primary role in the artistic experience is reactive, declamatory, evaluative: I think …, I feel …, I believe …, I like him, I hate her. Syphilitic. Take it away.
It’s a commonplace of Intro to Lit (at least when I teach it) that “art” cannot happen – it doesn’t exist – until or unless it comes into contact with a reader, a viewer, a listener, a critic, a fan – in short, an interacting other. On this theory, “Footprints in the Sand” isn’t artistically shabby because Christy Lane is a bad person (I have no idea one way or another, and, as you might have guessed by now, don’t really care) but because the song reduces real suffering and pain and the problem of evil to a trite, singsongy allegory about how we’ll be able to decipher God’s cryptic sandy heiroglyphs better by and by.
Like so much other Christian art, the flaw in “Footprints” is its inability to speak authentically, not just to what we - as the encountering other in this “work of art” - want to believe (for most Christians, that Christ is always there upholding the saints) but also to how we live (periodically bereft of hope, sometimes emotionally abandoned, spiritually withdrawn, the promise that God will always uphold his children notwithstanding). The song fails as art because it fails to offer any original or evocative re-imagination of the individual’s relation to the sacred or divine, in all its complicated paradox and incomprehensible contradiction.
This is a tall order, to be sure (and I chose Christy Lane pretty randomly from a generous corpus of artistically flawed Christian music). Very few works of art or artists pull it off entirely. But there are moments. Moments of beauty and grace, of understanding or feeling that sweep over us in and through a given artist’s work. If we’re talking about Christian music, and specifically of white gospel music, randomly, let’s take the Perrys, and just off the top of my head (I listened to them while I was traveling recently), there’s the bridge to “Calvary Answers for Me,” the piano introduction to “Oh That Wonderful Promise,” the male ensemble in the second chorus of “I Rest My Case,” a little bass lick in Loren Harris’s second verse of “I Met the Nazarene,” … and on and on – moments that merge intimations of faith and feeling and beauty in a way that gracefully verifies what the apostle so famously described as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Hoped for because felt, unseen but intuited – for me, at least, in musical moments like these.
For you it might be a Schubert melody, or the labyrinth at Chartres or a Martin Luther King sermon or a Fannie Crosby lyric or quiet spot on a park bench bathed in what Dickinson called “a certain slant of light.” Take them you where you find them. Find them where you may. In these moments - you interactively encountering some form of artistic beauty - these moments exceed or detach from the intentions of the artist, overrun the character of the creator, and become self-sustaining units of experience on their own. I don’t know how it happens exactly (and I’ve spent most my adult life trying to understand it), but it obviously does. I guess the fact that beauty comes from flawed human vessels might well disillusion some people, but for me the imperfect origins of artistically perfected beauty make those special musical moments all the more meaningful.
Second note on mediocrity is closer to home, via reader DA, who sends these clips from his incomparably comprehensive Singing News archives. Clip one is from the Singing News, September 1993. A letter to the editor written by “RT, Proctor, VT”:
No study of Gospel Music would be complete and honest if it did not cover the Christan community’s tendency to allow inadequate musicians to represent itself. In 1931, a professor at Oberlin Conservatory was concerned with this and believed it the result of ingrained Calvinistic fear of the well trained. Is that the case today?
Discuss. Meanwhile, JD Sumner, in that same issue, had this to say in his column.
You think, down through the years of groups that I call “wearing their religion on their sleeve.” I mean by that, they come on stage boasting about how good they are - and while they’re on stage they try to prove it. Most of them are not in the business today, and most of them were family groups, or at least a husband and wife team. Then you say, “What about the Speer Family?” The Speer Family has never been one to preach or testify on stage, not even when Dad and Mom were living. In fact, they were known as the Singing Speer Family, because what they did was SING. When these groups become so holy and people find out they’re really human just like they are, then their popularity begins to fade. Then the family groups start bickering and eventually break up. Husband and wife spend twenty hours a day fussing and four hours at night getting on stage TRYING to act super-spiritual, and it’s a hard thing to do, until this finally tears up a group. The Bible says to be temperate in all things, and I believe that goes with being too super-spiritual when it’s not real. And once you set that precedent, you have to keep it going, and eventually that will completely destroy a group.
Think on these things.Email this Post