Art and Its Justifications
Over the last few months, there’ve been more than a few controversies about art. For instance: the National Endowment for the Arts has found itself on the budgetary chopping block; white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of murdered black teen Emmitt Till has been denounced as exploitative; Netflix’s suicide-themed drama “13 Reasons Why” has been called an irresponsible and dangerous work; a standoff between sculptures on Wall Street has raised questions about artistic integrity.
These brouhahas have led me to once again reflect on a question that I’ve pondered for years: as a person of faith, to what extent is the creation of art a matter of private conscience? (The corollary question, obviously, is whether other individuals have the right to demand that something not be created or displayed).
As someone’s who’s been writing fiction for fifteen years, this is a deeply personal subject. I once wrote about this when I was much younger, but continue to grapple with the questions involved. Indeed, in the intervening years, I’ve produced some of my best—and definitely most controversial—work. I’ve been sharply criticized for including graphic imagery, bleak themes, and much subtler theological reflection (as opposed to overt allegory).
I write this way because to do otherwise feels fundamentally dishonest. The world is cruel, broken, and often seems purposeless—but interwoven with that pain are moments of deep beauty and grace, even if they’re hard to detect.
That said, I really can’t blame those who don’t agree with my take. Notwithstanding thoughtful expositors like Daniel Siedell, a quick survey of the contemporary art world reveals an endless sea of seeming nihilism. (Sohrab Ahmari has written persuasively against the ideologies driving this tendency). Across the domains of fine art, literature, and cinema, many critical theorists have attempted to radically dismantle traditional views of the true, good, and beautiful.
At least, that’s the way it looks to me. From my external point of view—even though I haven’t investigated what many modern artists have said about their work—creators seem wedded to a particular ethos of “disruption for disruption’s sake.” Yet in the absence of other cues, I can’t know this for sure.
And indeed, I periodically wonder if that which is seemingly scandalous, or even very transgressive, is truly, intrinsically opposed to the holy. Does art that appears to degrade the things of God represent a violent deconstruction of the good…or might it consciously reflect a deep truth at the heart of the Christian faith? After all, what could possibly be more “blasphemous” than the idea of the Incarnation—that God Himself, the Creator and sustainer of reality, would deign to take on human nature? (This charge rests at the heart of many Jewish critiques of Christianity.) That paradoxical tension between apparent iniquity and actual fidelity is the same tension that makes Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” such a haunting read.
I don’t have a great, universal answer to this question—and maybe there simply isn’t one.
Personally, as a Christian, I’m going to write what I will—with my faith as a lodestar—even if no other person reads my work. But I see the decision to publicly display and champion a given work as essentially different from the decision to bring it into being in the first place. There are certain artistic forms and expressions that carry with them an overwhelming risk of misinterpretation or misappropriation—and as an exercise of prudence, it may be wiser to withhold them from public view. This does not suggest that the act of creating that art was wrong, or that the art in question is “wrong in itself,” but merely that it may not be currently possible to present it in a suitable context. After all, one needn’t share the contents of one’s journal with the world—and perhaps, based on what’s inside, one oughtn’t, for any number of reasons.
To create art, of any sort, is a privilege. Taking the existence of God seriously means that works of art, even those created privately, will always be observed and appreciated. Deciding whether to introduce that art to the world, however, is essentially a judgment call—and judgment must be shaped through sustained exercise of the relevant virtues. Cultivating such virtue is where the real battle—as ever—must lie.