Art, Society, and the Christian Church: Part I
Part I: An introduction and a warning
This blog has been far too silent on matters of art and aesthetics. Art is a long-time passion of mine. For most of my life, writing and reading poetry have been my primary pasttimes. I majored in English literature as an undergrad, have played a few different instruments and continue to play music for church today, and am involved in integrating film and theology within the church. So I would like to start a series on art that is simply an attempt to allow for dialogue on the subject of art in society and the church. I do not have a running thesis, except the conviction that Christianity has a stake in the arts which must be cultivated. Along the way I will criticize a number of popular Christian attempts to value art, such as the analogy between God as Creator and human as creator. If the church is going to embrace art, as it should, it must do so thoughtfully and critically. Hanging paintings on walls and showing the occasional icon does not solve the problem. In addition to these essays, I will publish poems by poets such as T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Czeslaw Milosz, Denise Levertov, and others, as a way of provoking our discussion through interaction with important works of literature. (I only wish music and movies could be posted with such ease.)
In this first post, I want to remind us of what Christianity must work against. There is no better example currently than North Korea. Kim Jong-Il has shaped North Korea into the nation-state equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village." Their country is closed off to the rest of the world, entirely inaccessible except for special designated places, most notably the Mount Kumgang national park with the usual high security and utter isolation. The Orwellian vision is realized not only in its totalitarian government, but also in Kim Jong-Il's policies regarding art. In the article I linked to, Jane Portal writes:
The subjects originally required by Juche art were limited to such themes as: portraying the General, the relationship of the military and the people, the construction of socialism, National Pride and such like. However, in the 1970s landscape was also approved, when Kim Jong-il instructed: "The idea of describing Nature in a socialist country is to promote patriotism, heighten the national pride and confidence of the public in living in a socialist country." The result has been a huge increase in the production of oil paintings of natural scenes. ... Abstract or conceptual art is forbidden and the subjects and themes of works of art are limited. ...The example of North Korea should serve as a warning to the church. Clearly, no church is a totalitarian dictatorship, but Christians have been prone to viewing art with suspicion—and for good reason. If a religion feels the need to impose limits and enforce a certain kind of orthodoxy, free expressions of otherness in novels, music, and paintings are often curtailed in order to maintain a particular cultural framework of thought and action. A suspicion towards art extends at least as far back to the age of Plato, in whose Republic the poets are presented as those who disturb the life of the ideal republic because they give passion too prominent a place in society (i.e., in the human heart). Much of contemporary evangelicalism is neo-Platonic in this regard, in its concern that art threatens the morality of a society by validating lifestyles and ideas presented in books and movies. And now North Korea is simply applying its own ideology to the realm of culture, not unlike the Cultural Revolution in China.
In fact, there is no uncertainty at all expressed in North Korean contemporary art, no individual hopes or expressions, no mystery. As Kim Jong-il said: "A picture must be painted in such a way that the viewer can understand its meaning. If the people who see a picture cannot grasp its meaning, no matter what a talented artist may have painted it, they cannot say it is a good picture."
Art is suspicious, because it gives difference and otherness a fair hearing. Art explores the diversity of life by challenging our assumptions and opening up iconic windows into the experiences of others. Art is not just about mystery; it is mystery. Art plumbs the depths of being by refusing to censor reality. Art reveals, uncovers, parades, celebrates, criticizes, proclaims, and enjoys. This carnival of life cannot occur, however, in a society that enforces homogeneity, or in a church that suppresses diversity.
The numerous examples of banned books reveals part of our human nature: to suppress what is unlike us, what we disagree with, what seems unnatural or different or unacceptable. We wish to shield ourselves from what displeases or challenges us to think and act differently. This can occur in small ways, like the refusal to read a book by a certain author or on a certain subject. Or it can occur in large ways, such as in the creation of suburbs so that middle class people could avoid the interaction with racially and economically different communities. The problem people have with art is indicative of the larger societal issue: the problem people have with difference and otherness. Art forces us to grapple with realities outside of our individual experiences.
North Korean authorities want art to function as didactic tools to propagate their patriotic ideology. Many people in the church over the centuries have wanted to make art function in the same way, as tools for teaching morality or doctrine. The overarching assumption is that art is only safe when it teaches what we think is right. As one of my literature professors and published poet said to me, "Most Christians only want to read poems that are black and white. They want the poem to be clear and obvious. Most Christians cannot deal with ambiguity." Kim Jong-Il cannot handle ambiguity either. Why? Because ambiguity does not teach; it provokes. Ambiguity threatens to unravel the careful walls we erect to keep ourselves, our families, our churches, etc. "safe" from alternative ideas and beliefs. Hence the wide rejection among Christians of modern art.
Future posts in this series will address the subject of art from a variety of perspectives. I have much more to say on the subject of ambiguity, didacticism, and the role of art. For now, let North Korea stand as a warning to us. The church need not mimic a totalitarian state that enforces strict views among its citizens. The church has another model: it's own past. The iconic tradition, still embodied in the Orthodox church and in many Catholic and Anglican churches, should be reclaimed. But it is not enough for "emergent"-type churches to imitate the liturgical tradition. Art is not hip, cool, or postmodern. Art must remain mysterious, provocative, and disturbing. If we domesticate art, we become totalitarian all over again.