Art, Artist, And Audience

The frequency with which we use the word “gap” points to the number of broken relationships in our society. We speak of the credibility gap, the communications gap, and the generation gap, to name a few. No phrase has yet been coined, however, for the undeniable gap that exists today between artist and audience. The absence of such a phrase is perhaps an indication of the insignificant place art occupies in our culture, including the evangelical Christian community. We North Americans read few excellent novels, read poetry even less, yearn for past classics in music, rarely attend the theater, and view much of modern painting with suspicion.

A closer look into our own lives as evangelicals will verify the gap. When we do use art (which is exactly what we do—we “use” it), we tend to decorate our walls with a slick seascape or sentimentalized Jesus; we readily celebrate a book by a public figure (especially, it seems, one from the entertainment industry) about his or her Christian faith, assuming that this person has suddenly become an outstanding writer, and congratulating ourselves that he or she is now on our side; we tend to produce stories, novels, and films with an overt evangelistic, soul-saving intent instead of works that present a Christian point of view with fidelity to the norms of art. I recently talked with a student who had composed an ambitious piece of music for a senior recital; his first question to me was, “Do you think it will convert anyone?”

The rift that has developed between the artist and the public should be deeply distressing to the evangelical Christian, for he ought to recognize that art is not merely a decorative ruffle on the garment of society but is expressive of its very warp and woof, and that art is one of God’s choicest gifts to man.

But rift there is. The public sees the artist as an eccentric freak, and the artist sees the public as a philistine beast. Listen to the vituperation of some literary figures. In the words of Alexander Pope, “The public is a fool.” “The public is an old woman. Let her maunder and mumble,” added Thomas Carlyle. “The public is just a great baby,” chimed in John Ruskin. And Oscar Wilde, caught in the sterility of his aestheticism, declared, “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.” The French poet Jean Cocteau was no more charitably inclined: “If it has to choose who is to be crucified, the crowd will always save Barabbas.” Thornton Wilder adds to the chorus, “The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

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The blame for this gap does not rest with the public. Modern art all too often yields meager rewards insofar as it expresses much of the spiritual bankruptcy of our time. One soon grows tired of the degradation in the work of Andy Warhol, the stark violence of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, the sadistic necrophilia of the Alice Cooper rock bank, the technicolor swirls of Jackson Pollock, the masochistic boredom of Sartre’s No Exit. When God is thought to be dead, man is no longer man, and artists can only record the struggle, the futile search for meaning. Like Richard Bach they may desperately attempt to salvage man’s innate goodness; or they may take a place at the other end of the contemporary spectrum and like Samuel Beckett yield themselves to absurdist despair.

Another disturbing factor is the elitist nature of so much art. I once took a graduate seminar in modern American poetry that consisted solely of an attempt to decipher the intellectualized obscurity of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Who but a few literati and academics read the works of Pound, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and Hart Crane, to name just a few? It often seems as if artists have given up on the public and are writing only for one another.

It has not always been like this. If one looks at the history of drama, for instance, one notices a close relation between artist and audience. The drama of the Greeks was an integral part of their religion. The morality play was performed on a wagon in a medieval town, surrounded by audience. And despite Shakespeare’s frequent reference to the rabble, his public was an appreciative theater-going audience. Much art that we now consider classic spoke to a broad contemporary audience.

Undoubtedly the Romantic conception of the artist as a wild-eyed visionary, a seer in the grip of divine inspiration, a prophet who will communicate to the unwashed hoi polloi the truth of the gods—this conception of the artist is still with us, and does an injustice to a Christian view of the artist as being fully human as he goes about his artistic activity in obedience to God or some pseudo-god. As H. R. Rookmaaker says in Art and the Public Today,

If the Christian defines the artist as a prophet, he makes it impossible for himself to listen critically to the message of this prophet: either he has to deny a given artist the capacity of prophecy if he is not a Christian, thus contradicting himself, or he must accept the artist’s message, which must lead him to the acceptance of non-Christian ideas, which eventually leads to secularization [L’Abri Fellowship, 1968, p. 36].

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It is also true, I suppose, that art has fared badly in our society for the same reason that belief in the miracles of Christ fares badly today. We live in a pragmatistic society in which truth, if it exists, must be verifiable; our truth must be in accord with scientific data (a TV commercial is likely to try to tell us that “9½ doctors out of 10 recommend …”). We approach art expecting to be able to “explain” it fully and immediately, to “understand” it in all its ramifications, and when we can’t, we say impatiently, “Yes, but what does it mean?,” not realizing that much art communicates and offers enjoyment long before its meaning is fully understood—if it ever is.

Perhaps the type of work performed today by much of the populace is also a factor. A man who has just spent eight mind-numbing hours repeating a routine activity is not likely to sit down with a Solzhenitsyn novel when he comes home. He is more likely to relax by watching “Hawaii Five-O.” Nor can we blame him—he is more sinned against than sinning. As the man on the Detroit automobile assembly line said, “What do I think about while I work? Raquel Welch.”

I believe that our age of commercialism and mediocrity (the first often successfully courts the second) has also been one of the main factors acting to dull people’s senses to art. A person who is used to not thinking as he watches television will not appreciate bona fide art, nor will one for whom evil is readily personified in black-clad villains.

What is truly insidious is the “steady influence,” observed by T. S. Eliot,

which operates silently in any mass society organized for profit, for the depression of standards of art and culture. The increasing organization of advertisement and propaganda—or the influencing of masses of men by any means except through their intelligence—is all against them. The economic system is against them; the chaos of ideals and confusion of thought in our large-scale mass education is against them [“Idea of a Christian Society,” Christianity and Culture, Harcourt, 1949, p. 32].

I wonder how good a job our schools are doing in developing children’s aesthetic sensitivity—or perhaps I should say, how good a job our schools are permitted to do, considering the amount of money usually allocated for the arts. Isn’t it true, especially in private and parochial schools, that whenever funds are low, art as a subject is often sacrificed for the “important” subjects such as mathematics and science?

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We should treat the problem at its deepest level. God’s virtual banishment from the universe since the seventeenth century, and the subsequent deification and fall of man, have had the result that man’s place as a creature in God’s creation has become increasingly distorted. As soon as—to quote Pope—“the proper study of mankind is man,” as soon as man defines himself in horizontal terms only, he distorts his proper place in the creation, and we should therefore not be surprised that broken relationships result. The artist-audience rift is one of these broken relationships.

When we in the evangelical Christian community begin to speak of a solution to this rift, we must begin with our individual selves. The true artist among us will have to recognize that the public is not an ignorant boor but is made up of the body of Christ, to whom he has an obligation also as artist (Gal. 6:10), and the rest of humanity, to whom he can point out redemption, the beauty of God’s creation, and the ravages of sin. He will also have to realize that to write or paint for a small, elite coterie of artists only is eventually to render his art sterile and effete.

Similarly, the public must become more receptive to its artists, must be informed about the art they produce, must avail itself of the valuable contribution artists can make. As a matter of fact, the greater responsibility may lie with the public. Flannery O’Connor, a sensitive Christian fiction writer, has said:

There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you’re going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good in itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it [Mystery and Manners, Noonday, 1970, p. 189].

But if I am correct in stating that the most basic reason for the artist-audience gap is our living in a secularized culture that defines a man solely in terms of himself, resulting in broken relationships, then we must recognize that the matter goes beyond individualistic concerns, goes beyond an attempt by both sides to be a bit “nicer” to each other.

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What is involved, in other words, is a realization on our part that the battle between the Kingdom of Light and the Powers of Darkness is waged also in the realm of art, and that the Christian community must therefore be engaged in the monumental task of wresting not only art but also the culture within which it is expressed away from the dominant secular spirits of our day.

That is certainly no mean task, nor one that will be done in our human power. Nevertheless, it is important that we see the problem truly, and not pretend that it is smaller than it is.

And, lest I be accused of hoping for a new heaven on this earth, let me quote O’Connor again:

I don’t believe that we shall have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one [ibid., p. 168].

O’Connor could be right.

Hugh Cook is an instructor in English,

Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.

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