If you are a reader of Books & Culture, you may already be familiar with Image, the superbly produced journal of the arts and religion edited by Gregory Wolfe and now based at Seattle Pacific University. (If you are not familiar with it, head straight for www.imagejournal.org.) This past weekend on the campus of the University of Chicago, Image held its ninth annual conference. The theme this year was "Disturbing the Peace: Provocation and Prophecy in Contemporary Art and Letters."
Poet Li-Young Lee opened the program Thursday night. Lee's first collection in some years, Book of My Nights, has just been published. Charter subscribers to B&C may recall that David Neff interviewed him in our very first issue, September/October 1995. Other speakers included the painter Tim Lowly; critic (and frequent B&C contributor) Alan Jacobs, whose book A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age is also just out; painter Tim Van Laar, who gave a brief history of art scandals seen as ritualized behavior; filmmaker Scott Derrickson; and novelist Bret Lott.
Given such a diverse array of talent, it's not surprising that there was consensus only on one point: that the subject of this event was worth talking about. And indeed the conference itself served as a useful provocation to ongoing reflection, conversation, and debate.
Still, if there was no simple consensus, it's fair to say that in one way or another, a number of the speakers distanced themselves from the notion of the artist as visionary rebel, provocateur, and scourge of the suburbanites. In his talk, "Shame the Devil," Jacobs suggested that artists who set out to be "prophetic" will almost certainly betray their art. His first example was Auden, whose poem "September 1, 1939," Jacobs noted, has been widely read and discussed since September 11. This poem is very much in the vatic mode, and it was precisely for that reason, Jacobs reminded us, that the poet came to despise it, refusing to include it in later collections of his verse. As the war progressed, and Auden gradually returned to the Christian faith in which he had been raised, he saw that the poem's most resonant lines were lies.
What the artist needs to do, Jacobs suggested, borrowing from Shakespeare's Henry IV (first part) is "tell the truth and shame the devil." As an exemplary work of truth-telling, Jacobs held up Rebecca West's massive Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a book based on several visits to the Balkans in the years leading up to World War II. West arrived with certain assumptions, which were radically challenged by what she saw. And the more she saw, the more she had to complexify her narrative, until it exceeded a thousand pages.
Tell the truth, wherever it leads. That won't do as a guide for every artist in every situation, unless the meaning of "truth" is extended so far as to become meaningless (how does a sonata tell the truth?), but it is not a bad motto. And it is particularly needful for Christian artists, whose communities too often seem to feel that truth needs to be watched very carefully, lest it get out of hand.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Play Ball | Baseball, leisure, and worship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Is God a Body-Snatcher? | The restless intelligence of philosopher Peter van Inwagen. (Oct. 30, 2001)
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)