I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for the arts and their contribution to the edification of the Christian community. Some of my favorite passages of prose are to be found in the Commager and Hofstadter indictments of the aesthetic poverty of the American Protestant ethos. And on several occasions when I have finished a sermon on discipleship I have been clutched at the church door by an anxious member of the congregation asking, "But suppose I have no talent at all for painting or poetry?"
In recent years, however, I have been increasingly troubled about the veneration accorded artists by the more highly educated segments of our society. People who are inclined to lay about them in irreverent critical glee in matters political, economic, and religious tend to go all hushed and mushy in the presence of anything that claims to be a "work of art." And the ingenuity with which some achievements in aesthetic obscurantism are exegeted often makes the more convoluted scholastic theologies seem like McGuffey's Reader by contrast.
Some years ago I worked out a sermon for college chapels in which I suggested that the arts are as subject to corruption as all other aspects of human experience. The artist, I pointed out, can so distort reality that those who view his or her work may be deceived, even traumatized, by the experience. Is it safe, I asked, to assume that the artist's intentions are always pure? Is it not possible that the sinfulness which leads people to disguise lust as love and irresponsibility as freedom also tempts the artistic spirit to lie about what it perceives?
The reaction of the first campus congregation to which I delivered that message dismayed me. Students either sneaked out side doors to avoid shaking my hand or stood in line to denounce so monstrous a thesis. Why, they demanded, did I not confine my attentions to more appropriate topics? In short order I received many of the brickbats once reserved for sermons in favor of racial integration.
At that time I was considerably more naive about this matter than I have since become acid kept revising my text in an effort to make my position clear. To no avail. And finally a chaplain's assistant tipped me off en route to the airport. "Art," he explained, "is just about tile only sacred cow allowed to graze in the groves of academe."
Well, there may be many explanation for this special relationship. But there is one that makes more sense to me than any other. The aesthetic enterprise, it seems, is supposed to be one of the most unconditioned of human activities. The true artist responds authentically to things as they are. He or she is not out to make a buck or please a patron but to express what is believed or felt at the deepest level of perception.
To suggest, therefore, that works of art can be corrupt, not simply in the sell of being sellouts to the marketplace but as expressions of an essential human perversity, is to make a statement about sin which our age finds unacceptable. It to assert that our corruption is not an unwelcome imposition upon the surface of our natures but a reflection of some inherent personal capacity for evil for which no external influence can be blamed. And the somewhat cynical optimism which often passes for a doctrine of human nature among us today will hear no such word.
The arts have always enriched the life of faith. But their capacity to do so implies the kind of engagement to history which makes purity impossible and judgment necessary.
Vol. 75, No. 1