Recently, I was fortunate to have an engaging conversation with a young, talented, and sincere Christian playwright. We were having a splendid discussion about her new project, when I revealed my lack of sophistication by asking the utterly un-artistic question: “What’s the point?” A graduate of a prestigious art school, she was, of course, ready with an answer: to challenge x, y, and z. But when I asked her why on earth I should pay good money to go and have my views challenged by a playwright—well, she hadn’t thought of that. And people wonder why the arts are suffering.
Art schools teach students to challenge the audience, but they do not teach them why they should—and no one, certainly, has taught the audience to appreciate it. Many critics even decry this fact, blaming the poor state of the arts in our country on an audience that just doesn’t “get it.”
The notion that the artist’s role is to challenge the audience is offensive to the audience. It is arrogant and condescending. Learning how to paint, sculpt, write, or compose, does not make one a moral authority on art or anything else. There is no moral value in being transgressive for the sake of transgressiveness. And there is no merit in challenging people just for the sake of a challenge. The old “devil’s argument” is, after all, a very poor argument.
It is noteworthy that this aim of the contemporary artist is absent from most great art. Whatever the point of any great work of art, it certainly is not to challenge people. Of course, no one will dispute that art does challenge people: The moral difficulties in Shakespeare and Aeschylus are challenging, Hardy’s war poems are challenging, Górecki’s Third Symphony is challenging; any great work of art demands an appropriately great response, and that is always challenging. But the real challenge of art is not just some point of argument—there are no shortages of those. The real challenge of art is something immeasurably greater. The challenge of art is beauty. And the challenge of beauty is truth. Truth is challenging. But it is also inviting. It is also glorious and liberating. Truth is wondrous, not scandalous.
When trying to figure out what the real point of art is, I find it always a good idea to consult the poetry section before the philosophy section. Did Homer aim to challenge? Did Pindar? Dante? Milton? They are all challenging, to be sure. But one would be a fool to say that the point, the telos, of any great art or artist is primarily to challenge. What, after all, is the challenge in Mozart or Bach?
So what is the point of art, then, if not to challenge? Rilke (remember to consult the poets before the theorists) gives one of the finest answers; in a dedication to a book of poems, he writes:
Oh speak, poet, what do you do?
- I praise.
But the monstrosities and the murderous days,
how do you endure them, how do you take them?
- I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless grays,
how, poet, do you still invoke them?
- I praise.
What right have you, in all displays,
in very mask, to be genuine?
- I praise.
And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays
know you like star and storm?
- because I praise.
(translation by John. J. L. Mood)
Praise. Celebration. Despite any self-satisfaction, any arrogance, and rebuke or condemnation, you find always in great art something to celebrate.
Rilke is not unaware of the moral failures of his culture; he is not blind to the Great War around him. Rilke, and every other great artist, had to confront the same sorts of tragedies, hypocrisies, and injustices that today’s artists confront. But there is a world of difference between the way great artists and many contemporary artists respond to these problems. The artists who endure do so because they see beyond the problems they face, they look to what is eternal, realizing that the evils of today are here but for today. Today’s artists would rather hold up—almost celebrate—the evils.
Take, for example, one of our finest playwrights, whom I generally admire both as a playwright and a person: Stephen Adly Guirgis. In his plays In Arabia We’d All Be Kings and Our Lady of 121st St., he gives us a gruesome, heart-wrenching picture of the underbelly of our society, of the often (willfully) unseen results of corporate and political malfeasance, of drugs, of hope and lost hope, of dignity shrouded in darkness; and he does this with great empathy and humanity. But he stops there. There is no solution. There is nothing to be praised. He gives this hell to the audience, and we are supposed to ‘do something’ about it—that is the challenge. The difference is that in great art, when Dante gives us Hell, he also leads us through Purgatory and into Paradise. It is precisely this which is lacking in art today. Our artists are content to give us hell.
What we find in truly great art, however, is not the challenge of hell, but a glimpse of heaven. The artist does not come with demands and accusations, but comes offering praise, delight, beauty, hope, truth. The artist’s vocation, like all vocations, must be understood as a call to love and humility. This should be at the forefront of the artist’s mind: love your audience as yourself.
This is especially true for the Christian artist. When I talk with Christian artists, I always ask: “Where are the beatitudes in your art?” Now that is a challenge. Christ is always the real challenge. We, artists and audience, are called to serve, to be last, to carry a cross for our neighbor. We are not called to challenge or accuse, to point out the splinter in the audience’s eye, but we are called to love - that is the challenge! And art will only regain its proper and necessary place in our culture when artists begin to meet that challenge, when they no longer see themselves as judges, but as servants.
But that will not happen unless we, the audience, also do our part: we must also serve the artists. We must support good art when it is found, and we must cultivate in our schools and communities the sort of environment in which great art can flourish. Beauty is relational; and great art requires a great audience, which requires a great culture. So the real challenge of art belongs to all of us.
Christopher T. Haley is the Director of Communications for the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project. He lives in Texas.
Matthew J. Milliner, The Art of Transgression
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