Ok. So I’ve been reading Dorothy Sayers essays this afternoon, this dreary cold and wet afternoon that suggests a head cold in the making… The essay entitled: “Toward a Christian Esthetic” captured my attention. No, not because of the dry title! (What does “esthetic” exactly mean anyway?*) –but because I think ‘the arts’ have gotten a bad rap in our times from Christians and I’m always on the lookout for a good defense. Just because anything and everything unsavory and bizarre is termed ”art” and promoted at the taxpayer’s expense does not mean that art is useless does it? or that artists are all losers? No regard is given to the fact that God is in fact the greatest Artist of all time and surely His image is detectable somewhere in His creatures’ capacity to create. Anyway, I digress by way of telling how such a dry title could capture my attention on this drowsy afternoon….
Dorothy Sayers sets out in this essay to give a state of the arts report and to propose a Christian philosophy of the arts, as in, what should art look like (whether poem, painting or play, or movie, music or sculpting) if it is truly reflective of the image of God? Her analysis concerns England in the World War II era, but I find her remarks to be strikingly apropos to our own times. Her analysis if it is accurate is cause for alarm in our generation, as in NOW, for ourselves and our own progeny! Only catch is I’m not sure what action to take. Here’s hoping you have some ideas to add.
But first the state of things:
It’s the age old problem of a culture which demands entertainment at the expense of true art. What’s the difference? The Greeks tried to get a handle on it. Plato figured there should be only good guys on the stage–only things worthy of imitation, inspiring noble action. Then he went further than that and wanted to ban all representational art, that is, all art that was an imitation of the real thing. Hmm… I guess all plays and movies are out! His reason: the effect on the audience. He said it was a waste of emotional energy that could have been put toward the real problems of life instead of dissipated in the theater. He said that arousing passions whether pity, courage, indignation or whatever by means of play-acting left the mind empty and slack with no appetite for real life, but only for more of the same. He was a prophet to his own generation, and to ours? We haven’t come to war and collapse yet. Is that our only hope?
I quote from Sayers:
“We too have audiences and critics and newspapers assessing every play and book and novel in terms of its entertainment value, and a whole generation of young men and women who dream over novels and wallow in daydreaming at the cinema, and who seemed to be in a fair way of doping themselves into complete irresponsibility over the conduct of life until war came, as it did in Greece, to jerk them back to reality.”
While such diversions may be ok for occasional relaxation, Sayers suggests that a regular diet of the unreal will eventually corrupt one’s consciousness of reality in experience leading to “a civilization that lives for amusement, a civilization without guts, without experience, and out of touch with reality.” Yikes. What a prognosis.
This type of “art” according to Sayers fails to conform to a proper Christian esthetic.
Shall we have movies and books instead that moralize and preach, upholding good causes and manipulating the viewer with a good story line to take action? Is this real art or just propaganda?
Will leave you to chew on these thoughts till next time. My day has wound down to a drowsy evening by the fire and it feels like time for a break from so much thinking… perhaps a good movie would be just the thing? (!)
* esthetic – A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility
Quotations taken from the Essay: Toward a Christian Esthetic in The Whimsical Christian by Dorothy Sayers