We are examining the responsibilities of the viewer, or audience, in relation to works of art.
Last week, we looked at the definition of the purpose of art: its ability to reflect the glory of God, the truth about the human person, and to allow artists to co-operate with God in the creation of beauty.
We turn now toward the state of art in the modern world.
Everyone with a properly formed sense of aesthetics realizes that art is in crisis, just as the culture that produces it is in crisis.
In the case of art, the problem expresses itself in an inability to combine respect for the artist and respect for the viewer. There is no mutual meeting of selves.
The result is that we have two separate forms of art, both of which fail to function as forms of communication.
The first is meant to cater to the audience. This is the art of the market research corporation: the television sitcom, the pulp novel and the pop song.
What this produces is not merely banal and uninspired. It is immoral. I do not mean to imply that we should be puritanical. Morality is not something to be forced on art from the outside. It is essential to art itself.
Without a moral foundation, art is not merely corrupt, it is impossible. The fundamental tensions that make up a work are moral tensions. Imagine Les Miserables if Jean Valjean was comfortable with his identity as a thief, or The Lord of the Rings if the orcs were misunderstood children who just needed a good sing around the campfire.
This is true, also, of other forms of art.
In music, dissonance creates a sense of unrest in our souls. Minor scales feel melancholic. Bright, triumphal chords raise us towards joy. The most beautiful music combines these elements, allows us to experience the tension between how things are and how they ought to be, invites us into sorrow, and through sorrow, brings us to joy and the sublime.
Unfortunately, there is no formula for expressing deep moral truth through the medium of beauty. There is no way that a media executive, whose critical faculties are dulled by a thick encrustation of avarice, can look at an inspired work and be certain that it will make him millions.
The result is an appeal to concupiscence. The flesh, the world and the devil are a sure sell, even when they are cloaked in the cheapest possible gossamer. Thus a glut of music about fornication, books about powerful crime lords making tons of money, and art that isn’t about anything except the artist burning incense to himself.
While media outlets tend to focus on lust, wrath and gluttony in an attempt to appeal to the multitudes, “high art” tends to favor the appeal to pride.
The last century has seen an increasing move towards subjectivism and intentionalism in high art. The result is most pronounced in the visual arts, where “artists” outdo themselves trying to express nothing that comes from outside — whether from creation or from the Holy Spirit — and to reveal only what belongs to the self.
Art that is created in this way does not care about its audience. It doesn’t try to communicate. Often, it doesn’t even mean anything to its maker. It is a deliberate unraveling of the fabric of form and content: a void into which the artist peers like a withered Narcissus beside a dried up stream, crowing over the memory of his own reflection.
All of this may make the situation seem grim. It is, however, a form of mercy.
Culture reflects the interior lives of the people who create it. The ugliness of art in the modern world is the writing on Belshazzar’s wall. It is a call to repentance. It reminds us of the distance between where we are and where we ought to be.
For the practicing Christian, this should serve not as an opportunity for scorn and despair, but for contrition and reform.
Bad art is a reminder of the ugliness of our own sins, and a reminder to pray for the souls of others.
Our culture is in dire need of saints. How fitting that we should be constantly bombarded with reminders of what the stakes are, and of what we are allowing the world to become when we allow our vices to rule our hearts.
Nonetheless, while we thank God for the fever that reminds us that we are ill, we should also be trying to provide an antidote — or at least to keep the cultural temperature down enough that we will survive until the fever breaks. So next week, we’ll take a look at what we can do to rekindle the fires of beauty in the modern world.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at vulgatamagazine.org.