Art and Our Worldview
Dawn Xiana Moon, originally published on RelevantMagazine.com
My father is the king of email forwards. Usually they're political in nature, and often they comment on Christianity and worldview. A few days ago, he sent me a transcript from the radio program Breakpoint in which guest commentator Mark Earley spoke about the degeneration of art: "Going Buggy: The Cicada Serenade."
Apparently composer David Kane finds the current cicada invasion inspirational; he's writing a piece for Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Maryland titled, Emergence: The Cicada Serenade. However, this isn't the cause of Earley's discomfort. Rather, he finds fault with the composer's remarks, "I want [the music] to reflect the insect-like character of our lives... this vast rush to get things done before we vanish."
Earley writes: Kane's comment gives me pause. Comparing human beings to large insects is not exactly an uplifting thought. But it is a reflection of just how much our ideas about art have changed over the years... As our culture lost its focus on God and became more and more humanistic, we moved away from the idea of art as a means of glorifying God and toward the idea of art as an end in itself. But with that shift in focus came a worldview that emphasized pessimism and despair. Judging by Kane's comments, his cicada piece will be a reflection of that nihilistic worldview.
The commentary isn't entirely fair. I'm not actually defending Kane - I know little about him - but it's difficult to pass judgment on the composition purely by one sentence quoted in the transcript. Kane's doing what artists have done for years: observing the culture that surrounds him. Can we, as Americans in the 21st century, honestly say that our lives are filled with calm? That we don't rush to get things done in order to feel significant, to leave a legacy or to accomplish something of note before we die? Since we're so consumed by busyness as a society, the blame for abandoning a godly worldview - a view that focuses on the important rather than the urgent - cannot be heaped upon our artists; surely we must all take responsibility, even as Christians.
It's fallacious to say that art in our culture used to specifically focus on glorifying God. When would we say the shift occurred? Was the goal of the ancient Greeks' Dionysian festivals honoring the God of the Bible? The festivals were filled with debauchery and their theatre contests included a cycle of three tragedies followed by a bawdy satyr play. Even Shakespeare had his share of lewd humor. Painter Piet Mondrian was raised in a Christian home, but rejected God. Ralph Waldo Emerson subscribed to a vague spirituality rather than a specific deity. And Wagner believed "that through Art all men are saved."
We like to think that nowadays our world is morally looser than it ever was, but societal morality seems to flow in cycles, even if we look solely at Western civilization. Take the Romans and their idea of sports (or literal death matches), for example. People bemoan the prevalence of homosexuality in today's culture and forget that the Greeks believed the highest form of love existed between a man and a boy. Henry VIII succeeded in starting his own church denomination so that he could divorce his wives. I'm not saying that there aren't rights and wrongs, but that there's nothing new about our current state. "We are sliding down the mire of a democracy that pollutes the morals of the people before it swallows up their freedoms," Fisher Ames said. He died in 1808.
A culture that emphasizes "pessimism and despair" will produce art that reflects that worldview, and rightly so. Modernism was a reaction to industrialization and World War I: the world had changed. Drastically. Craftsmanship was being replaced by automation and industry was creating its own set of population density and pollution problems. Suddenly war was more ferocious, more deadly; its effects more devastating than it had ever been before. As T.S. Eliot put it, the 19th century's ideas of order and tradition couldn't stand against "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." In this new paradigm, artists broke with the past - with old notions of order - as did areas as divergent as science and philosophy.
Art is not created in a vacuum; it is always a response, sometimes slightly ahead, sometimes slightly behind, but never without context. If we study a culture's art, we can begin to understand its people, for our art is a reflection of who we are. As Christians our challenge is to bring hope to a lost world, not just lament its darkness. As artists, our challenge is to create work with honesty and integrity, work that questions and communicates truth. For those of us who are both, we must integrate the hope we have into our body of work, if not each specific piece. (It is difficult to judge an artists' worldview simply from one work, just as it would be difficult to judge a man simply from one hour of his life.) And if our society changes, our art will as well.