My friend Garrett sent me an article 17 months ago. I wrote a response and forgot about it. He just sent it to me in case I wanted to post it. I’m posting it.
My friend Garrett recently sent me an article to get my thoughts. The article is arguing for a new level of support for the arts from conservatives.
The main point is quite valid. People who identify as “conservatives” have often failed to make a place for art in their outlook. In real life, there are plenty of conservatives who make a place for art and are capable of articulating a great deal about the subject, so I don’t really think it’s all conservatives. It’s a particular sort of conservative.
I mostly think in religious terms, and I personally know quite a few people who are conservative that come from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran backgrounds that are very concerned about the place of art in their worship. It’s really our Evangelical (I’m using that word in the contemporary and not in the technical sense) brothers and sisters who have not really made a place for art.
I used to do an exercise with my classes. I would write down these categories on the board: Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed. Then I would have the students call out names and list what religious background (even if only nominally) the named composer had. I can fill each of those categories with the names a many composers of international stature except for one. There has never been a great composer that emerged out of the Reformed tradition. There are no great Calvinist composers, and there is a reason for that. The Reformed tradition (and one can trace this back before Calvin to at least St. Augustine) was always wary of beauty. It intensified under Calvin to valuing music only insofar as it could carry a message. Music was valued as a vehicle for the Word of God, but not for its own intrinsic value.
Thus, in the article, Pearce is valuing art that is “representational” and conveying ideas as somehow conservative. Non-representational art is somehow more liberal, I guess. This is problematic on a number of levels. Think of Schoenberg’s main arguments for his music. He’s constantly arguing that he is a conservative that is just taking music down the next logical step to develop the tradition. You might disagree with him, but he thought of himself as fairly conservative in that sense. The problem with the word “conservative” is that it very rarely means anything more than, “what I like.” Making art “that looks like stuff” isn’t some sort of shibboleth for conservative bona fides. I would think that Stalin’s war against abstract art would have taught us that by now. In any case, there is a deeper theological problem here.
For Christian artists, taking the Incarnation seriously means the redemption of the creation. It means that we can find beauty in creation as redeemed by love qua creation. There are some lines of thought that turn the Incarnation into something less than it is. Jesus is not redeeming the creation, (“God is reconciling all things unto himself” Col. 1:20) but only some bits and pieces of it here and there. That means that the whole of creation is a code that is hiding God, and once you get the secret decoder ring, you can get the hidden message beneath. In this way of thinking, music can only serve as a pack mule for the Word, and visual art can only be “conservative” when it is representational so that you can understand the secret code.
In a more Orthodox (and I might add traditional and conservative) way of conceiving of things, music can be an expression of the beauty of the creator in and of itself. Christian aesthetics is free to reject the formal proportions of Greek ideas about beauty and find beauty anywhere in creation. David Bentley Hart points out that the scene of Peter weeping after denying Jesus would have been unimaginable in Attic tragedy. A minor character of no social standing is simply not worth considering — much less is his emotional state to be of any concern at all. Christianity turns classic aesthetics on its head to find beauty in even the humblest of locations. It provides meaning to the suffering of even one such as Peter. If that is the case, then beauty can be found in the most abstract and monstrous of places, for “even dark is not dark to you.”
It is not the beauty of finding the secret message beneath the surface of things. The Incarnation means that the surface of things is also being redeemed and will eventually be revealed to be that which was made through the Redeemer. If I can put it less abstractly, when I used to do walking meditations and listen to locusts, I would anthropomorphize them and imagine their sounds to be actual words of praise to God. As I grew and discovered that the Incarnation is a more profound redemption than that, I still hear their sounds as praise, but not by any secret message. Locusts praise God by being as locusty as possible because they are made in love to be locusty.
In a more complex way, humans praise God by being human. Most people I know are sometimes very concrete and practical, and sometimes are very abstract and dreamy. It stands to reason that our art would manifest itself in the same complex ways. In any case, if you look at the sometimes outrageous allegories the Church Fathers used when interpreting Scripture, (I’m thinking even of early passages like Galatians 4), one can hardly argue that it is conservative to be less abstract. In fact, I could probably make a stronger argument in the opposite direction.
So, yes conservatives need to make a place for art, and I think he is generally right about the problem. He’s just wrong in the way he is trying to fix it. We can find value in beauty itself because God is beauty. Our first motion toward God/Beauty is love, not articulation and idea.