In the first part of our journey we determined – or at least I personally determined, which is more convenient – that the utter lack of qualifications required to call oneself an ‘artist’ has thrown the door open for all manner of self-expression which may or may not be better suited for the brown waste section of a compost heap.
The thing is, we need people who can take vast subjects and break them up into edible portions. Without categories, all we have are a pile of disparate objects which can’t be evaluated, and it becomes the sad lot of consumers to spend endless hours hunched over a muddy gulch, trying to pan out all the sand for the few flakes of gold.
And, since no one enjoys dysentery or living in perpetual danger of being mauled by Kodiak bears, it might do us good to hop in our time-wagon (patent pending) and head back to the psychedelic horizon of 1960’s.
These were tumultuous times. Disillusioned by the bourgeoisie values of their parents, young people grew their hair out, donned stitched linen blouses, and turned to Mr. LSD to assist them into astral levels of consciousness. The hippies, as they were called, would exercise total mathematical freedom as they substituted ‘free-love’ for every unknown variable in life.
Young people in the church were not immune to the revolution, and began to ask dangerously relevant questions: “Is there actually any value in being conservative for conservative’s sake?” and, “Is there authority that I can actually trust?” Many churches, flabby from decades of materialism, had no answers.
Some left the church completely. Some joined the hippies. But a few stalwart souls made the pilgrimage to a little community in the Swiss Alps called L’Abri. Here, a little man in knee-pants by the name of Francis Schaeffer, would roll up his sleeves and love them enough to engage their difficult questions.
Recently I’ve been slowly plodding my way through his lectures (which can all be found archived online), and happened upon a two hour doozie entitled Art Norms & Thoughts for the Christian Life. What follows is my attempt to outline and elaborate on Schaeffer’s threefold paradigm which, hopefully, will provide my two readers with some useful tools with which to engage art and culture.
Is it technically legitimate?
It isn’t difficult to yank the proverbial wool over most people’s brow. One time, while visiting our local gallery, I found a large book filled with rows of tiny, red dots. It probably took the ‘author’ several months to complete – but what did it exactly accomplish? Sure it was a spectacular feat of stamina, but there was no employment of actual skill.
Think of a sand castle contest on the beach. To have even the potential for winning, you need to start by mixing some water into the dry sand. Much art, and especially conceptual art, is like an under-moistened castle – all ideas, with no actual substance holding it together. “This is an elaborate castle,” you might say to the confused judges, as you point to the dry mound at your feet. “But I couldn’t get it to stick together, so you’re going to have to do the mental legwork.”
Ask yourself, “Does this communicate something beyond that which didactic prose could? Or does it happily revel in vague inference?
Is it honest?
How does one do ‘art’ dishonestly?
A few years go a fantastic little documentary entitled Exit Through the Gift Shop tells the story of a man named Thierry whose life amounted to little more then a series of consecutive bluffs. The movie follows him as he, under the guise of a filmmaker, is permitted to tag along with a significant lineup of – well, let’s say, lesser-known street contributors. The assumption was that the resulting material would hopefully find its way into a film that would memorialize and celebrate all their years of hard work done in secrecy.
But, though Thierry always had a video camera in his hand, he wasn’t a filmmaker. What he was actually, was a rather greasy salesmen who knew how to exploit peoples phobia of being left in the avant-gardemobile’s dust.
When the time came to finally reveal the fruit of his labour it was, unsurprisingly, completely incoherent. Despite being revealed as a fraud, this same man would eventually go on to become a prominent ‘artist’ who would make his living charging large amounts of money for refashioned pop-art.
The understandably frustrated Banksy comments: ‘Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little bit of me dies, but every time one of my friends borrows my ideas, mounts a huge art show and becomes a millionaire celebrity, a little bit of me wants him dead.”
This is the one place where reasonable helping of self-expression might go a long way – that is, I think it’s important that someone’s art honestly reflect their values and particular style. Self-expression, in this kind of setting, is what can lead to healthy and diverse art.
My grandfather is a watercolor warlock who has spent years amassing a large body of personal work which you can find here. We have had several discussions about the philosophies behind his ideas which I take issue with, but what enabled us to have those discussions is A) The man knows what he’s doing. B) The man believes in what he’s doing. C) I can understand and respect what he’s done.
Is it true?
Art doesn’t just fall out of the sky like an acme anvil. Mushrooms grow on rotten logs not only because spores (mushroom seeds) are present, but because the conditions are favorable for their flourishing. In the same way, certain favorable cultural conditions will produce a certain kinds of expression; in music, in visual art, in literature.
Many artists today are in the business not so much of evaluation, but regurgitation – simply reproducing whatever cultural narrative they find themselves a part of. Many won’t waste time asking whether such and such an idea is good and worthy of embodiment – because self-expression, right?
When you ask the question, is it true? You are trying to scratch away the paint to get at the philosophies and perspectives behind the art. Are they valid? Are they consistent? Are they commendable?
I believe this paradigm allows us to acknowledge particular art forms that may not necessarily appeal to us, but which we can appreciate in their own right. We will also be able to enjoy certain aspect of sculpture, film, or painting without necessarily celebrating everything that is going on.
And hey – it sure beats the bears.