Christian Media

Christians And The Disneyfication of Great Art

A number of years ago, Kathleen and I were teaching at a media conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since we’re culture hounds, one night we went out to see a performance of the Tango. The dance was born during the 1890s along the Río de la Plata, the river between Uruguay and Argentina, and grew from there. The audience at the venue we attended was largely tourists – although we sat next to a group of very artistic older fans. In spite of all the tourist atmosphere, it was a fascinating performance, and as I watched, I thought of how many similar art forms were born out of poverty, war, or other desperate circumstances.

Think of Jazz or Blues in America, Flamenco in Spain, Polka in Eastern Europe, Russian dance traditions, and many more. I was thinking about Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, sitting in smoky basements reciting poetry, folk music, the Cabarets of Berlin or the Moulin Rouge in Paris before World War II.  Or the recent art exhibition featuring the creations of artists who were forced to escape Hitler’s Germany because he considered their art degenerate.

The problem is, when we have the opportunity to see these art forms enacted today, it’s almost always a commercial production. Our Tango performance was highly professional, but felt like we were in Branson. Even old haunts like the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood where so many major rock bands got their start is now overrun by tourists taking pictures.

Great art is often born in hiding. Rebellion lives on the run, and thrives in the back rooms of bars, or dingy basements. But today, rebellion takes its message to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These days, great causes don’t birth great art – they birth 140 character posts. When we feel oppressed, we lash out by creating a social media page.

I’m certainly not against social media.  I advise clients on it every day.  But an important question is – if you’re a real artist out there – are you content with being a Disneyfied duplicate? Does “trending” in social media make you feel like you’ve made an actual difference? In the Christian world should real worship music be a category on iTunes, or a subversive force in the culture? Should Christian movies be content with hiring formerly famous secular actors to get box office traction, instead of creating such a powerful and compelling message the culture can’t look away?

Coming out of that highly packaged Tango performance I had to wonder if creativity and art matter enough to me that I’d be willing to express it while the fire hoses were turned on, the police dogs were unleashed, or the National Guard closed in?

For past generations, great pain, suffering, and crisis expressed itself through great art. But today, it’s difficult to find any art that hasn’t been pre-packaged, catagorized, and marketed – or “artists” who won’t lift a finger until their attorney has worked out the details of their contract.  It’s all become so safe.

I need to remind myself regularly that as a Christian, I can’t expect to change the culture, until I’m ready to challenge it.

And sometimes that means paying a price.

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  1. Christian artists already face an uphill battle from a judgmental & suspicious church that devours tepid mediocrity and a secular culture that is ever-ready to reject and mock anything “christian”…now we have to pay a “price”? Also, it’s pretty presumptuous that you assume there aren’t christian artists already out there paying that price. I am the creator of a bible based comic and I make bible hero coloring pages that have traveled around the world. Have you heard of me? No. Why? Because I don’t have some multi-media conglomerate like Zondervan tooting my horn for me. I just do my art and people find me. And the “price” I pay is that I can’t do more art because I have to work a day job because “christian” art doesn’t pay the bills.

    1. Let’s see Artist Xero – you haven’t spent your adult life running from the authorities like William Tyndale did when he translated the Bible into English, you weren’t sent to the Soviet gulag like Solzhenitsyn for writing what the State didn’t like, Van Gogh was completely rejected during his lifetime, Michelangelo was in agony for months painting the sistine chapel laying on his back, and Hemingway suffered from severe depression and alcoholism.
      Not to be cynical, but you’re biggest frustration is that Zondervan won’t publish your work? I just wanted to get that straight.

      1. I’ve never asked Zondervan to publish my work, so that’s not the issue. My frustration is christians complaining about a lack of christian art while totally and completely ignoring or rejecting the christian artists that are out there because they are not white-washed and safe for christian consumption. As for your point about the suffering of historical artists…how do you know what I or other artists have or haven’t suffered? History is great at telling us how those men lived but if you had lived during the time of Tyndale, Van Gogh, Solzhenitsyn you would have known nothing or next to nothing about what they suffered. Just like you don’t know that right now there may be a modern day Van Gogh dying in his bed right now somewhere. As for Michaelangelo he was incredibly famous in his own lifetime and the Sistine Chapel was a paying job (whether or not he liked the price or wanted the job). Regardless of any of this, all art exists because because determined men and women decided to put their blood, sweat and tears into developing the talent needed to make it. Sure, some of it is pre-packaged, categorized, and marketed because we live in the modern world and artists deserve to get paid for what they make not suffer in misery and obscurity so you can like them more.

        1. I totally get your frustration. I’m just asking you to raise the bar a bit. Artists don’t always have to suffer, but they should be ready to. James Joyce never thought he was publishing to a large audience. Focus on the work, not the distribution. Whether you “deserve” as you say to make a living from it, I don’t know. But that’s not what it’s about. The message you’re sharing is what matters.
          Thanks for posting, and I wish you the best.

        2. I would only offer to you to think how much greater your reward will be in Heaven after offering your good skills to God humbly by creating works about him for others even if those do not win critical secular or Christian acclaim.

          1. While I appreciate the comment, let’s be honest, the christian landscaper or the christian plumber does his job, expects to get paid for it and gets whatever reward is due him in heaven as well. Only the christian artist is expected to live with the latter alone. And that’s fine. I’m perfectly happy with storing treasures in heaven not on earth but frankly if I, or others like me, had the “treasure on earth” of financial stability and/or affluence our artistic output would be quadrupled and Christianity wouldn’t be fighting a losing battle in society because the artists would be standing in the way of that. But the Church doesn’t really want art though (or rather it wants it for dirtcheap or even better for free). It would much rather throw It’s money away on Duck Dynasty Garbage or Tim Tebow crud because that’s the level of “artistic merit” it’s willing to actually pay for.

          2. I relate. As a creative writer, ultimately, I had to face the reality that I had to do something else to actually make enough to survive, so I did. Now, I’m an employer. I offered up my tech skills to God, and it was blessed. Frankly, I could switch back to writing now, but that’s another story and may happen at some point. Of course, there’s always t-shirts. 🙂

  2. As much as I like keeping up with friends on social media, I think you are so right about dangers to creativity. I think it has become a pressure valve that has taken the edge off of creativity for many. Instead of that creative pressure (born out of whatever pain or circumstance) building to a point of creative explosion (writing, music, etc), people go on social media and blow off steam, taking the edge off whatever creative genius might have been there. We end up being left with insipid “art” that wants to put a nice, neat bow on every conflict instead of allowing the raw nerve to stay exposed for a while. Sometimes, the raw nerve is ok. Sometimes there’s not an “acceptable” answer or solution. I think that is where faith has to rise, and “end-of-the-rope, knot-clinging tenacity” becomes our means of survival. We forget that, while Jesus “is” the answer, He didn’t always give the answer. He would tell a parable to a crowd, but only explain it to His disciples. Sometimes, we don’t need someone to give us an answer or solution. Sometimes, we just need someone to take us by the hand, look us in the eye, tell us “Hey, this sucks,” and let the reaction to those circumstances manifest themselves in unbridled creativity. Thanks Phil.

  3. There is a trend towards seeing only painful creativity as art. Seeing only one-of-a-kind as art. Seeing only the unknown and unpopular as art. Why can art only come out of pain and suffering.

    Art is anything that causes movement. If something sketched on an alleyway where very few people go causes you to question mainstream media then it is art. If a mass-produced painting causes you peace then it’s art. If a finger painting by your 3 year old child causes you joy then it’s art.

    1. G. K. Chesterton said something like, “Art, like morality must draw the line somewhere.” I don’t know if a 3 year old’s painting is “art” but I understand what you’re saying. I don’t completely agree because I’ve seen a lot of bad art… 🙂
      But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. My question is about perspective. Do Christians want “safe” art, or are Christians willing to confront today’s culture to express their message?

  4. This discussion hinges on a/the definition of “art”, Christian or otherwise, and of “artist”…and these definitions will change from camp to camp. Is art a “discipline”, or is it “expression”, is it solely the work of an individual, or can it be collective? There is something else that should be brought out, and that is the question of human scale, the size of the group that a piece of art is intended for (if any at all). it seems to me as an artist that I must satisfy something within myself in the production of a work in any media, but there must be some audience. What am I doing as an artist for that audience that makes my art production “art”? I believe in this sense like politics, all art is local. I communicate with my audience using a media which is a human revelatory convention within that group. Thus, a media is an accepted local convention. It is a profound part of what I am bringing to a specific audience. The creativity that I bring to this instrument of convention must rise from the depths of my humanity. I must be sharing of myself with an honest voice. Thus art is this blending of convention and honest voice. And honest voice which resonates most deeply within the media convention deployed will have to be felt and judged most profound, most moving, most creative within that group if it is to be thought of as “art” worthy of that name by someone worthy of carrying the name “artist”.

  5. It’s probably a small price to pay, but as a Christian and as an artist in an area where most artists are forcefully anti-Christian, I have been exposed to a lot of vitriol against the things I believe. I’m still a part of the larger art community and get an opportunity whenever my art is exhibited to talk about my faith in Jesus, but I know I am not as outspoken as I could and should be, and that it is a result of fear. Thank you for reminding me that taking a stand can only strengthen my work.

  6. I am an author and illustrator. I use art and writing to spread the love of God. I speak to whomever will listen about Jesus and how He loves us. Yes – we need not fear.

  7. “Should Christian movies be content with hiring formerly famous secular actors to get box office traction, instead of creating such a powerful and compelling message the culture can’t look away?”

    The aspirational film you describe requires immense cinematic talent, experience, and deep respect for craft…qualities painstakingly honed over years, and multiple films. Such films require visionary investors and groundbreaking business/marketing plans…distribution, critical support, and passionate fans. Breakthrough films like that need perfect timing in the marketplace and no small measure of good fortune.

    It’s much EASIER for so-called “Christian movies” to be thrown together with evangelical fervor and Kevin Sorbo (no offense, Mr. Sorbo…just using your name to make a rhetorical point) and sold to devoted church-goers willing to crash the multiplex for a little cultural reassurance.

    I don’t see that changing. Easy will always be preferable to hard…even with American Evangelicals.

    What might actually work…in creating the kinds of films you (and I) imagine…would be if Christian film artists simply worked on their craft, got good at telling true stories and building an audience for their work. And then stayed at it, persevered, worked hard, and challenged themselves to be better. Built alliances and friendships with non-Christian film artists and investors. Delivered on time and under budget.

    Like, maybe…if the Christian filmmaker just tried to be a good filmmaker…for a lifetime. Maybe then the films you hope for will start happening.

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