Great Art Doesn’t Tell – It Shows

The following are the remarks by Wall Street Journal drama critic and columnist Terry Teachout when he received the Bradley Prize in Washington, D.C..  When I read them, I immediately thought of writers, filmmakers, musicians, and artists who are driven by their faith.  All of us need to be reminded of what Terry says is the key to creating great art:

Unfortunately, America . . . has its share of earnest, well-meaning, narrow-minded folk who don’t much care for art, as well as some who flat-out dislike it. I understand why they feel that way: Art can sometimes open doors that you’d rather keep closed. In addition to giving comfort and joy, art also has the miraculous ability to let us live in other men’s skins, to test our perceptions and beliefs against theirs, and perhaps to be changed as a result. It does this by portraying the world creatively, heightening our perception and enriching our understanding of things as they are. Art makes sense of life.

To strive toward so noble a goal, the artist must first of all be able to tell the truth as he sees it about the world he sees around him. That task can only be pursued to the fullest degree under the aspect of freedom. Where there is no freedom, there is no art, save at the risk of the artist’s neck. And this freedom includes, among many other things, freedom from the paralyzing obligation to persuade.

The artist whose chief goal is not to make everything more beautiful but to enlist his audience in a cause—no matter what that cause may be—is rarely if ever prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. He replaces the true complexity of the world with the false simplicity of the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful, but to stack the deck.

This is what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that no artist ever tries to prove anything, though I’d put it another way. Great art doesn’t tell—it shows.  And this act of showing is itself a moral act, a commitment to reality.

A man who thought otherwise said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But Karl Marx, as usual, got it wrong. The greatest philosophers and the greatest artists seek not to change the world, but to see the world as it is, then show it to the rest of us with the transforming clarity that is beauty. That is a supreme act of freedom. It’s what Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor did. What Rembrandt and Sargent and Edward Hopper did. What Mozart and Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong did. They looked, they saw, they showed—and we understood.

In writing about art, I try never to moralize, nor do I look with favor upon artists who do. But I seek to be ever and always alive to the moral force of art whose creators aspire merely to make everything more beautiful, and in so doing to pierce the veil of the visible and give us a glimpse of the transcendently true.

—– What do you think about Terry’s ideas about art?

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  1. “He replaces the true complexity of the world with the false simplicity of
    the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful,
    but to stack the deck.”

    This is the single best explanation of why I typically lean away from “Christian movies” and “Christian music.”

    I find that more than not, “secular” movies teach the Word better as they don’t simplify or stack the deck…

    Thanks for sharing Phil!

  2. As a feature film producer & director, who is of the Christian faith, I’ve had to make the conscious and rather unpopular decision to not make ‘Christian films.’ This is unfortunate for me because I know that I could easily make a good living by making ‘Christian films’ for the Christian market, where the fundamental elements of my films would not even have to be that good. There are plenty of well meaning people I know who love to dictate the type of films someone like me should be making – and it’s easy to get caught up in all that – but for whatever reason, what they all say has never sat right with me.

    I like what Terry says here, “freedom from the paralyzing obligation to persuade.” Or from my experience, the freedom from having to have a conversion scene in my films, or a scene set inside a church, or a pastor as a character, or mentioning Jesus. Rather should I not be free to create great art which ‘makes sense of life’, and simply trust that my God will ignite ideas in the hearts and minds of my viewers, without me having the obligation to persuade?

    I wish more ‘Christian filmmakers’ would learn more about screenwriting, particularly the concept of a ‘Controlling Idea’ – that is, weaving an idea into a story, rather that making ‘a point’ about something.

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