Z' Nasty, Ghastly, Dark, Disturbing Dangers of Art

This entry includes nothing of the sort, I'm afraid. It's just a nod to the Oscars last night, No Country for Old Men and the rest of the bloody gang. But I am beginning my research for my talk at the symposium. My given title is: What are the dangers of artistic activity? See here for the longer version of the question.

And I would covet your opinions and perspectives. Here are a few areas for exploration.

1. Think of your personal experience. What experiences of art for you have been negative or destructive or debilitating or stifling or confusing?

2. Think of your church setting. What are dangers in high church settings and in the low church settings? High art practicies and pop art practices?

3. Think of sins of commission and ommission. In what ways are dangers things done or things left undone? In what ways is a danger a "too much" or a "too little"?

4. Think of cultural and societal patterns. In the advance and proliferation of media technologies, how are the arts being enlisted to serve ends that do not contribute to the well-being of humans or communities or cities?

5. Think of the artist and the audience. What are dangers peculiar to the artist, separate from the work? What are dangers peculiar to an audience--from a mass audience to a select audience?

Think whatever you want. All I care is to hear what you think are dangers--past dangers, present dangers, future dangers, actual dangers, potential dangers, fantasy dangers, small and big, yours and theirs.

Lastly, for fun, in addition to any of your observed dangers, tell me a way in which you might become the one to produce something dangerous; and by dangerous I don't mean daring, prophetic, "people just aren't ready for me yet" kind of dangerous art, I mean good old fashioned, "produced by a fallen creature" dangerous art.


1) As a comical small-town stereotypical Englishman might say, "it is interesting, it is interesting that you should say that." Lately I've been realizing that the not-so-hidden dangers of intellectual exploration can be rather real. Specifically, I found that as I spiraled into a moderate depression (helped along by a variety of factors including a literary theory class) music and stories that I had recently seen as enthrallingly daring and delightfully dark with hope gleaming around the edges became simply depressing and emotionally damaging. But then again, the emotional manipulation of feel-good movies remained as depressing as ever. Possible moral: deep art is like medicine; too much without the balancing elements known as "life" can lead to its own sickness.

2) I had an interesting experience once with (imho) "the only contemporary service that really does it right." I was constantly blown away with the passion, artistry, and unity with diversity expressed through an evening College worship service. Some of my most soft-spoken, easily-offended friends showed a surprisingly strong appreciation for the service. I took my intellectual-minded, new-experience-loving Christian roommate there one night, and he said it was "the most profoundly depressing worship experience of my life." Moral: I'm still not sure. But there probably is one.

3) In my own art, I think I may tend to overthink the danger potential. I once spent quite some time agonizing over a single sentence because, it seemed, I was painting the most clear echo of divine love as a form of self-love. Thinking about it today, maybe there is some truth to that--God made Humanity, his most-loved (if such a comparative applies) of his creations, in His own image. So I still think the biggest danger is to tell an untrue story in the name of "hope."

But I have noticed, that people tend to disporportionately leave out the positive elements when "telling the truth" of a situation.

There's my opening 5c.
I imagine my experience with art is much different than most of your readers. In fact my experience with art is best described as a gaping non-experience. But YOU asked for it, right?!?
Ill never, ever forget the moment that the reality of this void became clear to me. It was kind of like the day I went swimming with my husband off a deserted beach in the Caribbean island of St. Bart and I realized I had never actually seen the ocean before that day.
The day I realized that I had grown up in an artistically-barren, religious bubble, I wept a deep, gushing grief.
My mother was an artist and she grew up in a smaller bubble than I did. I cried for her.
My grandfather (her father) was an artist and he lived in a bubble a fraction of the size of ours and I wept for him.
My children are artists and I am living out of a hope that maybe, just maybe, I can help them burst out of this damned thing once and for all.
For me, that is my greatest artistic goal. To help develop artists -- starting with the four people who call me 'mom' and moving out in ever-broadening circles from there.
A few thoughts on your questions:
1. I already mentioned that my artistic experience is marked more by void than any other factor. Coming to that conclusion was actually a healing step because I thought I had experienced art and was, frankly, quite disappointed. I was exposed to various forms of "Christian" art and knew instinctively something was lacking. Example: my Christian highschool held a Drama week each year. This consisted of inviting in a prominant Christian to direct a large dramatic peformance each year. This university believed that it was biblically grounded in its philosophy that females should not hold any major roles in any drama. (i know. i know.)
And even though she had never been encouraged in her own artistic identity, my mother worked hard to counter this culture by introducing us children to good literature. She advocated for truth when I was disqualified from a Christian school dramatic competition for re-enacting the scene from Gone With the Wind when Scarlett picks her way across a bloody street filled with wounded and dead soldiers and exclaims, "Oh my god!" It didn't matter that I chose to interpret it as "Oh, my God!"
As to the arts community, I learned that:
a. rock music was from the devil (that included any instruments rock musicians were fond of)
b. the modern arts community was perverted and did horrible, grotesque things that the government willingly gave them money to display to more perverse people who went to look at it
c. and in-between-the-lines, I heard the lesson that art itself needed to be "saved" -- that left to itself, beauty and truth would become evil; it was our job as Christians to add a pious moral or a calligraphied Bible verse or a roller-rink organ to keep the art from becoming dangerous.

I'd like to respond to a few of your other questions, but for the sake of the logistics of your comments page, I'll break it up into a couple of segments.
Thanks for listening!
some thoughts from a novice on questions #2 and 4 (although i think some #3 might be mixed in there also)

...the church setting... in my opinion, art in any church setting is dangerous (in the 'fallen creature' sense of the word) when it exists because the church -- as in the people -- is just going through the motions of religious life together. This art is self-conscious instead of God-conscious. It says "our art -- or lack thereof -- and not our lives proves our religious fervor."
it says "our lives as Christ's disciples are not attractive enough and so we need to burn more candles or add more guitar solos or appear more mysterious than we really are..."

or it says "we're so busy being knowledgeable about religion that we don't have time to think about our physical environment -- the walls, the windows, the songs, the mimeographed handouts..."

or it says "we are so insecure about being Christians that we just borrow all our ideas from the places our unbelieving neighbors have already proven to like -- last season's funniest home video or top-rated game show or most-talked about advertising slogans and call it 'art'"

this seems to become self-centered and even lazy. i am beginning to learn that the balance between honoring the high art of previous generations AND engaging with the ever-changing innovations of the culture in my neighborhood requires a heck of a lot of humility. i'm also beginning to learn that added to that humility it takes a heck of a lot of courage to hold those two ends of the spectrum with just a tight enough grasp to leave room to also think and do brand new things as a church community and as artists within a church community. this is a demanding balance. this seems fitting, though, since the life of following Christ is also a demanding one.
it seems to me, though, that that balance is probably the best way to uncover our corporate artistic identity. and it seems that this will happen best in communities who cherish and rehearse each other's God-stories in every way possible in order to bring Him credit. it seems that all this courage and humility and God-story-telling would create the best kind of dangerous art in a church setting.

...cultural and societal patterns... i'm not sure i'm thinking about this question in the same sense it was intended, but here's a few thoughts.

in my limited understanding, art is an extension, an expression of a truth hidden within a person or a community. this reflects the way our Creator weaves truths of His character throughout His creation. and, as a whole, his creation tells a larger story about Him than any individual part is able to tell (e.g., male AND female tell a larger picture of God than just male or female alone).
if it is true that art is an expression then in its nature it is dependant on a relationship -- a relationship between the person telling a truth through creating art and a person responding to that truth by receiving the art. (i feel a little bit overwhelmed here because there is, of course, much art that never leaves the sight of the artist -- not sure what to do with that right now so let's just forget it for a moment)
as the arts enjoy increased attention from popular culture (another chicken and egg discussion -- who's responsible for what the popular culture pays attention to?) the popular culture-- including its colleagues of mainstream media, mass marketing and mega stores -- will do what popular culture is supposed to do...break Art down to its most quickly produced and easily digested form for consumption by the too-busy-to-stop-and-think masses. And the emphasis of the relationship between the art-creator and the art-receiver becomes strained as a whole bunch of 'middle men' enter the process and add all sorts of their own brush strokes to the picture. We also are less likely to get the larger story of the artists as told through his larger body of work. in essence we get lots of one-hit wonders and flashes-in-the-pan, but still believe that we are art-receivers (because that is what the marketers will want us to believe in order to continue seeling their product). that's what feels the most dangerous to me -- the dumbing down and loss of relationship that happens without us even realizing it.

and, believe it or not, i do have one more comment...i'll be back!
(you DID ask for this, right?!?)
Jim Janknegt said…
Here are some dangers in no particular order:

1. The falsehood that narrative art (stories) doesn't have any effect on people i.e. It's just a movie, it's just a story. A culture's underlying understanding of the cosmos takes the form of a narrative which is expressed in art.

2. A disconnect between form and content (see Ben Shahn's book The Shape of Content). In great art the form and content form a unity like a hand in a glove. In dangerous art one or the other is absent which gives us a false understanding of the nature of reality i.e minimalism, Soviet realism (propaganda painting)

3. A denial that the material world can express something about the invisible world (the basis for symbolism) The corollary that things exist in and for themselves results is idolatry (see Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances).

4. A misunderstanding of the quote "Beauty will Save the World". Beauty in itself will not save the world and neither will art. The fact that beauty and art ultimately disappoints us points to the fact that something exists like beauty that will satisfy us, namely God.

5. Iconoclasm: that one cannot paint the face of Jesus. The entirety of Christian art is based on the incarnation; we can see God's face and it is OK to represent it in art. In fact if you deny this you are anathema. (see Saint John Damscene). We can also paint angels and saints

6. The denial of secondary causes i.e. God doesn't chooses to use stuff to do his work. He is the first cause but almost always uses something else as a secondary cause to accomplish his will: people, art, saints, his Mother, etc. This denial delegates art to being merely decorative when it could be powerful and effective (see the Power of Images by David Freedberg and the chapter about pilgrimages).

7. When Christian art becomes disconnected from the liturgy personal symbolism and imagery replace the grand Christian narrative creating a situation where art is fun to do for the artist but bewildering for the Christian trying to ascertain its meaning. The danger here is that art is then seen as something unimportant because it is incomprehensible and is marginalized. At this point the things that can only be communicated through that which is nonverbal are left not communicated.

A question: Do the artist who are participating in the exhibit (that would be me) need to register for the conference or is the fact that we have already agreed to participate constitute a registration. What I am really asking is-Do I have to pay the registration fee? Your poor, starving artist friend-Jim
Unknown said…
There is certainly a danger for leading actors into attitudes of pride and self-gratification. Acting can be one of the most ego-building professions if we're not careful.

There is a danger to the actor, and I would also say that there is a danger of coloring the Word of God. Theatre, more than other modes of communication, tends to color the message being communicated. What we intend to communicate and what is actually understood by the audience can be very different. As a director, I am always checking my premise. Am I accurately communicating what i believe. It's easy to slip there.

I write at:

I would love to come to this symposium /conference thing you're doing. maybe my comment will make it there. . .

answering the first question - negative, confusing, stifling, etc.:

a discouraging remark I overheard at my first artist symposium, made by someone who was 'big' - he said, "there are really only one or two really good pieces made in any given year." I thought, "what the heck are the other 300 of us doing even trying to make art? why are YOU even doing it?" At first that was a pretty good reason to quit, if accurate. and then, it was a good question to answer - kindof like 'if you aren't going to be the next american idol, why even sing?'

one big obstacle to making my art is it takes so very very much time to create in my medium. (I make ArtQuilts - dye fabric, cut, sew, iron, cut, sew, stitch - hundreds of hours for a complex big piece.) and yet, because it is a 'craft' medium, rather than a fine art medium, it is judged as less valuable in the marketplace.
So I could do a large scale painting in a fraction of the time, and sell it for quadruple the price. But I love the process, and I know I could paint, if I want to, I'd just rather slice and reconstruct fabric.
Except when something isn't working - there's so much time invested already, and money, that its hard to just quit and do another piece.

the biggest danger is that we only value art for its market value - it becomes a commodity instead of a personal creative expression.

the next biggest danger is that we stop creating art, for whatever reason.

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