Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Word About Sponsors

I remember when I was a very little girl I intended to be an artist when I grew up. One day my Dad went to a friend's art exhibition and when he came back I asked him all about it. He mentioned that the paintings had been made with no view to their commercial viability. This surprised me, because profit was the last thing I associated with Art. "Should they care about that?" I asked.

And Dad said, very seriously, "Suzannah, many artists insist on making art for art's sake, but when you grow up, you need to realise that it's very important to produce a beautiful work of art, and then sell it for as much as you can get for it."

At the time I didn't understand all the philosophical ramifications to this question and its answer. All this time later, I can only say that Dad gave me the right advice. Commercial viability is an indispensable aspect of Christian art.

In saying this I don't mean that art must be limited to the utilitarian. Rather I mean that it must be produced in response to demand. I mean this in two ways.

First, truly great art must exist at the intersection of aesthetic genius with popular appeal: it must be comprehensible and enjoyable by the common man; it must be common knowledge, alethia, rather than hidden knowledge, gnosis (Philippians 4:8). Christian culture has tended to delight in the beauty of the commonplace, as in the art of Rembrandt and Vermeer, or in the beauty of the things everyone can understand and admire, like the music of Bach or the heroic tales of Tolkien. This does not, of course, exclude profundity or a shared cultural lexicon which outsiders might find difficult to understand. It does not exclude staircases into glorious upper stories of thought. But the door into the structure must be very low and humble. One does not need a university education in order to realise that Chartres Cathedral is staggeringly beautiful--indeed, one had better not get a university education if he wishes to go on thinking that Chartres is beautiful. But a lifetime's study could hardly exhaust it.

Second, art must be commercially valuable because if it is worth spending lots of time on, then the artist has both the right (1 Timothy 5:18) and the duty (v 8) to realise its commercial value to support himself and his family. The Christian artist is a craftsman, a workman, not the brooding, lonely ubermensch of the Romantic imagination. The Christian artist is a businessman, and usually an anonymous one. Bach only became a celebrity centuries after a life spent cranking out cantatas to support his large family. His disciplined approach to his art mirrored that of the craftsman of medieval times, whose gigantic genius peeps out from the pages of illuminated manuscripts, glows from stained-glass windows, and writhes in carven wood, always giving the glory to God rather than self. By contrast the modern artist is too often a celebrity who works when inspiration strikes, often heavily subsidised by government, to produce incomprehensible works.

Something's going on at Kia!
I believe that when the dust of history settles, the greatest art of the current age will turn out to have been the commercial art. John Williams, for example, has a solid claim to being the greatest composer of our time. Artists like Drew Struzan may be remembered when others are not. TV commercials like this, which must sell you a Kia Cerato in a matter of seconds and still be worth watching the twentieth time, are a surprisingly underappreciated artform. Perhaps the epitome of contemporary commercial art, so far, is BMW's "The Hire" series.

Which is a long way of bringing us to the point of this post, which is that Vintage Novels will now be providing affiliate links to the Book Depository, my favourite place to buy new books, to Audible, a major audiobook provider, and to one or two others if my applications go through. Reviewing books may not be much of an Art, but in keeping with family tradition and religious principle, I will be trying to get some money out of it. Purchases made within the relevant time of clicking on one of the affiliate links at Vintage Novels will earn me a small commission. These links will be available up on the sidebar, and also at the bottom of each post, together with shiny new buttons for Project Gutenberg and Librivox, referring you to which has never earned me money and never will. My only regret is the annoying white border around the buttons, which I hope my tech man can fix.



Radagast said...

Some great artists, like van Gogh were only appreciated after they were dead.

But generally, I agree with you. Art is -- or should be -- communication.

And best wishes with this new endeavour!

Alina said...

I think it's interesting that you mention the Kia commercial as an art form. I tend to think of commercials as merely encouraging consumerism and shallow thinking. Would you mind expanding on your thinking about including that example in your list of art?

Suzannah said...

Alina, I don't see why something should cease to be art if it tries to sell you something. Even highbrow cinema tries to sell you a ticket. Even literary fiction tries to sell you a paperback and the experience of the literary art. The commercial I linked to is an example of excellence in all the arts and sciences of filmmaking. The disciplines of cinematography, lighting, shot composition, scriptwriting, acting, directing, and editing are here and while I'm no expert it all looks extremely well-done. Considered independently from its attempt to sell you a Cerato, it's art.

So does its attempt to sell us something mean that it's no longer art? I would say absolutely not. My whole point is that art should not exist for art's sake. To give glory to God, to feed and clothe the maker, or to let you know there's a car you might want to buy--these are all legitimate and necessary aims for art.

I don't think this ad encourages consumerism and shallow thinking--it's more a PSA about a new car than an expression of a consumerist worldview. But what if it did? Aren't there movies and TV shows--Confessions of a Shopaholic is one I've heard of--which encourage consumerism of a far deadlier sort? Every piece of art articulates, defends, and promotes a worldview. Highbrow movies will try to sell you nihilism and existentialism. Blockbusters will add humanism and feminism into the mix. Consumerism is only another ism, no more despicable than those previously listed.

I really think that we need to think about art like Christian craftsmen, which includes thinking of it as a product that can and should be bought and sold in a sober attempt to beautify and glorify creation. In fact I believe that the reason why commercial art like this has attained such a high level of excellence is because highbrows don't think of it as art, and so they leave it to humble and disciplined workmen scampering to deadlines. The product is wonderful in its own humble way.

D. Loon said...

We just watched PBS' documentary about the Medici family (http://www.pbs.org/empires/medici/), and it was a good reminder of the vital role of patronage in those masterpieces of the past. Michelangelo's Cistine Chapel and David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and others were enabled by a political and economic order which we don't have in the US right now and probably don't want to revive. I've reflected a lot on that over the past couple of weeks.

It's good to know about the origins of works of art, including how the artists got paid. But that doesn't have to mean you reject a piece of art or discount its sublimity or genius because its provenance doesn't match up to your sense of purity. I remember how offended some members of my family were at the movie _Amadeus_ when it came out: like so many, they regarded Mozart as a heavenly messenger and hated to see him portrayed the way the movie did. I've known an attitude that insists that a person must be a paragon of righteousness in order to receive artistic inspiration, and that attitude has not withstood the evidences I've taken in during my adult life.

It takes a strong inspiration to persist in a creative effort through material discomfort, and patrons of the arts have always had to understand that artists must be made comfortable in order to have the full freedom to fulfill their creative inspiration.

An approach to art as if to a craft, an attitude of serving something higher than oneself (whether the artist names it as a muse, as God, the more developed facets of the unconscious, or whatever) is a humility that might not be necessary to make something clever, but might well be necessary to make something sublime. Even still, you can do that best when your material needs are comfortably met.

The ease of digital reproduction of sight and sound throws a wrench into the question of compensating artists for their skilled labor. If you can download a high-res photo of a painting, there really is no need to pay for the paper, ink and apparatus that would go into making a print, let alone the original canvas - unless the possession of a physical artifact means that much to you.

Maybe the patronage system is going to gain more prominence again, but it's a sad irony if ruthless and corrupt aristocrats help bring far better art into the world than elected representatives.

Suzannah said...

Thanks for your thoughts :). I am arguing for a broader definition of art, not a narrower one, specifically with regards to not discounting something as art merely because it is commercial. I think the patronage system, where rich men pay for something they want, is probably preferable to the state subsidy system, where government pays for something nobody wants.

As to whether an unrighteous man can produce sublime art, that's a good question. As a presuppositionalist in the Van Til/Bahnsen school, I would say that bad people can produce sublime art, if they borrow the principles of Christendom to do so. And I am reminded of John C Wright's excellent critique of Phillip Pullman, which demonstrates how a consistently anti-God worldview denatures story and art itself.

Christina Baehr said...

Fabulous! And may I add that your readers can easily click right through and start reading/listening to those vintage novels immediately without faffing around online looking for them. What's not to like?!


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