Saturday, July 19, 2014

Technical Excellence Is Good In Itself

Jennifer Frietag, whose book The Shadow Things is the best contemporary fiction I've read in a good long while, was talking about "the Modern Novel" on her blog the other day.

Many of her favourite authors aren't Christians, and here's what she says about that:
Most of the time Christian fiction is shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring. My two favourite novels of 2014's first six months are Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting (superb prose, excellent plot - if a "Christian" writer were to touch it, it would taste like fifteen cubes of sugar in a three ounce cup of tea) and Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, which sports a deliciously cold-blooded revenge plot. So yes, I tend to read secular fiction. When the Christian authors can gird up their loins adequately (and talk of loins without colouring up and lowering their voices) I'll probably be perfectly happy to read them too. 
Martha is unimpressed.
"Shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring"? A bit harsh, surely?

I think not.

There's no doubt that most of the world's greatest literature was written by Christians. I wrote a whole book about that, after all. But today, by and large, Christians are no longer writing great books. Where they once led the way, they now lag far behind. On the one hand, you have the problem of Christian art that just imitates worldly art--romance novels just like the world's romance novels, except not as exciting. On the other hand, you have Christian artists trying to break out of the world's mould--and they've broken all the way back to the 1800s, and written an Elsie Dinsmore pastiche that would make Martha Finley wince. Either way, the level of technical ability on display is anything but inspiring.

Let's talk about technical excellence in the arts.

*


My Dad was a teenager when he discovered the studio pottery movement. He was nineteen when his pastor’s wife asked him, “What are you going to do with your life?”
“I’m going to make pottery.”
“Oh yes, and how are you going to serve God through that?”
“I’m going to do it really well.”
Crickets.

You can see more of my Dad's work at his Pinterest page.

*

One pitfall that dogs Christian artists is the drive to insert a big, flashy, can't-miss-it message into an otherwise adequate and God-glorifying piece of art (or just as commonly, an otherwise shoddy and miserable piece of art). A month or two back I heard from a dear friend and beginning author who had a question about the art of fiction. She began her first novel with humble intentions: to tell a good yarn, to give it authentic roots in its historical period, and to populate it with believable characters.

Now she was beginning to worry that it needed more. More message. More moral. A bigger ambition to change the world.

“No, no,” I told her. “The point is not that you need to give your book a message. The point is that your book will have a message whether you mean it to or not.”

*

Doesn't art need a really clear message?

No.

And yes.

How not to do it.
No, because if you are already living deliberately to the glory of God, that's just going to bleed out into your work without your even noticing.

Yes, because if you are already living deliberately to the glory of God, and if you are any good at all as an artist, you're going to pay attention to what it is that your artwork is communicating. Failure to do this is a mark of bad artistry.

Same subject. No overt message. And a thousand times the technical skill.
In other words, Yes, the message needs to be clear to you. It need not be clear to your audience. It will be apparent in some way to your audience, but this is a piece of art, not a treatise. Art comes at you from unexpected angles. It isn't couched in syllogisms (although there had definitely better be syllogisms behind it).

And again, No. No, because a book which has no higher aim than simply to tell a good yarn, people it with believable characters, and bring alive a specific historical time period, is already giving glory to God and sending a very specific message.

An artwork that simply contains a high degree of technical excellence in its composition and execution, is good in itself. Technical excellence is good in itself and glorifying to God.

*

This can no doubt be proven in any branch of the arts, but let me stick with fiction for now. Say we're talking about a historical novel trying to faithfully depict a certain time period. Technical excellence in this respect will mean faithfully reproducing the attitudes, thoughts, customs, manners, and culture of the times. Is that, in itself, pleasing to God?

Are you kidding?

This is our Father's world. If the Lord has put a certain character, time period, or worldview into His Story, then He meant something by it. He designed it, and the works of his hands are studied by all those who delight in Him (Psalm 111:2). God created caterpillars, Ancient Romans, World War I, and Ian Fleming, by the word of His power. Everything in the world was planned by Him in ages past. We call this "general revelation", and the fact that it needs the guide of specific revelation to interpret it should not tempt us towards contempt for it. The Lord speaks through anthills and pagan Greek myths (though of course He means something a bit different to what the pagan Greeks thought they meant) in much the same way He speaks through the starry skies.

The Lord is already speaking through all these things. You don't need to add a message. Just communicate the Lord's meaning through your art by being faithful to what He actually said through the time period. As John Piper points out in this message from the CS Lewis conference, everything is sanctified if we simply receive it humbly, with gratitude. We don't particularly need to shoehorn in a world-changing message. First, listen and learn and be humble. Only then can we discover, explore, and learn from the message that's already there.

Like whatever it was that the Lord meant when he made hares.


*

Message is innate to all forms of communication, which is also to say all artforms. Think about that for a moment. Now think about what message your art sends if it lacks technical excellence.

The message of such art is that technical excellence is not worth anyone's time.

This is made more glaring when you have taken pains to ensure that the more overt message within your artwork is morally irreproachable. You tell your audience that an edifying message is good in itself and glorifying to God. Good craftsmanship, though? Optional. The Lord doesn't care about details like that.

Do you want to say that? Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. Don't tell me you didn't memorise some form of that verse when you were a kid. Do you see a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men. You want to stand before the King of Kings for eternity? Or is your work going to condemn you to the dustheap of heaven?

I Corinthians 3:11-13 refers to art as well as to every other work of man:
For no man can lay another foundation than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the Day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall test every man’s work of what sort it is.
Christian artists have a splendid foundation on which to build: The Lord Christ. Don't build hay and stubble on that, artists, don't turn out hack work, lest you appear to hold your salvation cheap.


The more I reflect on Scripture, the more I become convinced that there is a direct relationship between the indwelling of God's Spirit and artistic merit. Let's ignore for a moment the fact that traditionally, Christian artists (Tasso, for example) have invoked the Holy Spirit as the heavenly Muse inspiring their work, and skip straight to the greatest of all craftsmen in Scripture: Bezaleel the son of Uri, in Exodus 31:1-5.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. 
This master artist, this master craftsman, was the first man in all of Scripture who was ever said to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I'm sure that had more effect than just praise songs queued up on his ipod, folks, particularly since the purpose of this inspiration involved technical details like cutting and setting stones. Bezaleel's inspiration wasn't just for concept and design work, it was for technical work too. Obviously God feels more glorified when the artist does his job well.

*

JS is not impressed.
So, Christian artists, I have a challenge for you. Don't be wimps. Just Who do you think you're working for? Stop comparing yourself to your peers and start comparing yourself to your masters.

So you wrote some music. Would Bach be impressed? You painted a picture. Does it show as much skill in composition, colour selection, and lighting as--say--something by Vermeer? If not, does it show an honest attempt to learn and apply those skills?

Writers: you know, don't you, that the Authorised Version of the Bible is one of the greatest works of prose literature in the English language? Have you read it? Memorised it? Studied it? Maybe you can sense its unusual beauty, but could you put your finger on the specific techniques employed by its translators to produce that effect? Have you attempted to use those techniques in your own writing? Have you gone on to identify, marinate in, and analyse the works of such other stylists as Jane Austen, CS Lewis, and PG Wodehouse?

If we haven't truly apprenticed ourselves to the masters of our craft, how can we call ourselves diligent workmen?

*

So you've got a vision for technical excellence to the glory of God. Well done, young artist. Your next step is to yield gracefully to two hard truths: first, that you most likely have no idea what technical excellence actually looks like in your field, and second, that there's an excellent chance that you've only turned out rubbish so far and have a huge amount of homework to do.

I cannot emphasise enough my near certainty that most young artists have no idea what technical excellence looks like, especially if they've had the kind of careful Christian upbringing that never let them near the good stuff.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes me as nervous for the future of Christian art, as much as the early successes of young homeschooled Christian artists. We have a unique problem in that we can outperform most of our peers without even waking up in the morning. We don't have to worry about competing with da Vinci or Balenciaga or Alfred Hitchcock because we get a gold star just for having the guts to dream big, and another gold star for leaving out all the things of which our public's spinster aunt might disapprove.

Like this Balenciaga ball gown.
It really pains me to say this, because I know the temptation, but, dear fellow homeschoolers: If you've never read Jane Austen because you once heard a message warning against reading her like a mindless twit, and therefore have stuck all your life to half-baked homeschool fiction or overwrought Victorian sentimentalism, you are not going to suddenly begin producing heart-rendingly brilliant prose at the age of sixteen, no matter what your mother thinks of the story, or how many five-star Goodreads reviews you've received from other homeschooled kids who've also never read enough of the good stuff to recognise the fact that your book is tripe.

Also, your culottes are super dorky.
This goes for you too, you amateur filmmakers and composers and graphic designers.

*

The other thing reducing your chances of having any idea what good art actually looks like is the fact that not even the world knows much about technical excellence anymore. Even JK Rowling's writing makes me wince. Sadly, we live on the rubbish dump of a once-great civilisation. The techniques of the past that informed Bach's music, Augustine's rhetoric, or Spenser's allegory are buried under a heap of Enlightenment and postmodern philosophy. Worse, even if we could rediscover and re-learn those sophisticated and elegant techniques, we are never going to be able to use them as freely. On a mass, culture-wide level, we've made ourselves too stupid to use or understand them.

And even JKR is unimpressed with you, kids.
*

That's the bad news.

The good news is that we can repent. The good news is that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

The good news is that Christians have built a civilisation before. We can do it again, and even better. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord is going to cover the earth like the waters cover the seas, and art is going to achieve un-thought-of glory.

We need to repent of our ignorance and our self-satisfaction and our artistic hamfistedness. And we need to start producing work worthy of its Foundation, work that will survive the Day of Judgement.

20 comments:

exploringclassics said...

A great post! I wasn't homeschooled but I am Christian, and I find that the greatest Christian works of fiction are the Classics that infused a Christian worldview into their works without coming across as preachy or being poorly-written.

You say. "Even JK Rowling's writing makes me wince." I recently read The Cuckoo's Calling and I was honestly disappointed with the writing. The plot was plodding and the writing, clumsy. I had such difficulty reading this book because I kept tripping over the author’s poorly constructed sentences. I'm Catholic, but as I was reading your post, I couldn't help but agree that The King James Bible is one of the most if not the most beautifully-written work of all time. To this day, I haven't read a translation of Psalm 23 half as gorgeous as the one in the King James.

I know that you mostly read and review Classics. I do too. But I have been trying to find good contemporary works. Every book I've tried so far has left me feeling disappointed and discouraged because I find them either too offensive (extreme profanity, numerous hookups, stereotypical portrayal of Christians and the Middle Ages, etc). Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

greatpenformances said...

Your post tied together some ideas that I've been mulling over in various contexts.

I don't think the decline of Christian fiction is a recent phenomenon. I read bestsellers and each year review those 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, and 100 years old. I cringe when I see a "religious" novel on my list. I've been trying to think of three novels to suggest on All Saints Day; finding three that are interesting and present faith in a positive light is challenging.

You're right about the culottes.

Suzannah said...

I think the bottom line is that we have a false dichotomy between technical skill and moral goodness, as if it's possible for a book to please God without being well-written. A well-written novel doesn't come across as preachy or poorly-written (even when it is very clear about sin and salvation). Our problem is both a moral problem and a technical problem. Or, put another way, the shoddiness of our craftsmanship comes from sloth and pride and other sins. It's not *just* a technical problem.

I don't normally try to read contemporary works--I much prefer older ones. Of authors I've read, ND Wilson and Jennifer Freitag are the ones I'm most excited about so far. KM Weiland is an excellent craftswoman as well and I'm really looking forward to reading her novel set during the Crusades. They're all Protestants. Tim Powers, Dean Koontz and John C Wright are all Catholics whom I enjoy in great moderation and would be unable to recommend to any but the most mature and iron-stomached reader. Finally, I recently thoroughly enjoyed Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow, and I hear excellent things about Jan Karon's Mitford series from many people I trust (the only reason I haven't read it yet is I've never tracked down a copy).

Suzannah said...

I'm glad this was helpful to you! And yes, I think that you do need to go back a fairly long way to find good Christian fiction. At the risk of sounding a little self-serving, I've actually written a book (War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life) about good Christian fiction. You might find some good suggestions there (it would be difficult, for instance, not to recommend Charles Williams's All Hallows' Eve).

Lady Bibliophile said...

I really appreciated our conversation about this, and reading your article as well. It gave me a whole new perspective.

The other day I was thinking that my artistic work was taking me way too long, and your article encouraged me to take the time I needed. If you're aiming for technical excellence, you shouldn't compare the time it's taking you to the amount of time it took other people to turn out shoddy pieces. Building gold on the foundation of Christ is worth laboring years for.

Love your dominion-minded perspective. It's always like iron sharpening iron. :)

~Schuyler

exploringclassics said...

Thank you. I am not exactly iron-stomached either. :P The Book of the Dun Cow sounds very interesting as I'm currently reading The Canterbury Tales.

Suzannah said...

> If you're aiming for technical excellence, you shouldn't compare the time it's taking you to the amount of time it took other people to turn out shoddy pieces.

Exactly!

Not that (as I've mentioned to you before) there isn't room for humble aspirations in art. There's the mac and cheese of the literary diet, but oh, even that's worth doing well.

John Dekker said...

This may not be a popular opinion in these circs, but a big part of the problem is people having the opportunity to self-publish. We need to get rid of this whole scam.

John Dekker said...

Talking about Jan Karon, Lauren Winner devotes several pages to her in her Girl Meets God (pp261-262):

"I have always felt faintly embarrassed about the role Jan Karon's Mitford novels have played in my conversion. I'm sure God, who could have thrown a little Dostoyevsky Barth in my path, was playing some sort of divine joke, figuring He would both get me to the baptismal font and erode some of my cherished intellectual snobbery in one fell swoop. Still I often reflect on the books God has used in other people's conversions - Richard Gilman turned to Catholicism after reading Graham Greene and Georges Bernanos, for example, and Augustine famously became a Christian after reading the Book of Romans - and I feel annoyed that in His wisdom, He chose to reel me in with middle-brow Christian fiction. It could be worse, I suppose. I could have come to faith while reading Left Behind."

Suzannah said...

Scam, John? How so?

I absolutely agree that if it wasn't for the availability of self-publishing, a lot of this bad fiction would never make it out into the light of day, and if we're talking about the downsides of self-publishing, that would be one.

But I'm amazed that you think self-publishing is in itself a bad thing. It seems to me an awful lot like a free market and a wonderful opportunity :).

John Dekker said...

"Scam" in the sense that it promises something that it can't deliver - viz., making people "writers". With just the click of a button, you too can be a published author.

The only way to redeem the concept, I think, is to establish an editorial community. For $200, I will read your manuscript and tell you it's rubbish.

Suzannah said...

Yes. I see what you mean. Still. I think that has become much less true over the last few years as self-publishing has gone mainstream, and it's going to die if it hasn't already. Every man and his dog has now self-published a book: the clout, which may have been worth something in the days when you had to pay a scammer through the nose to print 20 copies of your book, has pretty much vanished. That's a good thing. Now it's just one big feeding-frenzy of a market where your book now has to actually be worth something in order to compete, and there's no guarantee that it is.

I think that the market has a lot of stabilising to do--ie, as time goes on we're going to see a division develop between the thoughtlessly self-published books and the serious, professional attempts. In fact that's already happened to some extent. There are now plenty of self-publishing authors (including big names who previously had a successful run with trad publishing) who take the time and effort to produce a good product, and then spend money on ISBNs, professional editing, professional cover design, and so on. And, of course, there are plenty of editing services that primarily work with self/indie publishers.

There's also plenty more scope to exhibit our own hubris, of course :).

hopeinbrazil said...

Terrific post.

Mike said...

Interesting post, but a difficult one to comment on.
You may remember from previous comments I don’t share your beliefs in any form, but I was interested in what you have to say. In general, what makes a great work of art? A great book, painting, piece of music is so due to the skill of the writer, artist or composer what motivates them to produce that work is secondary.
Your example of J S Bach is one that raises questions; he was a genius and produced hundreds of works. Some years ago NASA asked scientists and others what examples of music should be included on a satellite that would leave our solar system to give other life forms an example of what humans can do, Carl Sagan suggested all the works of J S Bach but said ‘This would look like boasting!’ Bach worked and produced nearly all his music for the church, his contemporary, Vivaldi; a similarly prolific composer did so. But this was their job. They were employed to produce such music, they were both nominally Christians as this was a requirement of the posts they held, yet Vivaldi was in his private life far from Christian and died due to change in fashions of music at the time a pauper.
So is it really possible to have Christian authors, artists or composers? (Or any other religion you care to insert in my question.)
Do we really read a book, look at a work of art or listen to a piece of music and wonder about the religious beliefs of whoever produced it? Why would we need to?

Mike said...

Sorry, Vivaldi died of illness and was at the time poor, he didn't die because of music fashion changes!

Suzannah said...

>So is it really possible to have Christian authors, artists or composers?

As a presuppositionalist: yes.

Or to put it a little more plainly, everything that humans do communicates certain presuppositions about the nature of reality. Bach's music, for instance, communicates a Christian, linear view of history: beginning, middle, and eschatalogical finish. You might ask why a non-Christian musician--Vivaldi, perhaps???--could not also write music communicating the same thing. But you see, he was operating with Christian presuppositions. A more self-conscious unbeliever would try to escape the nature of God's reality, objective reality, and would end up escaping from reality altogether. I am reminded of the work of Monet--who began by painting his own experience of a scene, and was then judged with the destruction of his eyesight, so that his later paintings almost resemble a child's finger-painting. Or Pollock, of course, who realised that his art would argue for a Creator unless he produced apparently creatorless art.

Of course, because I believe that the Christian cosmos is the objectively real one, I say that if there is anything good in art, it is because the art is in submission to the Lord and God of Creation. Even an unbeliever's art, if it is adheres to good technique, is playing by the rules of the One who made it. And the more epistemologically self-conscious the unbeliever, the more he tries to shrug away from the Creator and his Rules, the less like art the art becomes.

Mike said...

Well, does that mean the creations of artists in the broadest sense are, for the want of a better term, unbelievers have no value? Such artists would of course deny their talents came from a creator, they were just born with that talent.
Again, this is not a matter of questioning anyones beliefs but does our appreciation of a great work of art, music etc come from the work being great, not the personal beliefs of the artist. I don't know, because the question become even more complex then the artist has a totally unacceptable (to the majority irrespective of religion) private life? I don't know.

Katy said...

I'm fairly of the opinion that Elsie Dinsmore is an excellent example of terrible Christian literature. It is certainly not a book I would recommend to anyone - unless they had blood pressure that desperately needed raising.

Anyway - otherwise I definitely enjoyed this essay.

Suzannah said...

Katy, it's been so long since I read any Elsie Dinsmore that I don't remember whether it was terrible or not--but the point was less an endorsement of Martha Finley than it was a reflection on the quality of current-day homeschooler fiction :)

Katy said...

Of course, I do see your point.

I'm afraid the red haze comes over my eyes when I read Dinsmore or Martha Finley…but this is a result of a recent acquaintance with the books. When I am bored I often imagine Uncle Matthew and his bloodhounds from Nancy Mitford's novels pursuing Horace Dinsmore across the countryside…We shall put my strong opinions down to my red hair.

I do enjoy your essays, although I'm afraid I read them at work and don't comment so as not to attract unwanted attention.

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