Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Michael McNamara at Cross Signals...

... has a very interesting post on his new Cross Signals blog. Those of you who know my experience in Christian music circles won't be surprised that I just couldn't resist pontificating at length. Here I go:

Hi there, Michael. Your questions are really interesting to me. It seems like Catholic music (as a pop subgenre, as opposed to classical or liturgical music with Catholic content) is where "contemporary Christian music" was about 15 years ago. Everybody loves to grab a guitar and sing, but it takes time to work out the issues regarding the interface of 1) art and business, 2) business and ministry, and 3) ministry and art. I think that we as Catholics have a lot more resources than Protestants do to work out and gain insight into these issues, and while we can learn from our brothers and sisters’ successes (and mistakes), there’s a fundamental difference in the way we approach these questions.

First, in my experience, Protestant theology has difficulty with the concept of sacrament – the symbolic actions or rituals that we practice in obedience to the Lord’s command, and through which He comes down from Heaven, enters space and time, and interacts with us – sanctifying us in both soul and body. In Protestants’ rejecting of things like the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the apostolic succession through which Christ works to empower the priesthood, and the emphasis on “it’s just me and my own faith in Jesus”, there’s a strong tendency to drift toward the heresy of Manichaeism. That’s the “spirit good, matter bad” idea – all that matters is one’s belief, one’s faith. The body doesn’t matter – or if it does, it’s only a source of temptation, or an unwilling, surly slave of the good intentions of the soul. Salvation to many Protestants means permanent deliverance from our fleshly bodies, and along with that comes a fundamental distrust of the five human senses and of anything that appeals to them – especially art.

On the flip side, we Catholics understand that Christ coming in the flesh, living, dying, and rising again means that “he will give life to our mortal bodies” and “raise them incorruptible” (I think that’s from I Corinthians). Through the sacraments, God’s Spirit infuses grace into us, into our bodies – not just our souls. God’s interested in redeeming matter, not rejecting it or just tolerating it for a short time. Even creation itself longs for redemption, and God promises this in Revelation with the creation of “new heaven and a new earth”.

It’s my view that art is essentially this – the beginning of the redemption of creation by the spiritual man’s fashioning of the elements into beautiful things that glorify God. Not just that things are made beautiful, but are set right in a sense – this goes along with the idea that beauty has components of shape, contrast, and proportion. All members of the human race are called according to their human destiny to help in “redeeming the temporal order” and reshaping our fallen world in the pattern originally established by God. Each Christian, by virtue of his or her baptism, has been specifically gifted for this task in a specific way, and those given artistic gifts use their particular medium (language, sound, musical technique, paint, clay, stone, movement, etc.) to express this need and hope for God’s redemption of the world.

Now to the heart of your questions, hopefully:
It’s my opinion that American popular culture (i.e., the mainstream media with its music, books, movies, etc.) has collided in a very strange way with the old Puritan work ethic. From America’s founding, there’s been a very strong idea that “whatever’s worth having is worth working hard for”. This is where the dedication to education and the image of the “working class hero” come from, and the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” scenario. In classical Western culture, one had to undergo a good deal of education and training in order to become an artist – witness the schools under DaVinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and all the other great fine artists. Now, since about the turn of the century, the idea has taken root that “art” can be made by, for example, bolting a bicycle wheel on top of a stool, throwing a single splotch of white paint on a black background, or smashing a guitar. Though the avant-garde art community tried at first to make the case that “you have to know the rules in order to break them correctly”, most people realized that throwing paint randomly at a canvas or whacking a guitar to pieces takes no talent or training whatsoever. Putting these two ideas together, the thought appears: If “art” can be done with no training or even effort, then it’s not worth much. From this flows the instinct that many parents have when their son or daughter announces that they want to be an actor or a musician – “No, no, honey – why don’t you try to get a real job?” Art is discounted in education as an add-on, an elective – not really a serious pursuit, not really necessary for the core functions of society – not like politics or economics, or science.

Yet, Pope John Paul II (the Great – Santo Subito, baby!) has said that the real battlefield for the heart of mankind across the globe isn’t politics, or economics, but culture. He himself was a writer, poet, actor, and playwright – he knew from experience the great impact that popular art can have on people’s hearts, either for good or ill. He strove to encourage us all to reach as high as we can in all our artistic endeavors, because through them and through our involvement in the mass media, we can be salt and light in the very places where it’s needed.

So, if the endeavor of making art is what we believe it is, what Pope John Paul said it is (i.e. God’s work given to us to participate in His redemption of the planet), it is worth all our best effort, our best attention, our best resources. After 20 years of lagging behind the mainstream in production values, talent, and imagination, the Protestant CCM industry has finally begun to get a clue and is now producing recordings with professional-level production quality and mainstream appeal (Jars of Clay, MxPx, Sixpence None the Richer). Still, it’s very hard to get most Christians to understand the need to work hard to make really good artwork – to always do the best that we can do, whether we’re offering it to a mainstream audience or not, no matter what the subject matter. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been in a church music rehearsal and something’s going really wrong, and the director shrugged his or her shoulders and said, “Oh, well – the Lord will fill in where we’re lacking.” The thing is, of course He will, but is He pleased when we throw together the equivalent of a mud pie with a dandelion in the middle when He gave us the talent to make a beautifully shaped and glazed porcelain vase, if we just took the time, spent the money, and made the effort?

In closing, I guess I’ll just offer this thought: Because art is integral to human culture, art goes wherever people do. To me, this means that Christian artists must go wherever people go – including bars, community theatres, comedy clubs, cinema, radio, etc. The church administrator, gifted as she is with charisms of service, helping, and organization, will not be the one who has the chance to talk to their fellow actor after rehearsal about the love of Jesus. The gifted scientist, glorying in God’s creation and writing scholarly papers about orbital mechanics, will not be the one to fill in at the last minute for a sick backup singer and save the rear end of the opening act at the club. We need to be there. That’s our job. That’s our calling. “In the world, yet not of the world”, Jesus said – sadly, so often we find ourselves “of the world, yet not in the world”. Of course, we should be discerning about the subject matter and point of view of the projects we involve ourselves in, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Thanks so much for raising these questions, Michael. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is really well written and insightful and I think more people need to hear this. The thing that is missing today is also the non-artists committement to art. In ages past the community and specifically wealthier people in the community sponsored artists financially by giving them places to live and stipends to live on so they could study, practice and create. That is all but gone today and artists are forced to produce in order to survive which of course leads to sub par work being produced because the bottom line is it will sell enough to keep the artist in food. I think as there are more people who come forward with a committement to support artists and more artists who come forward with a committement to art everything will improve. The Christian market is finally starting to understand this. For example, the average amount spent on a CCM album is about 20 times as much as the amount spent on the average Catholic album. And that just includes making the album. CCM spends another 100-200 thousand dollars on promotion and marketing and Catholics spend virtually nothing. Why is that? Two reasons:
1. There is no sponsoring people or organizations that are willing to pay to have good art produced and distributed.
2. The Catholic artists need to have an increased devotion to true art not just a sellable product.

Which of these comes first? Chicken or the egg? I'm not sure. But, both have to change in order for quality and true art to increase.