This Little Light of Mine: The Artist and Agenda

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”   
~Flannery O Connor

"But what of agenda? What of the writer who knowingly whores his talent for a cause? What are we to think of him?"

The knowing whoring of talent for a cause is, I think, both more rare than we believe—your average 'inspirational romance' is probably shaped more by a desire for clean reading material than proselytic zeal—and more common than we realize, as when a well-known literary agent proclaims her intent to "make all her authors include more gay characters."

Authorial intent is difficult to determine unless the author has carefully explained what they meant their book to say, which few have done. Further complicating matters, we have classics like Orwell's Animal Farm, overtly written against Stalinism, and popular modern works of social criticism such as the Hunger Games trilogy.

Ergo, we need to define terms. Where do we draw the line between viable artistic forms like allegory and satire, and the problem of the author so devoted to his ideology that he sacrifices the truth and beauty of art?

Says Flannery O'Connor:
"[A]rt is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you made it art first..."
True, but possibly misleading. It's questionable, for instance, whether Animal Farm qualifies by those criteria. It takes a very skillful author to pull off allegory that doesn't feel like it's shoving itself down the reader's throat. Animal Farm breathed its anti-tyranny message on every page, but I'd still argue that it succeeds artistically, perhaps because of its sublime final sentence.

Collins' Hunger Games is another matter. The first book works very well as art; the last reads as if designed to sicken the reader on the evils of war. Whether Collins lost her head to her ideas, I couldn't say, though I suspect that the story just got away from her. A war machine as powerful and technologically advanced as the Capitol will not die without occasioning immense brutality, so of course people melt and burn and get eaten by genetically engineered semi-cognizant lizards. Controlling that outplay on the page is unbelievably difficult. Mockingjay isn't inaccurate, it's just unbalanced, which makes it, I think, less a matter of agenda and more a matter of the horse running away with its rider.

Agenda has two sides, which may or may not correlate. First, authorial will. Second, the story's effect upon the reader—i.e., whether the tale reads as art or propaganda. Both can give us a flawed picture, though. Only the author herself can say what she intended, and even she may be playing coy—or wrong.

Reader perception is affected not only by the story but by personal stance on the book's themes. Too many people interpret The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, as agenda-driven. Both Christians and non-Christians do it, out of passion for or against the beliefs behind it. Lewis' work is colored by his beliefs, but the story is not subjugated to an attempt to paint an evangelistic picture of God; indeed, if it were, Aslan would not be a symbol, but a blasphemy.

The border between art and propaganda is vague at the best of times, and for the sake of charity, it's fair to give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain cases. But propagandizing fiction does exist, and Masha points out the nature of the most likely cause near the end of her post (emphasis mine):
Perhaps this is the real trouble with so much of Christian fiction, music, and painting. It fails to be art because the maker put his beliefs so completely in his line of vision that he cannot see by the light they give.
Mr. Pond concurred so heartily with Masha's general points that he simply deferred this week. Perhaps I should do the same, but this point intrigues me and I'd like to explore it.

I should note, though, that agenda is by no means limited to Christian art. The push for diversity in representation, for instance, while often a good thing in and of itself, tends to result in a lot of tokenism. Individual cases may succeed as art, but weak portrayals and overbearing use of "the token ___" have cost me my suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion.

Agenda happens when the would-be artist has focused on an idea to the exclusion of everything that might be the least bit contradictory. Now, his idea might be perfectly reasonable—it's just become narrow by its exclusivity. No one has said this better than Chesterton:
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity....

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.—Orthodoxy, chapter 5
There is a danger in overdoing any certainty (including, of course, the certainty that nothing is certain). For instance, the idea that adherence to Christian doctrine automatically makes you a better person than your heathen neighbor—or the idea expressed by a character in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, that "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling."* Both ideas are narrow to the point of insanity. Both ideas will force agenda into art, if the artist cannot develop a little charitable complexity.

The human ego, including that of the artist, makes us generally all too ready to believe ourselves like St. Michael, slaying the great Satan by means of our perfect beauty and jaw-dropping strength and razor-sharp wit. It's a dangerous little feeling, and we all experience it—there's no use pretending we don't. An artist is better served by humility, by understanding that some battles are better left to St. Michael, and most of all by developing the complexity, the mysticism, the love that allows us to see the real good even in those who stand against us.

That alone can free us to unite truth and beauty in art.

* Quoted from The New Yorker, Far from Narnia by Laura Miller, 12/26/05. I haven't read His Dark Materials and am not quite willing to guarantee that a quote from a character, even when generally aligned with the author's ideology, is an exact representation of what the author himself believes. And yes, I probably should have made a bit of a disclaimer on my challenged Lewis quote last week, too.


  1. As usual I've been following the blogalectic with interest (though not often commenting.) Might I recommend for further fodder along these lines Dorothy Sayers' introduction to her series of radio-plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King? (It can be found here on Google Books.)

    In particular, I'm thinking of the splendid passage that begins, "...in writing a play on this particular subject, the dramatist must begin by ridding himself of all edificatory and theological intentions. He must set out, not to instruct, but to show forth; not to point a moral, but to tell a story; not to produce a Divinity Lesson with illustrations in dialogue but to write a good piece of theatre."

    And her magnificent tirade at the end: "Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history: and this in virtue, not of his faith, but of his calling. You have forgotten, perhaps, that it is, first and foremost, a story..."

    1. You may always recommend Dorothy Sayers. :D

      I'm totally fascinated by her point that drama is the text of dogma. That's a dangerous truth, since it's quite possible to slant a story--but I suspect it might just be very true indeed anyway, and am curious to ponder that further.

      Thanks for passing that on!


All comments are currently moderated. Friendly comments are welcomed with fairy music, magic wishes, and possible unicorn sightings. Troll comments will be Transfigured into decent-looking rocks or Vanished. Spam comments will be shot down with blasters.