9.17.2012

The Arch-Enchanter's Wand: The Artist's Highest Calling

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lilith. Source.
It was a quote that went, roughly, "The highest calling of an artist is to challenge people's views and test the boundaries of society".
~me, loosely quoting someone else

"If [the artist] cannot make a thing of beauty in his art, he will be unable to share truth; if he succeeds in beauty, truth will be a part of the art, with or without his consent."
~Masha

The above quote turned up in my Google Reader recently. I'm not linking back to it, for two reasons: 1) I intend to shred it, and 2) it was only a passing part of an article on a highly controversial issue irrelevant to the question here. My apologies to the author, who seemed good-natured enough, and who did try to present the issue fairly.

But the idea that anyone's highest calling could be to Fix Other People And/Or Society isn't just a wrong notion; it's dangerous. Believing that the artistic gift gives us the right, even the duty, to take a crowbar to the doors on other hearts—that's arrogance. Subtle, well-meaning, insidious arrogance. That idea will destroy art. Left unchecked, it will destroy the soul of the artist as well. Carried into the public square, it's often tyrannical, and George MacDonald spoke truly that:
"The part of philanthropist is indeed a dangerous one; and the man who would do his neighbour good must first study how not to do him evil, and must begin by pulling the beam out of his own eye."—from Lilith
Artists cannot mature in their work without getting beyond this idea that their primary purpose is social change. As Masha says:
"...these ideals and desires are only a tiny part of the artistic calling. They can be an aspect of the whole-hearted pursuit of beauty, or they can be an idol, calling the artist away from his vocation, into certain failure."
We make social change an idol in America, which is part of why young artists lose themselves in this ideal. If it's not curtailed, the next generation of secular art is likely to turn out equal in quality to the last generation of Christian art.

But if our first purpose isn't hacking into the minds of those around us—all right, I'll try and stop ranting now—what is it?

Artists have one first and foremost purpose: to create beauty.

Out of ugliness, beauty. Out of chaos, order. Out of confusion, meaning. Out of despair, hope.

Out of darkness—and here I don't refer so much to the darkness of ignorance as to the darkness of faithlessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness—the lighting of a single candle and the placing of a mirror behind it. The pulling back of dusty curtains to reveal, if nothing else, the light of the stars.

Masha says:
"Beauty and truth are challenging, for sure, to everybody's views in some way. I do believe that art must challenge us, in some way to grow. Art that is completely 'accessible' flounders a little in the shallow end of things, trading in its ability to impact its audience for the comforts of mass appeal. Society's boundaries should always be tested, but only in the pursuit of beauty."
I'm not even sure I go that far. Is there challenge in a beautifully designed stained glass window depicting a Biblical scene or a saint with a few representative props? Yes, but it's much more subtle than the modern Western artist is usually capable of being. We've got to get away from this idea that because "the pen is mightier than the sword", it should be used as one.

The "shallow end of things" is where some people have to begin to learn to swim, so I hold that there's a place for accessible art. Much of children's literature lands here; the best of it is a narrower, safer pool open at one end to the wilder deep.

There's a very, very subtle difference between "testing the boundaries of society" and forcing yourself and your ideals upon innocent dissenters. As Masha pointed out, the idolatrous pursuit of influence will lead the artist into certain failure; likewise, in converse, that "if [the artist] succeeds in beauty, truth will be a part of the art, with or without his consent."

As noted by Cracked, we cannot tell a story without our own ideas coming to bear on the narrative progression. It's simply not possible. If we seek first to offer beauty, though, we might find that truth and its inherent challenges appear of their own accord. If we do our job well enough, that challenge might even turn its point on us.

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