Good Art Matters

Andrew Garrison, 11, of Salt Lake City, looks over the Rockwell exhibition at the Church History Museum Monday, July 22, 2013, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Twenty-three original, Boy Scout-themed Norman Rockwell paintings are on display in Salt Lake City to celebrate the 100-year relationship between Scouting and the Mormon church. The Rockwell exhibition that opened over the weekend at the Church History Museum will run through year's end. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Netflix’s hit original series 13 Reasons Why, about the reasons a fictional teen decided to commit suicide, may have caused a rise in suicide-related searches online, a new study concludes. Although the show seems to have raised awareness of the signs that someone might be suicidal, it was criticized for its graphic depiction of suicide. This new study, which studied Google search terms after the release of the show, “aims to advance the debate,” according to CNN.

It turns out that following the show’s premiere in March, online searches for terms related to suicide awareness and prevention increased, but so did search terms associated with ideation — and those had greater relative upsurge, according to the paper, which published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday. (Emphasis mine)

The story goes on to elaborate that “mental health experts describe the show as worrisome and point to how its relatable characters and graphic depiction of suicide can pose a health risk for young people already struggling with mental health issues.” Ideas have consequences, especially when transmitted through a critically-acclaimed, widely-binged television show.

In short, art matters. It spreads ideas and values through culture, indiscriminate to whether those ideas or values are good or bad. It is imperative to healthy society that it have edifying art. Conservatives and Christians know this as well as anyone, yet tend to be very under-represented in pop culture.

Both are trying to break into the arts. A recent example reported on by Variety (though the trailer is over three months old) is the new film produced by Sean Hannity and directed by and starring Kevin Sorbo, titled Let There Be Light, which depicts an apologist for atheism who converts to Christianity after a near-death experience. At this point, it is unknown whether it will be the box office success or the artistic mediocrity that Sorbo’s last notable faith-based film, God’s Not Dead, was. It is, however, placing the message right up front in the premise, in my opinion, a habitual mistake of conservative/Christian art. Instead, the art should come first; the worldview will follow.

Most conservative and Christian art comes down to a dichotomous choice between the inaccessible (to most people) and kitsch. The New Criterion features criticism and literature that is high-brow and artistically classic, whereas the relatively new Liberty Island is mostly popular fiction written by conservatives. William F. Buckley adored the work of J. S. Bach; ask for the name of a conservative band today and someone might mention Creed-ripoff Madison Rising. A film like Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life is spiritual, even Christian is some senses, but it is very pretentious. On the other hand, even when Christian films like War Room surpass TV movies in production value, their creators completely forget to include a recognizable third act.

Where is the thought-provoking conservative and Christian art for the intelligent layman? William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens wrote for the masses, but their work was followed by royalty and today has reached legendary status. I don’t mean to suggest that merely shifting focus from propaganda to artistry will cause geniuses to emerge. Rather, it is possible to produce art of quality that neither sequesters itself in the cloisters of conservative intelligentsia, nor ham-handedly smacks people in the face with its obscene lack of quality and indexterously-handled viewpoints.

What this requires is a pursuit of art for art’s sake. Paradoxically for the advancement of conservatism or Christianity in culture, it means getting into literature, film or music for the sake of a love of those mediums, not to “counter liberal Hollywood.” Hollywood succeeds when it makes great art. It fails when it makes the same mistake of putting the message before quality.

Probably a major cause of the small presence the right has in literature, movies and music is the (comparatively) small presence the right has in higher education. It is an understandable under-representation, based as it is on the justified distrust conservatives (and Christians) have in academia. Like pop culture, higher ed won’t change without engagement — but that is a discussion for another time.

For now it is enough to ask how conservatives and Christians can better break into pop culture to critical acclaim and widespread influence. The ubiquitous stylistic trend of dark, anti-hero-dominated books, shows and movies is one area that could use the refreshment of some outside influence.

As the late David Foster Wallace once said in reference to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho,

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid it is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this dark world AND to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

I think that Christians in particular are well-positioned to reintroduce light and humanity into depictions of a fallen world. The stylistic paradigm presents an opportunity for a high-quality story of a Christian worldview to speak in a genuine, soul-reaching way to people who recognize the authenticity of the darkness and moral ambiguity of our times reflected in successful TV shows, but find the bleakness unfulfilling.

The simplistic messages with conflictless resolutions found in most Christian art that prevails today are not what those people are looking for. They are looking for stories that are dramatic, deep and true to the nuances of life. Most of all, they want decent art. It matters, and it should be the priority of conservative and Christian artists.