BY THERA CRANE
something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.
When I was very nearly a teenager, my parents and I drove out to see my oldest brother Rob in Indiana. Rob was so cool. He creamed everybody in rummy, and he waged epic snowball wars. He and his grad school buddies lived in a giant old rickety house they called Morton Manor. It had billiards and foosball and was, as far as I could tell, the greatest place ever.
Near the bottom of the Morton Manor staircase hung a big velvet painting of a sparkling purple unicorn. I was entranced.
“It’s so beautiful,” I breathed.
My brother’s roommate chuckled. “Ah, to be innocent,” he said. He went on to tell my parents about the household’s velvet grail: a portrait of Elvis Presley – a prize they were fervently seeking at yard sales across town.The quest was successful. My brother reports that the house soon had the complete velvet set: unicorn, Elvis, and Chief Wild Cat.
Indignant at my presumed innocence, I wondered what was wrong with the painting. It looked just like a unicorn! Then it struck me: if you want to be cool, you can’t like something simply because it’s pretty or reminds you of a wonderful and exciting dream. Some things, I realized, you enjoy by laughing at them.I was in middle school, so I knew all about being laughed at. That day, though, I learned that, done right, mockery marks a sophisticated, worldly-wise adult: I learned the pleasure of irony. I knew that I’d have to pay close attention to figure out what was high-quality and what was just funny.
I think I figured it out. In college, I even hung a pink flamingoWith rotating wings! on my dorm room door. I still find that flamingo pretty amusing, and I’m pleased at the thought of Morton Manor’s velvet gallery. Even so, I wonder who got more genuine pleasure out of velvet unicorns: me with sparkly visions of magical beasts, or me with superior knowledge about Art, Kitsch, and tongue-in-cheek decoration. Ah, to be innocent.
In the first issue of To An Unknown God, John Montague wrote a provocative article calling Christians to dream big, to serve in the Kingdom of God by creating and working and legislating and thinking in new ways that will set the whole world alight and show God’s glory. The article got me thinking about the duty of thoughtful Christians in the face of kitsch. Five months later, I have few firm conclusions, but a couple of inklings to share:
God has given people the astonishing ability to glorify Him – and be like Him – by coming up with new ideas, singing new songs, and making things that never were before. This gift is a calling that’s deeply serious and deeply unserious. It’s a grave, mystery-filled invitation to participate in God’s creation and redemption story, the only thing that has ever mattered. It’s unserious for at least two reasons. First, it’s often all about laughter and light. Second – and this is the part we tend to forget – God is sovereign, and His Kingdom will come whether our best work is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or a family of badly proportioned stick figures under lollipop trees. That means we’re free to create as best we can, without worrying about whether it’s good enough for God. (It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s not. And that it is.) The point is to exalt God, not ourselves. Not even Christianity.
Where does this leave Christian criticism? I don’t really know. I do believe, though, that we can re-imagine criticism just like we can re-imagine art itself. Maybe we can conceive a criticism aimed at building up good work, rather than tearing apart bad.
There is absolutely a place for furious table-turning; we need to make sure it really is directed at bad theology, not merely at velvet unicorns. And when turning the tables, we need to consider deeply our goal, our audience, and our heart.
If the critic’s goal is to educate, it may be better accomplished through promotion than through condemnation. Exposed to enough art over the years, I probably would have outgrown my admiration for fantasies on black velvet. I have to wonder whether I might have done so without getting those extra lessons in how to snigger at the unicorns, or why I should feel shame at liking them.
If a piece of art, or a body of artwork, is theologically problematic, a creative critic can find a way to address the issue without condescension towards those who enjoy the art, remembering that God can use even the kitschiest works to lead people to His Truth.
Finally, criticism – like other acts of service – can easily slip into self-righteousness. Just as we need to remember who’s being exalted in our creative acts, we can guard our criticism from an intellectually elitist feeling of superiority, opting instead to encourage the creative community to which God calls us, a community including all believers.
And let enjoy! (Joy!) C.S. Lewis wrote about the cavernous distance between joy and flippancy. In flippant conversation, “every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that [those participating] have already found a ridiculous side to it. … It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 edition), 56. When I’m honest, I know that my laughter at “bad art” is always at least a little bit flippant – and therefore tainted.
Joy, in contrast, is found in the kind of merriment that “exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 edition), 46.
Let’s not lose out on the enjoyment of art by worrying about how it reflects on ourselves. Let’s not miss out on the creation of art for the same reason. And most important, let’s not rob ourselves of the joy of loving our neighbors, taking them seriously whatever their artistic skill or taste.