Saturday, May 17, 2008

Most Art Is Bad Art

Jimmy Akin recently asked, Why Is Christian Art So Lame These Days? and I notice PZ Myers is musing on the same thing. I don't think there's any big mystery here; asking the question at all comes from a cognitive bias. What we remember about the past is its great successes, because those survive and are remembered. We forget the tacky, silly failures, because they don't and aren't. (Although there are exceptions because, on occasion, we grow more tolerant of them through other associations they collect. Much of Emily Dickinson's surviving poetry is famously bad; but even the weird, clunky, junky work suddenly takes on considerable interest through association with her stunningly good poetry. We begin to recognize it as a sort of workshop-art, like the half-sketches, aborted projects, and even doodlings of a brilliant painter. In other cases the work takes on instead the charm of history or legend.) Most Christian art has always been lame, because it is human: and most human art is lame, tacky, and silly. It has always been so, and will always be so. Part of having a good sense of artistic achievement is recognizing that this is so, and recognizing also the fact that tacky art, kitsch, crude craftsmanship, nonetheless fulfill real human material and intellectual needs, however clumsily and tastelessly, and so should not be lightly dismissed merely because they are bad. Genuine good taste requires sympathetic understanding bad taste, because otherwise you will never accurately identify what bad taste is really missing. Moreover, you will miss the fact that even bad art is, in its own limited way, a splendid achievement of the human intellect and will; we work to create and shape and express, and, despite our clumsy and stumbling ways (and we all are clumsy and stumbling in some of our dabblings), we do. And amid all that clumsy, crude, flawed work there are still gems enough that no one need be ashamed. We should remember our Burns and our Pope:

My Son, these maxims make a rule,
An' lump them aye thegither;
The Rigid Righteous is a fool,
The Rigid Wise anither:
The cleanest corn that ere was dight
May hae some pyles o' caff in;
So ne'er a fellow-creature slight
For random fits o' daffin.

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censures wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgements as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to judge, as well as those to Write.

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