Monday, January 13, 2014

Francis Schaeffer’s Perspective #2: The Strength of Art Forms

This is the second article in a series on Francis A. Schaeffer's "Perspectives on Art" in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002).

Perspective #2. Art forms add strength to the world which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false.

Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef serves to illustrate how the form of art adds strength to the world which it manifests.

“Rembrandt’s art causes us to see the side of beef in a concentrated way, and, speaking for myself, after looking and looking at this picture, I have never been able to look at a side of beef in a butcher shop with the superficiality I did before.” (p 37).

Unfortunately, Schaeffer did not go into a little more detail about the differences in the way he looked at a beef carcass before and after the Rembrandt experience. I think the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has some bearing on this. Looking at art is subjective. No two persons will stand in front of the Carcass of Beef and see the same thing. An educated eye will look at art differently from the way it looks at the world which the art reflects. Even the uneducated eye – to see a reproduction of the real world from the hand of the artist alone says something, not only about the artist, but the real world. There is intrigue over why the artist chose the subject and how he transferred what he sees onto the canvas. The final art product carries the full weight of that intrigue.

The art form of fiction shares the nature of the art form of the Rembrandt.  The page is the canvas on which the story is painted and the words are the oils applied with the skillful strokes of grammar and syntax. The writer produces a story that has its ties with the real and ordinary, and places it before the reader ‘in a concentrated way.’  

Schaeffer kept looking and looking at the painting. It had a wondrous appeal. I think, however, the bare fact it was hanging in the Louvre with Rembrandt’s name on it might have raised the appeal several degrees. The works of the masters, or even lesser ones of still lofty reputation, evoke a prejudiced eye. Perhaps the mystique of the artist himself heightens one’s sensitivity to see greatness when it would otherwise be missed. There are artists who are missed even though their works are great because they do not have the celebrity. This holds true for many writers, especially Christian, and to put a finer point on it, Christian speculative fiction writers.[1]

Regardless of the celebrity element, I think we may assume that Rembrandt’s art is capable of having a profound impact in precisely the way Schaeffer hints because it is focused (concentrated). What Schaeffer saw was a result of Rembrandt’s ingenious eye scrutinizing the hanging beef in a way that others do not; perhaps, cannot. Not only his perception, but also his touch makes the difference – a photograph of the same side of beef would not bring out the same subtleties, unless that photo was the art work of a professional photographer whose use of light and dark and angle reveals things that a mere random shot would not.

Schaeffer observes that the side of beef phenomenon holds for literature, that ‘good prose as an art form has something that bad prose does not’ and ‘poetry has something good prose does not.’ The something is the side of beef factor, the thing that grabs one’s attention and increasingly occupies it. I agree in the general direction this line of thought takes. However, I balk at the idea that poetry has something that good prose does not, and I think that much of the reason has to do with me, a left-brained reader. I rarely come away with something moving or epiphanic from poetry. I struggle with Frost and Shakespeare. For me, the poetic form more often than not obscures and confuses. That is my experience and must own up to it. But good prose, ah. Good prose has quite a different effect. It sometimes reaches the intensity of hearing Mozart or Bach or Beethoven – it moves. It opens my imagination to nuances of the truth known and heretofore unknown, and its meaning becomes intellectually and emotionally aesthetic.

Obviously, good prose does far more than bad prose, but it is a point worth making. It is a strong reminder to authors of Christian fiction that their prose needs to be top notch. None of us is a Lewis or a Tolkien when it comes to speculative fiction, regardless of those dastardly over-zealous reviews that compare our work to theirs. I had one refer to The Oerken Leaves (now rewritten as The Oerken Tree) as C. S. Lewis meets Mark Twain. Another compared it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another wrote, ‘If you like Lewis and Tolkien, you’re going to  love this.’ They all make me cringe because it just is not so. Yet, I hope that The Oerken Tree is good prose, and I am not so sure it (or your work) has to be worthy to sit side by side with the Greats in order to be considered top notch. But it surely needs to be several huge steps in that direction. In my opinion, Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga is there. Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon should be sitting at least on the same shelf.

There are many Christian young adult fantasy works that have become quite popular in the last decade, and their authors are hailed as great writers. But I think their writings fall in the category of bad prose simply because it is bad art. The good word-artist paints with elegance and beauty. It does not have to be like the masters, but there should be some breath-taking moments in them. Many do not rise much above finger painting and paint by numbers. Few of us bring the reader into a Carcass of Beef experience.

[1] In my opinion, there is not many current day works of this type being produced that is worthy of celebrity fame simply because the writing is only average or slightly better or worse. On the other hand, there are a few who are quite worthy, but the ascription of ‘Christian’ and ‘speculative’ hinder their recognition. It is difficult to gain acknowledgement, as any writer knows, no matter how good the writing. Christian speculative fiction especially. The Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy (CSFF) blog tour has been promoting the genre since 2006. Rebecca Luella Miller administrates the tour. She also administers Speculative Faith, which features articles by authors and agents in the genre. The CSFF blog tour features a novel every month in which the members that participate post a review of the novel or a discussion of something closely related to it. Some provide an interview with the author. Typically, the participating member can receive a courtesy copy of the novel for the review. It is a great way to add to one’s library. The tour lasts three days. The critiques, for the most part, are very insightful and objective. If you think you might want to join the tour, visit here.

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