Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #6 - Art Form's Versatility in Message Types

Perspective #6: Art forms can be used for any type of message from pure fantasy to detailed history.

If we recall the discussion in Perspective #1, Schaeffer ruled out the nature of art as exclusively an embodiment of a message. Rather, he contends, the art communicates the world-view of the artist. In that perspective, a message seems much less important than the aesthetic value or its ‘work-of-artness.’ But now, the usefulness of art as a communicator of a message comes to the fore. I don’t think this is a shift in his thinking, but simply coming around to what he tended to deemphasize (but not dismiss) in the earlier perspective.

Schaeffer recognizes that art does communicate a message. The question that I raise is what is the relation between the art and the message? Does the aesthetic value of art have the priority over the message it communicates? Schaeffer seems to think so (Perspective #1). The answer to that question controls what subject the artist focuses on, and how his artwork portrays that subject. If message has priority, an artist is going to be careful, perhaps in a tedious way, of not only what the subject is, but the way it is dealt with. If the art has the priority, the artist will probably do his work more through whim and fancy and self-gratification.

When we stand in front of any painting, we naturally look for something that is recognizable. When we stand in front of some paintings, we are initially struck by the craftsmanship of the work. The more exquisite the art, the more we are caught up in its beauty. We are initially not looking for a message. In other paintings, the art may be exquisite, but its message so powerfully obvious, that the message takes the prominence. In still other paintings, the art and the message seem to hit the viewer at the same time with equal force.

Consider Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 oil painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. The artwork is top-notch, and its beauty and magnificence delights the eye. At the same time, one is equally struck by the drama of the moment as he beholds a confident, stoic Washington[1] at the head of the force. It conveys the character and emotion of the General at what was probably the darkest hour of the American Revolution. It undoubtedly depicted Washington as he was perceived by both soldier and citizen. Washington is at least part of the message, and it comes clearly across to the viewer. The technical quality is superb reinforcing the message. The message is there in all of its beauty because of the artwork. Both art and message have an equal impact. If there is a message in art, the profundity, clarity, and coherency of that message is dependent on the profundity, clarity, and coherency of the artwork itself. I think we can say the reverse is true as well.

For writers of Christian fiction and fantasy, the priority between the art and the message, and what mutual affect there is between the message and the art of our writing is not a small matter. It will control what we write about and how we write it. The gospel is a profound message, going deeper than any mystery of science and nature. The gospel is a wondrous message, soaring higher than any marvel the modern academician stands in awe of. If our writing is truly Christian, it should not be based on crass whim and fancy, and certainly not self-gratification (it's a feel-good story). It should plumb the gospel’s depths and reach for its stars. As for the writing itself – the author should strive to write as profoundly and as beautifully as the message. One does not offer a gem of great worth in a shoe box.

In a loose way, whim and fancy cannot help but appear in Christian fantasy if we think of it as pulling things out of the imagination that have no definable existence in reality. But it is not willy-nilly. There is care for what might show up in our writing, and diligent attention to the message behind the 'whim and fancy' of our imagination assures a fitting place for it in our story. Andrew Peterson's toothy cows add a delightful twist to his tale. Taking what is ordinarily an amiable figure in the young child's mind, he turns the friendly into the frightening by simply adding a slight deviation (the toothiness). The presence of the toothy cows adds another element of danger to an increasingly precarious adventure. It does that potently because it connects so well with the young reader. It faces a more stringent test - the adult reader. I think it will pass. I suspect it will evoke long forgotten impressions of his youthful imagination. It did for me.

[1] Undoubtedly, Washington had a stolid temperament that inspired confidence of those under him. Yet early on there were many who quit the war, so to speak, when their enlistments were up. They took their government issued rifles with them. When Washington met with his officers to go over the final details of the crossing on Christmas Eve, 1776, he may have exuded confidence, but in private he was not so. David McCullough writes, “Years later, [physician Benjamin] Rush would recall a private meeting with Washington at Buckingham, during which Washington seemed ‘much depressed.’ In ‘affecting terms,’ he described the state of the army. As they talked, Washington kept writing something with his pen on small pieces of paper. When one of them fell to the floor by Rush’s foot, he saw what was written: ‘Victory or Death.’ It was to be the password for the night.” 1776, Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #5, Four Basic Standards to Apply to a Work of Art

Perspective #5: There are four basic standards that one must apply to a work of art: (a) technical excellence, (b) validity, (c) intellectual content, the world view which comes through, and (d) the integration of content and vehicle.

Schaeffer contends that a great artist should be recognized for his technical excellence regardless of the content or the world-view which comes through. I agree. Schaeffer uses painting to illustrate his meaning: color, form, balance, texture of the paint, the handling of lines, the unity of the canvas. The painting (or any kind of drawing for that matter) has a great many elements that go into its creation. Earlier in the essay, Schaeffer refers to these as symbolic vocabulary in an attempt to show the parallel with literature. This implies that art, whether graphic or literary, has a common vocabulary (as both say something intelligible) which is governed by ‘linguistic’ rules. Through these rules, the speech of art allows the artist to be creative and mimic (as an image bearer) the creativity of God (who spoke the words, “Light be!” and there was light). When we honor the pagan artist for his excellence, we are utltimately honoring the divine image in him and thereby the One after whom the image is patterned.

The potential for technical excellence resides in the secular[1] writer of speculative fiction because that is the way the Creator made him. If a secular writer has reached realms of excellence of which we stand in awe, he should be recognized. We should read his works not only for entertainment, but also that we may learn how to write better. Additionally, if he has written anything on how to write, it would behoove us to make good use of it.[2]

The second criterion, validity, is whether or not the artist is true to himself and his world-view, or whether he is doing his work for the sake of another.  If an artist paints or writes for the sake of a patron (which can be anybody or anything the artists wants to gain the approval of or have access to) his art has no validity.

I have often thought of how writing in a (pulp) art genre which is hugely popular and sells well (Christian Romance, for example; see C. S. Lakin’s post, Genre Versus Author Platform: Which Matters Most) might be a way to gain recognition for one’s real work, reflecting his real writing interests. To do so, according to this criterion, would discredit that work as a work of art. I agree, and if I am a purist about this business of writing, I won’t attempt to do so. Unless, of course, my interest changes which poses the challenge to actually write in a different genre to see if (a) I can actually do it, and (b) I might actually like it – it rings true to me. With regard to the romance novel, I think I am quite sure that neither (a) nor (b) would hold for me. But it may be worth looking into the market to see what sells and whether I might have an affinity for it.

The third criterion, intellectual content, is to assess the world-view that comes through the art. It must be judged in terms of a biblical world-view. A work of art should never be free from the judgment of the Word of God. The logic behind this is sound: if a work of art reflects the artist’s world-view then just as the thinking of all men, great and small, profound or superficial, is judged by God, and all will one day answer to God for their world-view, the art work itself is, therefore, subject to the same kind of judgment. In practice, I’m not quite sure what this means. What does it mean to pass judgment on a work of art? We have already granted the artist his honor if his work is excellent. Does it mean following the praise we deplore it for its message? I think that is allowable, but we must be careful that it does not open the door to defame the excellency of the work and the artist. How much that is possible, I’m not sure. It is certain that open judgment of the work is necessary because, as Schaeffer contends, the richer and greater the work, the more powerful it is in pressing home its message.

This holds true for speculative fiction. Much non-Christian science fiction and fantasy is rooted in evolutionary theory, and it seems easy for the Christian reader to ignore that. I enjoyed Carl Sagan’s novel Contact which is about man’s first detection of extra-terrestrial intelligence through the means advocated by the National Research Council (an electromagnetic signature). The whole premise of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is based on the high probability that intelligent life could have risen and developed elsewhere in the universe. The Drake Equation used to come up with the number[3] has evolutionary assumptions built into it. As entertaining as Contact was, and as technically appealing as it was, the caveat must be sounded by the Christian reviewer that the world-view that comes through is anti-biblical.

The fourth criterion is how well the artist has suited the vehicle to the message. “For works which are truly great, there is a correlation between the style and content.” As high fantasy, Lord of the Rings was written in a style that fit the epic character of the story. The imaginary world was best portrayed through a sophisticated and lofty literary style. Tolkien spent great detail in describing landscape and terrain, moving the story at its own pace (not rushed, but unfolding slowly like it does in real life), salt-and-peppered with proportionate amounts of royal and common dialogue, great battles, and personal struggles. Much of this had to do with the readership Tolkien had in mind. It was not a children’s fantasy like the Chronicles of Narnia, and though the Narnia stories have a sophistication of their own and are superbly written, they are still a different style.

Much of today’s young adult speculative fiction is written in a style that suits its audience, but it is not very sophisticated and there is little elegance. Instead, there is corniness, cartoonishness, and melodrama. Perhaps the author thinks that is the only thing that will appeal to the younger ones. I ask, so what? Give them something they can look back on in adulthood and see a beauty and elegance that appeals even then. A children’s story should never be outgrown by its readership. C. S. Lewis put it this way, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”[4] In my opinion, Andrew Peterson’s Wing-feather Saga is the only modern Christian children’s saga that I have read that measures up to this criterion.

[1] I am using secular in a somewhat liberal way to include all who do not embrace Christ as Lord and Savior. Such ones may be theists of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but there is nothing in their claims or behavior to indicate they are of those whose hearts have been changed and are faithful followers of Christ. The world-view that comes through in their writing speaks volumes in this regard.
[2] I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing. I have read others, but I like his best because of the style, and also because I like his dinosaur analogy on how a story develops. One caveat: his language is coarse at times. If you’re looking for a more technical approach with lots of examples from modern day classics, I recommend Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by John D. Fitzgerald (Great Brain series) and Robert C Meredith. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) has written Character and Viewpoint, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and is a contributor to Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction: Volume One, First Contact.
[3]  Estimated by Sagan at 1,000,000 in our galaxy when he wrote Broca’s Brain (1974), ten times that now because of an estimated increase in the number of rotating planets around red dwarfs which are deemed to have a higher probability to support life.
[4] C. S. Lewis, “Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Janovich, Publishers, 1982), 33.