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.

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