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.

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