Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reflections on Francis Schaeffer’s Perspectives on Art

Francis A. Schaeffer presents eleven distinct perspectives[1] from which a Christian can evaluate works of art. Schaeffer uses literature and painting as primary examples of how his eleven perspectives are used. I want to look at these perspectives in a series of articles and consider their value to the Christian artist, especially for the writer of Christian speculative fiction.

Perspective #1. A work of art has a value in itself. 

Schaeffer ranks this as the most important of all perspectives, and yet I find no clear explanation of what he means. His summarizing statement is tautologous, “Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.” (p 37). The concept of a 'work of art' could be translated, a 'work of beauty,' or a 'work that elicits enjoyment.' Schaeffer writes, "Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty."[2] Given this, Schaeffer places a premium on the aesthetic value of art, making the intellectual content of lesser worth. 

He reinforces this by offering three possible meanings concerning the nature of a work of art the first two of which, in his mind, are invalid. These are (1) the view that art does not say anything and cannot be analyzed, it is simply there; it is art for art’s sake (2) the view that art is the embodiment of a message about the world or man or artist – anything; the fallacy here, in Schaeffer’s thinking, is that this view reduces art to an intellectual statement; (3) the view that the artist’s own world view or view of reality is perceived through a body of work which the artist produces; a body of work is necessary to provide a sufficient sample avoiding a one-sided and limited evaluation.

Given that third point, one wonders if an artist who produces only one work can truly be called an artist, and his work, a work of art. Consider Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) whose novel, Gone With the Wind, was the only one she wrote. She was a journalist and one might contend that her journalistic writings would offer a greater sample. But they would likely be disqualified seeing that that kind of writing is analytical, informative – in a word, intellectual. Perhaps Gone With the Wind in itself provides ample material (423,575 words[2]) on which to draw some conclusions.

Consider also that if the ascertainment of the artist’s view of reality is a necessary component to evaluating a work of art (as a work of art), where does speculative fiction stand? I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think J K Rowling’s view of reality would not include magic and all the incidentals, though the tale of Harry Potter itself does. The magic and all its attendant paraphernalia is pertinent to the meaning of the story. Assuming that speculative fiction tells a tale which reflects the author’s philosophical outlook (Good always defeats Evil; Love endures; Suffering is good and necessary for Victory), it is particularly problematic. All fiction is make-believe, but speculative fiction is make-believe within make-believe and, therefore, has an added layer of complexity in discerning the author’s (artist’s) view of what this world (cosmos) is all about. To qualify a bit, I am talking about a make-believe that has little to do with our world. An example would be George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) Phantastes, whose message is slippery,[3] I think, if there be an over-arching message at all. It does offer glimpses here and there into MacDonald’s perception of things. For example, Cosmo and the mirror allow MacDonald to give a little of his thought about the significance of art and the imagination.[4]

Rowling’s Harry Potter is not nearly so enigmatic, however. There is not much difference between the wizard world of Harry and the muggle world. The central intelligent beings in both are humans and all the frailties and pleasantries of the one world apply to the other. We ordinary humans can empathize with the extraordinary world of witchcraft and wizardry because at bottom, there’s really not that much difference. The fantastical element of speculative fiction is a perfect fit for mystique and intrigue, which are a part of its beauty and appeal; it elicits enjoyment. The mystique and intrigue of the non-muggle realm provide Rowling with a story-world that likely rivets the attention of the reader and gains his imagination and empathy in a more zealous way, thereby more keenly acclimating that reader to her world-view. That is an important principle for the Christian writer of speculative fiction. You are writing to entertain, but you are also writing to grab the reader and hold him down so that he cannot help but hear what you are saying. This assumes that all our story writing will have a message, which I think is true.

Another thought: Though art should not be reduced to an intellectual statement it cannot be divorced from it either. Is not an author’s world-view and the communication of that through his artwork, intellectual? Not as a formulaic expression, certainly, but it does say something that requires intelligent consideration. In order for it to be intelligible at all, it must be meaningful and capable of interpretation. It must say something intelligent. Given that, it seems the value of all art is necessarily bound to its ability to say something that is intelligible, and therefore has meaning, and meaning implies a message. Art is bound to an inherent message.

Schaeffer does not deny that art has meaning. In fact, he would say it does, but he apparently thinks it is secondary to the art. This is to say that the medium of the message has greater value than the message itself. One may ask, If there is no message, what justifies the medium? Without a message, there is no necessity for a means to convey that message.

The word (message) of God, for example, has a medium: inscripturated human language (in its final form for the present evil age - yes, I am a cessationist). There would be no justification for a Bible if there were no special revelation from God. One could even argue that human language is necessary because it is analogous to divine language (it is a part of our image bearing capacity), and in and of itself is revelatory (points us to God as Language, especially as Language incarnated in the Word - Jesus Christ). Language is a medium necessitated by the need for communicating a message, and most of all, for communicating the truths of God. 

In like fashion, message necessitates art (in whatever form) as a means to communicate that message. I don't think it is the reverse. The message is prior to the art. I think a better point to make is that because message and medium are congruently necessary, reflection should take us into the synergistic relationship between the message and its medium in terms of their power and beauty, and consider both to be of tantamount importance in determining the value of art.

How great is the divide between the art and the world view of the artist? How interdependent are they? Another way to ask this is, What is the coherency between beauty and content, entertainment and message? This has a special bearing on all Christian speculative fiction (or any fiction). The idea that one can write merely for entertainment is questionable with regard to its validity or even its possibility. This does not mean I think entertainment is overrated. Part of the quality of the medium is its ability to hold the reader's attention agreeably, or simply stated, to entertain. It is that 'mystique and intrigue' as entertainment that gives speculative fiction an advantage in its value. But if the medium of art is justified only if there is a message, then we cannot write merely for entertainment's sake. Rather, we must use the entertaining value of speculative fiction to bring home the message. 

[1] Francis Schaeffer, “Perspectives on Art,” in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 35-41.
[2]  ibid., p 35.
[3] Compare J K Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the largest in the series, at 257,045 words.
[4] In The Fantastic Imagination, MacDonald poses the question, Must a fairy-tale have meaning? MacDonald answers, “Everyone...who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.” Does this reveal a relativist’s world-view?
[5] Cosmo’s reaction to the mirror: "What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same, and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realm of art; and the very representing of it to me has clothed with interest that which was otherwise hard and bare; just as one sees with delight upon the stage the representation of a character from which one would escape in life as from something unendurably wearisome. But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?” Phantastes, p 78 

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