Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why is it that most contemporary christian art isn't very good?

from here. What do you think of this answer?

Michael Leea choral & orchestral composer living...
2 votes by Mandy Adams and Alex Wen
I'll split my answer into three parts, narrative art (movies, books, etc.), visual art, and music.

Narrative art is the simplest to analyse. "Christian" films have, as their primary purpose, the goal of teaching a lesson or telling a moral. Think of them like Aesop's fables, writ large. Once that's taken as the primary purpose, everything in the film is bent toward that goal. Characters are simplified, situations are loaded with editorial bias, and complex moral decisions are narrowed down to simple black and white heroics.

This is, in every way, the opposite of good narrative. Narratives require complexity, confusion, real tension, and unexpected resolution. Good narrative takes as its primary purpose the goal of being good narrative! Everything else serves that end. If it happens to have a moral lesson, it's because that moral lesson existed as an essential part of the narrative, not the other way around.

Visual art suffers from a similar kind of dichotomy. Good art is good because it evokes meaningful aesthetic contemplation. Christian art takes as its purpose the goal of meaningful spiritual contemplation. Those two are not mutually exclusive, as we can see from the wealth of masterpieces that are based on religious themes. To be effective, however, the religious contemplation has to be secondary to the aesthetic contemplation. If not, then the work is reduced to pamphleteering, to symbol and sign instead of art.

As stated above, Christian music is a marketing term. It is used to sell music to a self-defining niche of consumers. Music suffers from both of the critiques above (moral lesson vs. narrative purpose and aesthetic contemplation), but it carries the added burden of genre appeal. If your music only appeals to one out of every fifty people who hear it, that's enough to build a fan base that can sustain your career. If, however, your music only appeals to one in fifty people, AND it's being marketed to a self-defining niche market that only accounts for 6% of total record sales, it becomes almost impossible to build a sustainable career. As a result, music that is marketed within the Christian market niche must have as broad an appeal as possible within that niche.

"Christian" art doesn't have to be bad, but if it defines itself first as "Christian", and then as art, it inevitably will be.


  1. I'd say it's a fair analysis of the misguided attempts of what most Christian artistes aim for. The conclusion, however, concedes that their approach is the only 'Christian' one - that's going too far.

    I'd say Christian artists can be every bit as good as any other sort, so long as they stop thinking that they must do their thing differently, rather than being the different person doing it. If they can make that distinction, then they can have a competitive advantage of resonating more with reality.

    In short, many Christian artists suffer from performance anxiety. And it shows. (Present company excluded, of course!)

  2. Weird. Blogger seems to have eaten my first response.
    That which is true above could also be applied to works that are not Christian and seem to me to be true of 'popular' works instead of 'high' art.
    What measurable standard can be imposed which says that works of popular art by non-christians are of a consistently higher standard than that of Christians?
    Sales and popularity seem to be the popular indicators of 'good', but announcing that something is 'Christian' actually limits popular appeal.
    Why then does it seem that conciously Christian output seems to have abandoned high art and is preoccupied with producing popular art?
    The majority of western persons have been cultivated to feel affinity with popular works and even consider higher works as elitist.
    If it is true that Christians are primarily concerned with imparting a particular message should they focus their output toward the idioms preferred by their target audience or seek to elevate the taste and standards of their audience toward higher works?
    I think your writer above may prefer the latter and I'd probably agree.
    And there's plenty of scope to do both.

  3. Why is it that most contemporary art generally isn't very good?

  4. What Catherine said... maybe aiming evangelically at a mediocre generation needs mediocre media? I consume virtually no Christian music, fiction or films (at least, not written in the last 50 years or so) because there seems to be very little good stuff there, at least in the areas of art I like. Maybe I'm too picky...

  5. Hey Simone, lots of interesting thoughts. :)

    "Good narrative takes as its primary purpose the goal of being good narrative! Everything else serves that end. If it happens to have a moral lesson, it's because that moral lesson existed as an essential part of the narrative, not the other way around."

    Don't think I agree here though, Sim. Good narrative itself has a purpose. It has a goal. The problem with poor Christian narratives is because the narrative is so poorly written that it failed in achieving its goal. That's what defines good or poor narrative. When a narrative achieves its goal, then it achieves what we agree it should be aiming at "that moral lesson existed as an essential part of the narrative".

    I would perhaps demure from the statement "if it defines itself first as 'Christian', and then as art, it inevitably will be."

    Ultimately, my real point in response is that aesthetics can be used to serve a purpose. In fact, that's what they were designed for. Aesthetics that serve no purpose actually lose their aesthetic value. It is not the submission of aesthetics to a purpose that is the problem, but the failure of aesthetics to serve that purpose.


    Here's a bunch of other useless thoughts I didn't want to delete for some reason:

    I imagine that the Bible writers thought of themselves as writing God's Word, primarily. Gee 1 and 2 Samuel are amazing stuff.

    Sufjan Stevens and Mumford and Sons produce some phenomenal and original art which is defined by its Christian-ness. It's just not marketed that way.

    I think one of the problems is that some Christians want their work to stand out as Christian so badly because it has to. Otherwise it'll get lost in the crowd of messages being thrown out there in the information age. The message has to be so obvious that you can't miss it. Unfortunately, it ends up being so obvious you can't like it.

  6. What is "Christian"? What is "art"? What is "good"? Why do Christians make sweeping generalisations about Christian art?

    Nonetheless, good article by Richard Beck on this topic.