Barthian Art for Cash
Recently, Hannah Knapp wrote about creation and art here at the Torrey Gazette. I am by no means an artist but the subject of art keeps coming at me this year. I've finally relented and decided to purge my mind of some (hopefully) constructive thoughts. Earlier this year I wrote briefly about Barth and Art as I prepared to review The Spirit of God and the Christian Life. Two quotes in particular stood out to me while reading and returned to mind reading Hannah's post. I'd like to return to them and flesh out some necessary consequences of the general theme and how I see them applying to the art I'm familiar with (film and music),
“In other words, art is a playful way for us to transcend this world and move toward the coming Kingdom, while living within the limitation of this world.”
“Art can be redemptive because of its eyes to see the sorrow of the world and its ears to hear the cry of creation.”
For a man who never completed the eschatological portion of his dogmatics, Barth said a lot about eschatology. And as only Barth can do, he brought it front and center to the world in which we live. All the way to the epicenter of art. Standing on the shoulders of Hannah, I agree that thinking of art as creation is essential. The essentialness becoming more evident when placed against the backdrop of "de-creation" as found in the fall of man. Suddenly the image of God found himself living in a world cursed. This cursed world is the source of or object being depicted by most art. This has a couple interesting consequences worth contemplating.
First, art cannot be satisfactorily consumptive. This is simply to state that it must not be satiable. This will not do in a world of de-creation. Nothing in the original created order can adequately satisfy us now. We must repeatedly eat, sleep, drink, and engage the world anew. In this lineage, art has a unique role in pointing us to the redemption not yet fully consummated. It must stir us to pleasure and it must cause us to groan (Rom 8:21, 26) as it depicts our world. We should find sincere pleasure in glimpses of new creation and then we must groan as we slip back into the de-creation of the fall. Art must leave us unsatisfied but aware of the satisfaction in Christ. Providing always a taste of redemption.
Second, this distinction by necessary consequence gives us a (not the) dividing line between good and bad art. This should not be simplified to "all art must have a bad or sad ending." Being forcefully brought back into the world of de-creation does not guarantee good art. But art should not resolve such that there is no yearning for redemption. At the very most resolutions must be typological to the redemptive nature of Christ while demonstrating its own inherit weakness. A practical example of such "bad art" would be the awful string of Christian movies that continue to plunder evangelical pockets. Movies that focus the entirety of their story, climax, and struggle toward some in-history resolution. We get the quaint praise song, alter call, and happily ever after. We see no linger effects of the fall. We often hear no groaning (I know there are exceptions). This is poor art that helps us sleep comfortably in our suburban homes. This isn't about the quality of the camera work, script, or acting (though I do believe these would be improved with an eschatological focus). This is about the insistent presentation of the fallen world as satisfactory when one has "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." It isn't. We await the restoration and reconciliation of all things to our exalted (and bodily absent) King. We must groan. Our theology demands it and our art should reflect it.
Finally, these distinctions and insights enlighten the issue of "secular art" and why it seems that non-believers seem to have the upper hand in the arts. Despite their pertinent rejections of "sin against God," most non-believers are familiar with the de-creation world in which we live. To their credit they are often more successful in depicting the darkness of this world whereas Christian artists preferably resolve to the light of Christ. Unfortunately, the secular artist grows tenaciously in their desire for art to be darker. This makes any light look glorious but often it is not redemptive light (this is exemplified best by almost every movie Denzel Washington has made). They must go darker since they do not acknowledge the light of Christ's redemption. The contrast to Christian art is obvious to purveyors. Often Christian art doesn't grip us in its depiction of evil and its resolutions seem even weaker.
In analogous (and closing) terms, the question before us is should the final chord in our music resolve? The answer that brings us into line with Barth on art is a definitive "nein." We remain here in this world, an unresolved chord hanging over creation with notes of resolution on the verge of breaking into history. The ache in the soul of waiting for redemption.