It’s been a while since I’ve read Relevant. I found some time ago that it’s better for my blood pressure if I stay away. But every once in a while something catches my attention and just like that I get sucked back in. And, here we are.
There’s so much wrong with this piece about Christian art that I barely know where to begin. So, how about we begin at the end.
The conclusion that the author, Tyler Huckabee, arrives at is this: “Together, we’ll get this Christian Art thing to work.” I hate to be a buzzkill, but no, we won’t.
“This Christian Art thing” will not work because it’s a faulty premise. When Huckabee says “Christian Art,” what he means is the byproduct of an American evangelical culture that feels the need to make “Christian” versions of everything. It really has little do with Christian art. Here’s an example, walk into a Catholic or Anglican church and look around. You will see stained glass, sculptures, paintings and tapestries. This is “Christian Art,” but more importantly, it’s art.
The idea that kitschy knockoffs sold in Christian bookstores should be referred to as Christian Art is preposterous. Most of the best art ever made in the history of the world has Christian themes, but even then, it’s hardly ever called Christian Art; it’s just art. If an artist sets out to make Christian art, what she really is doing is attempting to create for a captive audience. Plenty of Christians are artists, but they don’t limit the scope of their work to a tiny subculture. Rather, they make art that reflects their faith. The difference is the intention of the artist. In the kind of “Christian Art” Hucakbee is describing, it is Christian because it is aimed at a particular audience. It actually has little to do with the work itself. That the work is often awful is a reflection of this motivation, and certainly not the Christian content. Huckabee is talking about American evangelical kitsch. So, that’s the first problem, the sinking sand on which Huckabee’s entire piece is constructed.
Scrolling on up, Huckabee flirts a bit with the notion that keeps the evangelical kitsch makers in business, the notion that because this stuff is Christian it is beyond criticism. He considers, briefly, whether his “snarky disregard” for the stuff isn’t as just as bad as when youth pastors coerce their students into burning secular CDs. It’s not.
Fortunately, Huckabee gets back on track and ensures the reader that he’s not saying “we shouldn’t criticize bad art when we see it.” So we should criticize Christian art, he thinks, but only if we try our hand at making it. Otherwise, it’s like “an overweight Colts fan screaming at Peyton Manning to throw the ball harder.”
But of course, this argument, too, is false. In the art world, critics play an essential role in the curating and shaping of what is deemed good art. If only artists could say what was good they would either only promote their own work or support other artists who make work like their own. Artists are often the worst critics.
Huckabee’s piece begins with a story about his own experience in Christian Art, the television show he and his friends are creating. He documents a scene in which they consider how their show will be received and whether it will be accepted or rejected. His friend Brad doesn’t know, he says, because, “So many Christians are just addicted to the same old crap.”
I agree with Brad, kind of. But in my mind, the crap doesn’t refer so much to the quality of the “art” that is created, but the idea behind these creations. And the idea is the problem, the notion that Christians need their own art. That’s the “same old crap,” and unfortunately Huckabee’s piece just propagates that misconception.
We have to stop acting like we’re talking about “Christian Art;” what we’re really discussing is evangelical kitsch. Further, we have to stop suggesting that the creations of Christians are beyond criticism or that the only people who should criticize are those who are also turning out the same kitsch. We need critics who are Christians, who understand the importance of religious content in art and who can see it as art and not simply a means to an end. Likewise, we need artists who are Christians to make art and release it not only into the shallow pool that is evangelicalism, but to the world at large. This will be “Christian Art,” and it will be art. It will be something we can be proud of.
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