Monday, March 15, 2004

Issue #1: The Myth of the Conservative Artist

A few weeks ago, I reminded my boss that it was Super Tuesday, the day of several Democratic primaries. He had forgotten about it, and asked, "So do we go vote today?" I replied, "I don't know, boss, that's not my side of the aisle." After a moment of silence, he said, "Wait a minute--you're not a Democrat? I thought you were an English major."

I answered, "I can be an English major and a Republican. Those two aren't mutually exclusive, you know." He wasn't convinced. But this did bring up in my mind the sometimes-mistaken assumption that all artists, be they dramatic, visual, or literary, are automatically liberal minds. For a long time, it's been taken for granted that all big businessmen were elephants, while all creative types were donkeys. But this isn't always the case. Often, yes. But not always. I guess I'm an exception.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home, as I have indicated. Even in my own home, this misconception held some sway. When I announced I was an English major, I could almost hear my father roll his eyes over the phone, as if to say, "Oh, no, there he goes." But to his credit, he quickly came to understand what I did--that conservative artists are not myth, like the Loch Ness monster. There is such a thing. You're reading the work of one.

But how can this be? Are all conservatives in favor of taking away freedom of speech? Aren't all liberals in favor of unfettered artistic license, and the celebration of differing viewpoints? I would argue "no" to both statements. First of all, we need to get past this idea that conservatives want to erase "freedom of speech" from the Bill of Rights, because it's just not so, though the recent FCC uproar seems to indicate otherwise. (For the record, I'm worried about where we're going to end up with that, too.) The desire to "protect the children" from the evils of art-without-restraint is well-intentioned (God deliver us from the deeds of the well-intentioned!), though sometimes misguided. The fears that conservatives may have of a-w-r comes down to the fundamental difference between how conservatives and liberals view self-expression. I'll touch on that in a moment.

And secondly, liberal thinkers and spokespeople claim to be open to all viewpoints and diverse, but try to use art to spread a traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, and watch how fast you'll get shut down, or marginalized. They were all for pictures of war atrocities to be carried around to protest the war, but can't tolerate when pro-life (or anti-abortion, if you prefer) demonstrators show photos of aborted babies. For some reason, that goes too far, where the other does not. Many of these folks will defend the right of Quentin Tarentino to create the orgy of violence "Kill Bill", but venemously attack Mel Gibson for the level of violence in "The Passion of the Christ." (For the record, I loved both movies.) I have my own theories as to the reason behind the uproar of the mainstream press over the level of violence in Gibson's film, and I'm not going to cop the easy "they hate Jesus" line, because I don't think that's true. But that discussion is best left for later.

Yes, I am a conservative artist. It can be done. To understand this, we need to look at a few basic differences between conservative artists and liberal artists. And you have my word that I will be as "fair and balanced" as possible. haha. Just kidding, I will. I will work out this comparison in literary terms, since that's the world I know best. But I'm sure the painters, actors, and other artists among you are sharp enough to extrapolate these ideas to your particular fields.

1) Conservative writers sometimes convey the concept of moral absolutes, while liberal writers sometimes communicate moral ambiguity.
This is not to say that conservative writers don't use "non-Christian" or amoral characters; rather, there's a clear-cut right and wrong, conveyed implicitly or explicitly in their work. The danger here is that conservative writers have a habit of sermonizing in their work, which is almost always out of place. If you want to preach a sermon, don't write fiction. Also, the zealous conservative writer will stereotype "the ungodly" rather than making them normal human characters with good qualities as well as bad. This is not art, it's propaganda. If you've seen any of the church movies that have to do with sin/death/hell, you know what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, more liberal writers tend not to "judge" the actions of their characters, but allow them to live out their lives as they see fit. Sometimes the most vile characters succeed, while the "upright" ones (who often aren't upright at all) fail. The problem with this is that in the author's attempt to present each character as tolerantly as possible, nothing is deemed unacceptable. Infidelity, dishonesty, even murder can be justified. And I don't think this is healthy. The film "American Beauty", which I adored, gives us a protagonist who uses drugs and fantasizes about underage girls. But we accept that, because he's the hero, and at least he's not as bad as the fanatical ex-marine who abuses his family and stifles any individual expression or creativity. Amoral characters--okay. "Conservative" stereotypical character--bad. But we're not judging them. Of course not.

2) Conservative art can be characterized by restraint, while liberal art tends toward no restraint.
This is a double-edged sword, and a difficult issue to really delineate. Restraint can be both beneficial and detrimental, as we'll discuss in the next point. But conservative art tends to be more restrained than liberal art. There are more taboo subjects for the conservative artist. As a writer, I sometimes avoid writing about things that are unnecessarily offensive. This kind of self-censorship is not a bad thing, sometimes. It takes more creativity to avoid using certain words or topics. This may sound like bunk to some of you, and I don't blame you, because sometimes it sounds ridiculous to me too. But consider it logically: which is more difficult, using the "f-word" as a substitute for almost every part of speech, or having to find more diverse ways of communicating each sentiment? In terms of sheer vocabulary, the second choice is the more challenging. I will admit (perhaps to my detriment or shame), sometimes that's the only good word available. But authors often lean on profanity too much, and it becomes a crutch ("Paging Eminem!"). But this doesn't only apply to "bad words." Sometimes an act of infidelity will get a blushing mention in a text; a sentence or two, alluding to the act's consummation. Other texts will give you every grainy detail, for pages and pages. Why is that needed? One could argue that the free expression of a formerly taboo idea is the point. And that may be. But then the description isn't about the story, it's about the author's agenda. And that's not literature either. (Tony Kushner may argue otherwise, but I'll stick to my guns, so to speak.) When it comes to restraint, the question for each seems to be "Is it really needed?" vs. "What does it hurt?"

3) Conservative art sometimes tends to be more traditional in form and approach, while liberal art tends to be more unconventional.
I don't think this should be the case, but more often than not, it is. This is the downside of restraint for the conservative artist. In our fear of taboo, we will sometimes refrain from breaking new ground. I think this has contributed to the staleness of Christian art, in all forms. And this is why I was thrilled to see Gibson doing something pretty radical, rejecting the sanitary pictures of Christ's cross in favor for a more realistic, gruesome and somber picture. This ruffled feathers, maybe not in the mainstream church, but certainly in the ultra-conservative (and ultra-liberal) parts of it. But Christian art, on the whole, seems to have gone into a coma. Nothing new, nothing exciting, is happening. Nothing challenging is being produced, and the few artists who try to do so are hushed by the Body, and sent to the periphery. This should not be.

The question of being unconventional for the liberal artist is a foregone conclusion. Because there are no restrictions in "true art", there's no fear in doing something brand new. But is this always useful? And is it always artistic? I remember the artist several years back who created a series of pieces using his own blood, urine, and semen pressed between two plates of glass. This became so popular because of its originality that Metallica used one of the images for an album cover. Yes, it was startlingly original, but does that make it good or artistic? The thing is, a truly liberal artist can't answer that question. Because a truly liberal perspective refuses to label anything good or bad (to avoid being judgemental), and considers everything presented as art (to avoid being closed-minded). But can we ever have "master artists" if we praise everything? Or will our democratic view of art eliminate the idea of skill-based advancement and praise?

This doesn't mean that all unconventional art is bad/unartistic from a conservative perspective. Unlike many conservative students in my freshman Humanities course at OBU, I thought Jackson Pollock's work was awesome, in the way he communicated movement and rhythm. Few of my classmates agreed. Maybe I am more liberal than I thought?

That is the question, isn't it? How conservative am I really? I totally believe in moral absolutes and convey them in some way in my writing. I do believe in some measure of restraint, wisely administered. I don't eschew traditionalism, but I'm not afraid to try something new. I guess I'm not *that* conservative. But then again, if I go by the example of the greatest storyteller of all time, I'm doing okay. Jesus Christ believed in moral absolutes, and preached them consistently. He did believe in restraint, but sometimes unleashed brutal words against the hypocrisy of his culture (while never sinning, we should remember). And he taught some traditional teachings, but broke new ground always, by teaching the New Covenant and the "completed" Mosaic law (what? I'm supposed my enemies??? That's crazy-talk!).

Maybe that's the tack that Christian artists should take. Never promising allegiance to one ideological extreme or the other, but always following the leading of the Master Artist, and asking ourselves if what we are doing gives Him honor.

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