Christmas came early on my reading list this year.
When I curled up with Kristen Heitzmann’s latest novel Told You So, a comedy-drama that pushes the usual limits of Christian fiction for a deep take on grace, I unwrapped something I wanted. A fun and provocative read by one of my very favorite authors.
And when I finally made myself read Art and the Bible by Francis A. Schaeffer, partly because I’d been telling myself I “really should” and mostly because it’s a short text I could use to pull ahead toward my increasingly unlikely-to-be-met reading goal for 2015, I opened something I needed. A lens for my understanding of art. More on that in a sec.
Told You So was the shiny new bike. Art and the Bible, a really nice windbreaker. Both were great on their own, but they complemented one another, too.
Sometimes ideas juxtapose in interesting ways. People who read for knowledge know this better than I, and probably experience it more often, too. Me, I read primarily to be entertained, and when two books on my list seem to want to sit down and have coffee together, it’s a rare and special thing.
In Told You So, the two principle characters are both writers, but they approach their art from opposite poles. Grace Evangeline writes lighthearted romances embedded with themes of hope; Devin Bressard, gritty plays that demand the viewer see life as it is.
The characters’ media for their art are different (novels vs. plays). Their genres are different (inspy romance vs. literary). Their world views (Christian vs. agnostic) are different.
Of course, they’re forced to collaborate, and the debate posed by their interaction fascinated me.
What is art? (Or perhaps, what is good art?) Does genre matter? (Or perhaps, why does it matter?) How is meaning created? Is there inherent good or evil in art? If so, is that sometimes or always the case?
It’s not as if the novel reads like an art appreciation text, and I have to be careful here anyway, because though I’m a novelist and in that sense an artist, I certainly don’t understand art in every medium. Singing along is one of my great happiness-makers, but I’m no musician. I love a good movie, but I may or may not be able to articulate the elements that define one.
Just for example, I remember getting a mediocre grade on a non-representational visual art assignment in college because I included an element near the edge which “drew the eye off the page.” But why was that bad?
I’m not defending my hidden genius here—rather asking, what are the conventions for creating beauty and meaning in squiggles? If the work goes to the edge—becomes edgy, if you will, and creates discomfort—how does one tell the difference between a student who makes a technical error and a master who uses the discomfort to make a statement?
(Hint: Kristen Heitzmann is the latter.)
Nonetheless, I’m aware that there is meaning to decode thanks to my communications training, even if I sometimes lack the tools to decipher it myself. I often think of one of the key points of my college media studies courses: “The medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). The conveyance of a message embeds its own meaning, which is why soap bar I-love-yous on the bathroom mirror are intimate and why most people know not to announce death via text message.
Plays, novels, movies. Modes of story, each unique in conventions for creating meaning and possessing their own inherent meaning. Even as I laughed my way through Grace and Devin’s fits and storms, I felt a sense of the largeness of the issues at play for the readers interested in thinking about them. I think my most important question to simmer forward was this: What to do with the dissonance of a beautiful artwork that creates a message I cannot accept?
I’m not talking about works that prompt me to confront my biases, which can be painful but productive, but those that push a message or agenda in opposition to my firmly-held convictions.
Let me emphasize that this was not a problem with Told You So, which I loved.
It was, however, in a book I read several years ago. It was beautifully written . . . but the main point of the story? The protagonist’s journey toward completely losing her faith in God so that her forbidden art and forbidden love could finally flourish.
Maybe it was a simplification to say earlier that I read to be entertained. I read to be amazed. To be transported. To lead other lives. (Click to Tweet)
But in spite of amazing writing, a faithless life is not one I want to lead.
I experience this dissonance all the time with music. There are songs I love and cannot listen to, because I’ve figured out what they mean, or at least what they mean to me.
(Hint: it’s possible that I overthink things sometimes.)
It’s taken me this long to build to my second early Christmas gift, the metaphorical windbreaker, Art and the Bible.
This tiny book is replete with insights that were helpful or interesting to me as a Christian artist, but with regard to my big question, the most valuable was this:
What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle.
-Francis A. Shaeffer
Without going into great detail of Shaeffer’s explanation of these criteria, can I just admit what a relief it seemed to me to receive a well-considered framework for sorting out my dissonance?
Technical excellence is what it sounds like. Does the work show craftsmanship, skill, mastery?
Validity refers to the artist’s honesty in purpose. Does the work have integrity? Does it hold to the artist’s values or play to the audience’s?
Intellectual content is explained as the artist’s way of revealing a world view. This is where we might be quick to deem an artwork that doesn’t affirm our beliefs (or nonbeliefs) as “bad.” If you’ve ever tried on someone else’s glasses and quickly removed them, your eyes tearing and stinging, and wondered how the other person could possibly see with them, then you’ll understand how world view revealed through art might stir a similar reaction in the soul.
Integration of content and vehicle means the suitability of the medium for the message. Does the form and style enhance the way the artwork is experienced?
Because opinions are subjective, it’s sometimes tempting to be lazy and let them form unexamined. After the characters in Told You So prompted the mental percolation about uncomfortable responses to art, Art and the Bible clarified the points my opinions form around and gave me a way to resolve the dissonance caused by artwork that’s pleasing on some points and repellent on others. To bring it full circle, I’m happy to report my opinion that Told You So receives full marks on all counts.
Kristen Heitzmann is running a giveaway on her blog through 12/21. Find details here!