The one where Madeleine tackles "Bad Art"

**Edited, please read!**

I spent quite a lot of time worrying if this post would offend anyone. You know why? Because I don't want my post to be "bad art" and turn anyone off to reading more of this book or more of this blog. I'm leaving the intro and the passages from the book but taking out most of my wondering if this or that is bad art. My opinion in still the same, which is pretty much in line with the book. But, with one exception. I do think that what's bad art for some can be good art for others. I originally said I didn't think so, so let me explain why I changed my mind. The first reason is because I realize that not all of us are in the same place spiritually. We all come from different traditions and denominations. We can't possibly know what speaks to whom. And I'm so sorry if I came off sounding like I think I do. The other reason I changed my mind on that point? I started thinking about the book The Secret Life of Bees. In it, the sisters have a "black Madonna" and that is their inspiration because they are able to relate to it. I've seen pictures in which Jesus is portrayed as Asian or African, so why not also a blond white guy? Personally, I still don't like that painting of Jesus. And for me, personally, it's bad art. But I can't speak for anyone else (and I had a paragraph saying that in the original post but I'm not sure, at that point, if anyone would have still been reading.)

So, Madeleine starts this chapter off talking about choice. Talking about how our ability to choose is what makes us human. But she also talks about people who have chosen to not believe in God because they can't reconcile the fallen world we live in to what they believe a loving and all-powerful God should look like. She says:

But even when one denies God - to serve music, or painting, or words is a religious activity, whether or not the conscious mind is willing to accept that fact. Basically there can be no categories such as "religious" art and "secular" art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore "religious." The problem of pain, of war and the horror of war, of poverty and disease is always confronting us. But a God who allows no pain, no grief, also allows no choice. There is little unfairness in a colony of ants, but there is also little freedom. We human beings have been given the terrible gift of free will, and this ability to make choices, to help write our own story, is what makes us human, even when we make the wrong choices, abusing our freedom and the freedom of others... It is the ability to choose which makes us human.

(I'm going to do a lot of quoting here because I know not everyone reading this has the book and I can't do this justice by just paraphrasing.)

This ability, this necessity to choose, is an important element in all story... Oedipus killed the man he met at the crossroads, and even though he did not know that the man was his father, that did not allow him to escape the retribution which followed his choice... Though we may cry out, "But I didn't know!" our anguish does little to forestall the consequences of our actions. To the non-believer, the person who see no cosmos in chaos, we are all the victims of the darkness which surrounds our choices; we have lost our way; we do not know what is right and what is wrong; we cannot tell our left hand from our right. There is no meaning.

But to serve any discipline of art, be it to chip a David out of an unwieldly piece of marble, to take oils and put a clown on canvas, to write a drama about a young man who kills his father and marries his mother and suffers for these actions, to hear a melody and set the notes down for a string quartet, is to affirm meaning, despite all the ambiguities and tragedies and misunderstanding which surround us...

We see that wisdom and that awful grace in the silence of the Pieta; in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems; in Poulenc's organ concerto; but we do not find it in many places where we expect to find it. This confusion comes about because much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion. Those angels rendered by grown-ups who obviously didn't believe in angels... Some of those soppy pictures of Jesus, looking like a tubercular, fair-haired, blue-eyed goy, are far more secular than a Picasso mother and child. The Lord Jesus who rules my life is not a sentimental, self-pitying weakling. He was a Jew, a carpenter, and strong.
(holy cow! Preach it, sister!)

I'm going to be totally honest here and admit that I can't stand those pictures of Jesus that she's talking about. I've never liked them. There was one that hung in the nursery at the church we went to when I was little. I felt no draw towards that Jesus. Actually, Jesus looked half asleep in that picture. He didn't look real to me. And I've heard other people say the same thing. So how did this picture become widely accepted as "Jesus"? And if it is "bad art", was it an intentional decision to make Jesus less middle eastern and more European? Was in an act of prejudice on the part of the artist or just a sincere desire to identify with Jesus by making him a blue-eyed blondish sleepy guy? How do we know? How do we ever know the artists real intention, unless they state it? And... (here's the kicker) does their real intention matter if it's just... wrong? Like Madeleine's example states, just because you make an ignorant mistake doesn't make it any less a mistake. But is this image of Jesus "bad art"?

I mean, obviously, this image of Jesus is not physically accurate. But what if it does help some people identify with Jesus? Does that then make it good art? I don't know. I consider it bad art. But can I judge the artist? No. Only God can. What do you think? Please, I'd love to hear your opinions! I only ask that you remember that your opinion is just that - opinion. It's no more valid or less valid than Madeleine L'Engle's opinion, my opinion or that of anyone else caring to comment. Be respectful.

Comments

Jodi said…
When I read this part, the first time, my thought was yeah but that's your opinion. What if I like that "bad art"? What if it's ok for me? I mean bad religion is obvious, bad art seems more like a matter or opinion. Bad religion=bad Christians, and well I could pretty much go on for a million days about that. How about this for offensive? I am sure we've all been bad Christians, but that's just it we know when we are being bad christians, yet so many people refuse to admit it or skirt the issues....make excuses or reinterpret stuff in the bible to fit into their lifestyle. Whoa....yes I went directly there didn't I. Ok so am I way off base here? Ok my opinion and that's what you asked for! Besides...my brain is officially warped from too much studying.
Heather said…
"bad art" - the reason I don't like those pictures of Jesus is not because of Jesus but because of the children sitting by his side! I was a fat little girl who was always clumsy and dirty and I'm certain that I would NEVER have been a model for those artists. And, it was so overdone that I thought it was starting to lose something -- it became borderline tacky to me. That being said... I went on a mission trip in high school to the Appalacian Mountains. We insulated a tar paper home for a mentally retarded woman (Mossie) who lived an incredibly SIMPLE life and had NO idea that there was a world outside of her acre in Tennessee. When we finished painting her newly insulated and painted walls, she wanted us to take her into town so she could get a "Sunday School picture." This 80-year old woman cried when we found one at a Dollar Store (for $2.99) in a tacky gold frame. I remember thinking I wish I could make her understand that she was picking a very tacky picture. THEN, she changed my view of that painting forever: She said, "When I get to heaven, I'll be as pretty and clean as those children. And Jesus will sit me on His lap." SO, while I don't really care for that art, I do know that that may be the only way people are able to see Jesus and His kingdom. And, while I won't ever have the picture in my house, I will see it a dozen times over and always remember the perfectness that awaits for us. (PS: I don't think that all of heaven will be blonde and blue-eyed, but we will be perfect in His kingdom!)

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