Shoot the Messenger

Last week over at The Master's Artist, Deborah Gyapong used the recent Mel Gibson flap to ponder The Character of the Artist. I really enjoy Deb's site and, once again, she made some terrific points. At issue, is the connection (or lack thereof) between character and craft.

In non-religious artistic circles it used to be almost expected that great writers would have serious drinking problems, numerous affairs and dissolute lives. Bohemian or unconventional lifestyles were the norm. In Christian circles, having a squeaky clean image seems to be one of the most important parts of the platform....

While I think it is important for Christians to lead Christian lives, I don't think I'm going to view The Passion of the Christ too much differently now that I know Mel Gibson rants anti-Jewish conspiracy theories when he's drunk. I want to see how a work of art stands on its own.

Separating character from craft, the artist from her art, is a necessary, but often difficult act to perform. Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” As such, the line between the art and the man is indeed fine.

And it's this notion of "lines" that blurs the issue.

Some would suggest there are none. For the most part, art criticism is a subjective affair, an inexact science. Even more murky, however, is the definition and critique of character. While postmodernism broadens the pallete of art appreciation, it also erodes traditional standards to which artists (and people in general) were once held. As a result, we develop tolerance for -- even acceptance of -- the quirks and indiscretions of the creative community. Nowadays, good work eclipses good behavior. So what if the glitterati can't pass a piss test or keep their pants on. As long as they write good songs and make decent movies, we'll continue to wink at their misconduct.

This is partly due to the public's appreciation for the arts.

We lament the dearth of imagination and extol those who show the slightest spark. But inspiration is not without its price. It's part of the "tortured genius" mystique... or millstone. The artisan grapples for the perfect word, bleeds the ordinary in search of the sublime and gathers particles of pixie dust wherever it can be found. André Gide captured the essence of what many creative folk feel when he said, "Art is the collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." No wonder the inspired are so odd. Not only do they sense a Divine unction, they are forever trying to follow its lead or, at least, get out of its way. Sometimes it's more of a tug-o-war than a dance. Yet in some way, the public tolerates the missteps of the messenger because of the weight of her message.

Another reason for the disconnect is the fact that art more often, and more easily, transcends the artist than the artist does her work. God once spoke through a jackass and the speaking, though divine, did not transform the animal. Most artists are the equivalent of Balaam's mule, and their art is far more miraculous for their lowly nature. What surprises us more than that movies like The Passion of the Christ are made, is that jackasses like ourselves can make them. Maybe, in the case of art, a "bad tree" can produce "good fruit." If so -- and all great art emanates from God -- then we can never rise to it. Living up to our inspiration is a Sisyphean task , doomed to repeated failure. Still, the fact that He speaks through sinners is humbling. And the acknowledgement that all artist are indeed sinners is necessary to the appreciation of their art.

Perhaps this places Christians, and Christian artists, at a disadvantage. Not only are we judged by the laws of the medium, we are measured by the standards of the Book. If Mel Gibson had not made such a blatantly religious film, the inquest would be a lot less rabid. But by setting sail under the Christian banner he invoked other laws.

Art may transcend our character, but we can't. Moses led his people to the Promised Land, even gazed at it from afar, but was forbidden to enter. He climbed the mountain, spoke face to face with God, but in the end he came up short. He could not transcend his sin. Visions of paradise are no guarantee of entry. Good writing may get me published, but good character can help me sleep at night. In the end, it's what's chiseled on the heart, not hanging in the museum, that matters. Deborah summed it up this way:

I personally would not want to sacrifice my character on the altar of art. Leading a holy life is more important to me than leaving a lasting work of art.

It needn't be one or the other, but were we pressed, we must choose integrity over aptitude, truth over talent, peace of mind over rave reviews. And, therein, lies the rub -- the divide. Perhaps there is a time to shoot the messenger -- to condemn immorality and shun the sinning soul. But once we start pulling the trigger, it's only a matter of time before we find ourselves in the crosshairs.


Ame said...

"at a disadvantage. Not only are we judged by the laws of the medium, we are measured by the standards of the Book."

Yes. We are measured by standards that never change, thus they are often more easily measured because the line never moves.

No. We are not perfect. And, as they say, sin is sin. But consequences are not equal ~ never have been; never will be.

Gina Holmes said...

Great piece, Mike. One of the things I find most nerve wracking about writing for the CBA or trying to is the microscope I perceive to be there. And please note I do realize it is merely an assumption.

I assume we are all the same. Not perfect. We stumble. We fall. We stand up covered in filth, brush ourselves off and try again.

My writing reveals that I'm not squeaky clean. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, or, hands type. But simply burrying what truly exists in our souls is certainly not the answer. Bring it to light I say where it can be examined and disposed of if need be.

In the end the message should be judged by man; the messenger by God.

Janet Rubin said...

This reminds me of the Clinton Era and the big "Does character count?" debate. Remember how the general concensus of the world was, "why should I care if he's a lying adulterer, fornicating in the white house? As long as he's doing his job..." But "Dubya", who openly professes faith in Christ will never be allowed even the slightest sin without public outrage. It is just a fact. We ARE held to a higher accountability before God and men. The Mel Gibson thing is pretty embarrassing after we all spent so much time sticking up for him when the Passion came out. I mean I forgive him- he's a sinner like me-- but it won't be easy if at all possible to restore his reputation as a Christian in front of the world. Golly, maybe I DON'T want to be a best-selling author. People will find out that I drink Mike's Hard Lemonade and watch R-rated movies and hang out at seedy blog sites like Decompose and I'll be ruined! ;)