20 September 2012

Make Ugly Art

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a response to Sproul's suggestion that we use the “objective” classical standards—proportion, harmony, simplicity, and complexity—to judge art, and to the simplistic interpretation that this means “make only beautiful art.”

Make Ugly Art

In response to Sproul's proposal that we utilize the four Classical standards for order as a means to judge art, a lively discussion erupted after the lecture. There was a general feeling that Christians should only make and enjoy art that is “beautiful” in a very narrow, simplistic sense. I think only two points need to be mentioned here. They are two objections to this idea.

First: my “Flaming Fundamentalist for Peace” friend (an Ekphrasian, jazz pianist, computer science professor, Occupier, and self-described Libertarian Socialist) pointed out that art should be subversive. Art should be at the forefront of protesting injustices, advocating for social and political change, pointing out problems, and motivating for improvement. He spoke positively of Pussy Riot, claiming that what they did was morally courageous, as they were intentionally putting themselves at risk to protest against their lack of freedom.

Second: I pointed out that art made and enjoyed by Christians does not need to avoid ugly, bad, disturbing, or violent content. What matters is not whether such content exists, but how it is deployed. What matters is whether the evil is being shown as evil, or whether it is there just to make a sensation or increase sales. To sum up: IS THE ART REVELING IN UGLINESS, OR REVEALING IT? As Christian artists and consumers, we should make and support art that shows sin for the ugly thing it is, not art that pretends nobody sins.


jfutral said...


"As Christian artists and consumers, we should make and support art that shows sin for the ugly thing it is, not art that pretends nobody sins."

I separated those two sentences only to point out that these can be two totally different ideas.

But regardless of differences or equivalencies, there is a similar question they both bring to my mind. Is reveling in ugly or pretending nobody sins, as art or artist, not also revealing something?


Rosie Perera said...

I went to an inspiring presentation at Maker Faire Vancouver last year, led by Kim Werker of the Mighty Ugly Workshops, who encourages people to not be afraid of failure, and calls them to make ugly art on purpose. Knowing that it doesn't have to be beautiful or perfect unleashes people's creativity.

Of course, these workshops are designed for beginners, and they will need to develop skill down the road in order to be real artists. And I know this isn't what you were referring to by "make ugly art." But it is another dimension to that phrase which I thought I'd toss in.

Curt Day said...

First, thank you for the free ink. I appreciate it. But I also like it more that we share some sentiments on this subject.

Second, when I heard Sproul talking about mathematics and proportionality, I couldn't help but think of a past society that thought that it was superior to others for those same exact reasons especially in appearance. It was disturbing.

Finally, perhaps another thing we should object to with Sproul's perspective is that as beauty, to him, represents the ideal, he is encouraging us to make what is ideal into an idol.

Curt Day said...

There is one more thing to add here. Some are disturbed, I would include Schaeffer and Sproul in this group, that there seems to be a seamless garment in which there is woven both a human reaction to a sinful world and a sinful response to a troubling and wonderful world. Those who are bothered here want to insert an apartheid zipper to build boundaries for all to observe. It is then that they tell us that we should stay safe by only seeking the ideal. Such a view depersonalizes, and thus dehumanizes, art. And we have enough dehumanization in today's world through the pervasive influences of business and technology.

Again, what Sorina so aptly pointed out is that there is a difference between "revealing" and "reveling in". There is a difference between acknowledging, confronting, and celebrating our current reality.

Certainly we will imperfectly, to say the least, reveal, acknowledge, and confront reality so that there are times we are wrongfully reveling in and celebrating. But should that cause us to shun all that is not beauty and ideal?

jfutral said...

There are still two personalities at play (actually three, but let us assume the work itself a passive participant).

There is the artist, who may or may not be reveling in ugliness and asserting nobody sins.

Then there is the viewer, who may or may not bring the same ideologies to the table.

If we, as artist and participants in this discussion and primarily more or less Christian, believe God as the ultimate artist how are we to reflect his own desires? Do we only support that which is "beautiful"? How does God respond to his creation, his art work, reveling in ugliness and pretending nobody sins? Do we only support the work that more accurately reflects our belief in sin and ugliness?

Seems God withdraws support for those who reflect and obey the most. And in that act he offers/provides redemption to those who we might believe reflect and obey the least.

Any art supposedly reveling in ugliness is, quite frankly, revealing a great deal, even if it is only revealing a less skilled artist.

Then there is the effect of the viewer. Where do we separate whether it is the viewer who is reveling in ugliness (as in turning something innocent into the profane through their own eyes) or believes the work to be reveling in the ugly (due to their own aesthetic preferences such as with a Roger Scruton and his obsessive anti-Turner award crusade) vs the artists own view of their work?

I believe the what the viewer brings is potentially more important than the work and the artist who created it. If our eye is clear our body is full of light, if our eye is bad we are full of darkness. _How we see_ affects us more than what we are looking at.


Curt Day said...
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Curt Day said...

Since Sorina mentioned Pussy Riot in the article, I thought I would leave a link to one of the most recent interviews with them. From the interview:

"Nadya: Prison is a good place to learn to really listen to your own mind and your own body. I've learned to read much more deeply, for instance. For four months, I had nothing to read but the Bible, so I read it for all four months—diligently, picking everything apart. Prison is like a monastery—it's a place for ascetic practices. After a month here, I became a vegetarian. Walking in circles for an hour in that tiny dusty yard gets you into a pretty meditative state as well. We don't get much in the way of the news. But enough to get inspired."

Link is below:
Pussy Riot Interview

Iambic Admonit said...

Joe: I don't understand your juxtapostion of those two sentences & your claim that they are "two different things." I'm arguing that the particular "revealing" that art-by-a-Christian does IS showing the ugliness of sin. I do not think that a Christian could, in good conscience, show sin as something simply attractive.

jfutral said...

How is an artist who creates work that revels in sin, ugliness, or otherwise pretends that nobody sins (although, I am unsure what that would exactly look like), not in and of itself revealing? What exactly should art that reveals sin actually reveal? What would reveal that better than a work actually reveling in sin or ugliness?

As for what other artists, Christian or otherwise, can or cannot in any conscious do, I am not fit to prescribe. I usually only ask artists to create honestly. I will support any artist who will do that. And most artists I know have a hard enough time with that, even when they are trying.

Simply suggesting that anyone is reveling in or revealing sin is too easy, almost lazy. What do you mean by "reveling"? "revealing? "ugliness"? Never mind the phrase "reveling in sin". Who does that? What does it look like? John Cage? Goya? Pollock? And is it ever really what one thinks it is?

I say, don't waste any time calling out ugly. It does a fine job on its own. Find beauty, especially where no one expects it or believes it to be. That's harder and more worthwhile. Is that not what God has done with us? Even when we were reveling in sin and ugliness (and that even as we are created by God), God still found value and beauty in us?

I could be wrong,

jfutral said...

A little more to your question,


Something ugly is not necessarily sin.

"art that shows sin for the ugly thing it is, not art that pretends nobody sins."

And sin is quite attractive, else it wouldn't be a struggle. The sin itself is rarely ugly. What is often ugly are the consequences.

Although I do still wonder on this term "reveling". What would that look like, wrt art?