Monday, July 26, 2010

Art, and the world as it should be

I had a friend of mine joke recently that he didn't believe in "sin." I knew what he meant--the word seems to be permanently moored to its Puritanical witch-burning, Victorian prudish moralizing associations. The various attempts to recapture and renew the word, and thus the concept, are noble, but are fighting an uphill battle. Voices inside the church don't want to see us "go soft," and voices outside the church are happy to scoff at the hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and hopeless naivete of a religion that seeks to set moral absolute standards for everybody.

Most artists, I think, are loathe to embrace the term "sin" since it seems to represent a kind of absolute certainty--a clear boundary about what is "good" and what is not. And artists live in the ambiguity of this world--we reflect on, express, expose--and, yes, celebrate--nuance and double-meaning. Think of Shakespeare's Hamlet--a hero out to set right the injustice and betrayal and murder of his father, driven to near madness and while successful in his primary goal, he achieves it at the expense of his life and the lives of nearly all he loves. The enduring indigenous American musical tradition of Jazz makes it's bed in harmonic dissonance, from the most elemental blues to the most esoteric free Jazz. Irony, ambiguity, tension--these traits make art captivating and human.

And this is what we mean by "sin"--a world of broken symmetry, of seemingly unconquerable adversaries, a world that is impossible to resolve neatly. To those that would close their eyes to the suffering and dissonance of this world, art calls us back to the reality of that.

But art can do something more, too. It can point us beyond this world to the world to come, the world as it should be. That kind of art takes imagination and guts. It cannot be tame. The sometimes violent apocalyptic imagery in the Bible--of wars, of consuming fire, of terrifying signs (play Mozart's "Dies Irae" here)--is saying something about this. The world as it is will not be made right easily. There are too many forces pulling the world into decay for redemption not to be a struggle. It makes sense to me that the final complete redemption of the world would be a terror. Resurrection only comes after death.

It's much easier not to hope for a world set right, because that means facing the huge chasm between that world and the one we live in. It's easier to stop trying to imagine a world set right because it seems too far off, too improbable.

This is the other--and, I think harder and more dangerous--thing for art to do: to those that would not acknowledge or can not see the possibility of a world set to rights, of purity and beauty--the world of the age to come--art can show us that indeed there is something beyond the decay and corruption and failure of the world we see.

In a dying neighborhood overcome by violence and squalor, art can say, "we are human beings, intended for a life of dignity, freedom, and well-being." In a nation of profits and consumers, art can say, "love is stronger than money." In a generation of pleasure seeking, art can say, "the world will be redeemed by self-denial."

This is not art born of an easy, hopeless naivete. This is art of the resistance, and it is dangerous. Where have you seen this kind of expression? How did it interact with your life, your community?

1 comment:

Sarah said...

spu theater has at times attained this. good writing.