As I’ve mentioned before, a number of the Christian artists I know struggle with feelings of guilt. The message they often get — usually subliminally and not explicitly — from the Christian community is that they need to justify their ‘indulgence’.
One venerable way in which Christian artists have justified their art has been to highlight its didactic potential. What art can teach us.
That’s why Sir Philip Sydney in his Defense of Poesy makes such a point of insisting that good art serves both to delight and instruct.
We’ve become quite suspicious of the ‘didactic imperative’ in recent decades. In many ways, it goes back in many respects to the way our modern experts in propaganda have harnessed human creativity of all forms to smooth the way for great evil.
This adds fuel to the fire of the iconoclastic impulse, which we see in Calvin’s Institutes 1.XI, that calls upon Christians with artistic ability to employ their skills producing resources to prop up the kids’ Sunday School programme, for example. Didactism is a means of containing the potentially dangerous effects of beauty.
But I have some (non-rhetorical) questions:
- Could it be possible to rehabilitate the question of what art might have to teach us? Can we find a way to draw a sustainable distinction between propaganda and didacticism?
- On the flip side, can we broaden our sense of the ways in which art might instruct or edify? How might we be instructed by even Tim Winton’s kind of disturbing, murky, ambiguous, unresolved work that rams our nose up against some of the most confronting aspects of life (have a go at reading his latest, Breath, if you’re brave)?
- How might the Church find ways to nurture artists who’ll train and stretch our imaginations and help us live as creatures as well as Christians (enjoying the goodness of this world that God has made, governs and promises to perfect — including his remarkable, dynamic gifts of human community and creativity)?