I’ve rarely asked this question. I’ve always believed in my bones that it does. But in exiting paid ministry, in which lives can change pretty dramatically as a direct or indirect result of your work, I wonder not only about the theatre, but about art in general. Who gets their busted lives put back together by art? When I think of my daughter’s quest to act in film, television, and theatre, and the immense difficulty of that journey, when she is frankly talented enough to work her way into what for most would be a far more lucrative career, I wonder if art matters enough to warrant such sacrifice and struggle. The “struggling artist” is proverbial enough to be a bad cliche, yet it is the state of affairs for those who create art that has yet to break through into the worlds of fame and fortune.
For a moment, as an exercise, I want to argue the other side.
Let’s say art doesn’t matter.
I suppose the take in that direction would be that art is largely window dressing. It’s no doubt pleasurable, even delightful, but even if we argue that delight is a good thing, perhaps even a godly thing, then we would assert that some delights are better than others. Surely the delight taken when a child is fed is far superior to the delight taken during a Moliere comedy. Surely the meaning wrought from the experience of caring for the elderly and the infirm is far deeper and more godly than the meaning wrought from a deep reading of, or better yet, a fine production of Hamlet. And to contemplate God directly in prayer is undoubtedly far superior than the contemplation of a Rodin or Rembrandt. Reading scripture trumps reading the greatest of poetry any day.
So why do art?
A bowl must be made. Make a functional bowl that will hold water and other stuff, but do not decorate. Do not take the time to deliberate an iota over the shape, size, color, or texture of the surface. That time is better spent.
I hardly know how to make the argument.
How about this one: Jesus didn’t talk about art, except to say that the Temple would be torn down, and the Apostle Paul didn’t think highly of women who were artfully gussied up. And yes, Jesus told stories, but he was only concerned with the moral behind the story, and not the story itself. Besides, he didn’t craft them, as in workshopping them and redrafting them…he just told them, perfect structures from the get-go. So the lesson there seems to be not to worry about much except the moral. Surely if you focus on the moral, how the story that delivers the moral gets told…well, God doesn’t really care about the quality of that. Just get the moral lessons out there. And Jesus never delivered them with any sense of theatre. He was teaching simply and straightforwardly. We should do the same.
Anybody’s life been changed by a painting lately?
Sure, art matters, maybe…but maybe not too much. Perhaps we should spend time composing songs and writing plays after the hungry are fed. But oh, you say, you should compose and write in order to feed the hungry. Oh, I see, art making is justified by the ends and uses to which it leads. A song that leads to benevolence is welcome. A song that leads personal profit? Not so good.
So I’m an artist sitting at home, my kids clothes’ are getting worn, our food is less than it might be, and the strain is starting to show itself in my marriage. (Remember all this is hypothetical, right? My marriage is great, just so you know.) Art doesn’t matter. Taking care of my kids does. I may be talented, even gifted in my field of art-making, but there’s no market, and the sacrifices are just too great. Art doesn’t matter anyway, and no one will miss the works of art I might have made.
Why couldn’t I have been a computer developer? Then I would have been some use to the world.
If there’s someone out there who thinks art matters, tell me about it.