The Problem of the Christian Artist: Popularity vs. Mediocrity

Yesterday, I read an article about a man named Mark Judge who publicly announced his departure from the Catholic faith. His reason, it seems, was that the Church had not met his expectations regarding support for artists. Karl Keating, the author of this article felt -- and I agree with him -- that in reality, Judge was upset because the Church had not offered to subsidize his work as a "filmmaker". After viewing many of Judge's "films" available on Youtube, Keating writes that, frankly, he doesn't see anything particularly worth investing in.

Christian art is synonymous with mediocrity in today's American culture. We hear the complaints especially about Christian music and modern hymns, cheesy cartoonish depictions of Jesus, low-budget movies with predictable plots, and don't even get me started on how limited a Christian school's drama department can be. It seems all the best Christian art is behind us, and if we are going to get any quality, we must rely on the classics. 

What is the real trouble with the American Church and the arts today? What happened to the days of Michelangelo, when extraordinary artists were exalted by the Church and commissioned to create masterpieces on her behalf? Is the Church the problem, as Mark Judge suggests? Or, are her members the problem? Do we need more Medicis, or more Michelangelos?

Today, the visual artists of America are not our hottest celebrities. Those slots are filled primarily by film actors and popular music artists. 

How did they get so popular? Well, they are not afraid of themes that fascinate and inspire our modern culture. Using the biggest award ceremonies for film and music, why don't we take an unscientific look at what resonated with our culture this year:

Looking at themes from Oscar Nominees for Best Picture: Mental illness, suicide, terminal illness, war, psychological abuse, and absurdist humor.

Looking at themes from Grammy Nominees for Best Record: Breakups, wealth, alcoholism, self-confidence, large bums.

We could propose, based on our findings from this unscientific study, that America is obsessed with the upsetting and the shallow. More importantly, however, note that none of the above themes were approached from a Christian perspective. The manner in which these human experiences were explored range from delusional to materialistic to hedonistic. Even when allusions to hope emerge, they are confused and unfocused.

This is the work of (supposedly) the most talented batch of artists our country has. These are the people most capable of making us feel, contemplate, and even act. I point this out simply to demonstrate the sheer power of high quality art. The right song, for example, can make you either love or hate your own behind.

Obviously, we don't live in a truly Christian society. Today's popular artists are the most powerful people in our country, and they really hate Christians.

But Christianity has been counter-cultural for a very long time. It's to be expected. We stick out for good reason -- not because we are holier, but because we can differentiate sin from virtue. We know what brings lasting happiness, even if we often fail to follow our own advice.

I don't think Christian artists should aim for Sia-level fame (ironic?). In fact, that might be worse for American Christians than our current obscurity. But, I do think that demanding more from Christian art is a worth-while cause. 

It's not that I want to fight fire with fire, and drum up millions of dollars to produce a "Passion of the Christ II". I simply feel that art touches a place in the soul that no other experience can. If our spiritual lives exist apart from that place, then our relationships with God and man are seriously lacking. Therefore, I almost agree with Mark Judge: artists need to be drawn to the Church so they can share their gifts with art-starved Christians.

Here is what I suggest: 

1) Artists should be exposed to the Church in a way that allows for profound contemplation of the faith.

2) Churches should empower parishioners to support their local artists.

If churches asked their parishioners to donate equipment, paint, cameras, laptops, instruments, recording devices, and so on, don't you think the response would be overwhelming? All you need to do at the pulpit is ask, "Would you like better art hanging in the parish hall? Would you like someone to compose more meaningful hymns? Would you like to have a movie-viewing that your kids actually want to come to?" What if churches got together to support a fellowship of artists who work and pray in the parish while completing artistic projects for the church? There could even be exhibits or awards given by the diocese or head pastor. Perhaps a member of a local church could volunteer to mentor a few artists a year ...

I'm just spit-balling, here. I'm sure there would be many hurdles to jump before such initiatives could take place. But, here's something I would bet my life on: Excellent Christian art will sell. There are plenty of families who play Veggie Tales on repeat and would love to buy anything that comes remotely close to its quality. There are myriad Christian schools who want their high school students to find satisfying alternatives to what is playing in their iTunes. Parishes want lovely, inspiring things to hang on their walls. So many Americans are desperate for this stuff!

In the end, we need more Medicis AND we need more Michelangelos, the latter being the more difficult to find. There are talented artists who just aren't exposed to the mystery of the faith, and we need to seek them out and give them an incentive to get to know the story of Salvation History.

I have high hopes that American Christian art can rise to the occasion. And I promise, when my books sell millions and the big fat checks come rolling in, the first thing I'll do is engage my brilliant plan for a fellowship.

Also, to end on a high note, I thought I'd just list a few Christian resources that are the exception to the rule of mediocrity. Sometimes, it's just a matter of digging around until you find the good stuff :)

Pop Band: Needtobreathe

More Christian Music to Explore: Fr. Damian Ference's favorite albums of 2014.

Christian (adapted) Play: The Great Divorce

Christian Movie: The Restless Heart

For Visual Arts and Short Stories: Dappled Things

I've left so much out, I'm sure. Feel free to share in the comments if any inspiring works of art come to mind. And, bring more artists to the faith!