Sunday, September 2, 2012

Art vs. Beauty

I think I just discovered something about myself.

I went and saw a film tonight that I've been wanting to see for some time. As a movie lover, I'm fortunate to live in a town that has a pretty healthy independent film scene and gets many limited releases. This was one such film. I won't say which one to avoid spoilers. I will say, however, that it upset me more than I remember any movie doing in a long time. And what's more, I loved it. It had everything that a movie of its genre ought to have. And even the bit I hated, I understood. I totally get why whoever wrote it made the decisions they made. As art, I think it succeeded.

Which brings me to my self-discovery: I care less about art than I thought I did. More specifically, I care less about art than about a happy ending.

I've said before that art is characterized by a certain honesty--a genuineness about the world and all its messy complexity. I also said that it's inherently worshipful, that it can speak to us of God as strongly as (and sometimes more strongly than) any overt message. I still believe all that. But now I want to qualify it: sometimes, art just gets in the way.

Now, here we could quibble over semantics if we wanted. You could say that what I am about to describe isn't really art, maybe even by my own definition. Maybe real art could never contradict the message, if the message is one of beauty. But I don't wish to quibble. What I want to say is that sometimes, art can forget its place. It can get so involved in being honest about the circumstances that it ends up lying about the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is, of course, that things are not supposed to be this way. It is true that suffering is ubiquitous. It's almost synonymous with human existence. But it's also something foreign. Like a virus that permeates its host, but remains nonetheless unnatural. It goes against the grain of the universe, and we all know it. We have all, at one time or another, longed for its eradication. For a time when everything will be made right. For Beauty.

Now, we may have convinced ourselves that beauty presupposes suffering; maybe even that suffering defines us, and that we should therefore rid ourselves of our naive idealism and embrace it. That beauty is actually found in it. But to believe this is to miss the heart of God. It is a lie of the enemy, and it is among his greatest subtleties. What greater strategy than to convince the sick to embrace their sickness? What better way to ensure that they willingly resist the cure? If he can get us to forget that suffering is not our purpose, that the world is not supposed to be like this, that its Maker did not intend this--then he has won. It is simply a matter of getting us to embrace "art" for its own sake, and to forget about beauty. But...

Art cowers before beauty. It is meant to serve it, so that when, in the pursuit of its own ends, it finds itself in opposition to it, it ends up looking foolish. Though it may proclaim its high-minded opinions in isolation, when seen with its master, it must apologize for itself, like a butler who has spoken out of turn.

And this is what so much of art seems to have forgotten. So many existential indie films. The word "artsy" almost implies "tragic," or "depressing," or "unsatisfying ending." If that is how we express our humanity, then it is a tragic picture indeed. For it tells me that we have bought the lie. That we look for beauty in our suffering rather than through it. That we are content with the awkward servant rather than the Master.

But, thankfully, the beauty of the cross reveals the lie. Through it, Beauty Himself brought redemption. He removed the sting from death and made suffering a thing worthy of rejoicing.1 Not because it is good--heaven forbid--but because He is good.

Now, this is not to say that art must always be beautiful, any more than the butler must resemble his employer. But he must serve him.

When I left the theater tonight, I was genuinely angry. Not because I didn't enjoy the film. Not because it wasn't aesthetically pleasing, or honestly delivered. I was angry because it, like so many others, was willing to sacrifice beauty for the sake of art.

Sometimes I just want a happy ending.

1 Romans 5:3-5