Rebels Don’t Always Win


On-line cataloging tool and Web 2.0 darling Library Thing recently started an Early Reviewers program, playing match-maker between publishers looking for reader reviews and book-worms looking for another fix. My friendly neighborhood mail-carrier delivered a hastily-packaged paperback to my home, which I dutifully reviewed.

The title in question is Hunting Gideon, a Mormon (self-declared) cyberpunk adventure. The publisher describes itself as releasing “provocative, unconventional, yet ultimately faith-affirming stories that yield new insights into Mormon culture and humanity”. Upon reading the back cover of this book, several alert lights went off in my head, including the ones marked “Crazy Christians” and “Bad Literature”.

I decided to give it a go regardless. They did send it to me gratis, after all, and a gentleman must try to live up to his end of a bargain.

The book turned out to be pretty bland, but that’s not today’s topic. I want to know why those alert lights went off. Why did I assume that something written with the stated goal of lionizing a particular faith would be bad? Why do we make a distinction between propagandist art and “real” art?

When’s the last time you listened to a Christian rock album? Did you try that Left Behind video game? I didn’t. I’m normally the first to netflix a movie about airplanes, but when I heard Behind Enemy Lines was financed by the military, I lost all interest.

And yet our classics were in large part created as proselytism if not flagrant evangelism. We consider Michelangelo an artist, not a Christian painter. Beethoven dedicated Eroica to Napoleon, and we don’t call it genre music. Shakespeare’s histories? At what point did we stop accepting propaganda as art?

Certainly examples exist of modern voices sneaking past our anti-establishment filters and attaining some note (Jars of Clay and Creed did well, as I remember) and pre-modern artists touting a more humanist viewpoint, but the concept of the truest art as being strictly artist-centered and institution-hating stands. At our cocktail parties and in our book reviews, around the pub table and on our blogs, any artist aligned with a mainstream political or religious group is considered inherently lesser than the more bohemian.

This prejudice in and of itself creates a type of propaganda in modern works, inculcating a belief that the only valid subject matter is the individual’s experience and emotion and culling any pieces which may say otherwise out of the body of respected art and literature.

The trouble is, Christian rock actually isn’t as good. The literati are right — propagandist works in the modern age normally can’t compete with the rest. But who knows? Maybe they’re out there, excellent art, literature, and music which we just ignore because the artist is a Such-and-such and makes only Such-and-such stuff.

Whether or not a strictly humanist mindset actually makes a person a better artist could certainly be debated, but for now let’s just say that we should not automatically assume that works made with an organization’s ideals in mind are inferior by definition; we should at least give them a chance to prove it.

4 thoughts on “Rebels Don’t Always Win

  1. Peter

    Presumably, there are a lot of folks out there who would argue that Christian rock is not only as good, but better. As far as I’m concerned, those folks would be right — because I believe that such judgments are mostly (if not wholly) subjective.

    So I guess when you conclude that “propagandist works in the modern age normally can’t compete with the rest,” you may be right…but only because that particular propaganda is itself the one you subscribe to. Someone more enamored of Christianity than opinionlessness might make the same point, yet with a completely different take on what is the propaganda, and what is “the rest.”

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  2. John

    regarding your historical references: context is king. I’m no expert, but I know a bit about the renaissance…Michelangelo as well as many other renaissance artists depicted mainly religious scenes for a simple reason: in Europe, the catholic church had all of the power and most of the money at that time. Most of those works were commissioned by the church, and the ones commissioned by individual patrons that still depicted religious scenes? Those were typically requested by the patron out of fear for their soul, or the souls of the departed.

    He who pays the bills makes the rules.

    My point is that when studying renaissance art, the context needs to be taken into account…i.e., yes it’s a painting of scenes from the life of st. francis, but what’s important about it isn’t necessarily its subject matter, but perhaps its perspective, or proportion, or … any number of things that we might use to critique a work of art.

    that’s very different from christian rock, or military propaganda, because those things exist solely for the purpose of perpetuating some ideal. The method isn’t nearly as important as the end result…with any work of art–any true work of art, its significance lies entirely in its method.

    One’s opinion on a work of art is indeed subjective, but the actual evaluation of art is significantly less so. In other words, why does someone think that christian rock is better than some other form of music? Is it because of its religious context, or is it because after an evaluation of its musical merits, that person has come to the conclusion that it is superior to other forms of music is some musically significant way? A work of evangelism or propaganda can of course be a work of genius, but it will never be so just because it is evangelism or propaganda.

    If you ask me, typical manifestations of either are not really very good art because their aim is not very high from an artistic standpoint–in the end they are meant to be tools. I would tend to think that is why you had the reaction you did…

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  3. Peter

    “One’s opinion on a work of art is indeed subjective, but the actual evaluation of art is significantly less so.”

    Well, fair enough. One can certainly evaluate, when it comes to music, for example, complexity, richness and other objective criteria that can be observed simply by looking at the sheet. However, the extent to which a random someone is affected, enchanted, or otherwise moved by a piece of music cannot be accurately predicted by that method.

    What’s more, those holding the standard of measure for the objective approach will most likely be in conflict — if you are Michael Bay you offer a rather different standard for evaluating the merit of a film than, say, Charles Schultz.

    What’s the difference between a great musician deciding that he will write Christian rock because that’s where the money is and Michelangelo following the commissions? Note that in my hypothetical I’m only discussing motivation, not artistic merit. Furthermore, if one creates propagandist art but does so with a purity of intention, i.e., an expression of one’s soul — then it is not merely a “tool.” Only someone with a different point of view would call it such.

    So, your point about context being an important consideration when looking at historical artist must be supplemented by adding the point of view of the observer as well.

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  4. John

    “What’s the difference between a great musician deciding that he will write Christian rock because that’s where the money is and Michelangelo following the commissions?”

    For Michelangelo, it was a way to pay the bills and simply have the ability to express his art. I’ll run the risk of generalizing again and say that financial options for artists were more limited in the late 1400’s/early 1500’s than they are now. Any great musician today doesn’t have to write christian music to make ends meet–they have virtually limitless options…how many truly great song writers/musicians these days find themselves in the awkward position of only being able to make money by writing/playing christian rock? Michelangelo and many others in the renaissance were indeed in this position (although Michelangelo didn’t rock, as far as I know). Anyway, that point of “need versus choice” makes all the difference.

    Another point that should be made about the renaissance is the difference in communications media between then and now. In the time of the renaissance, the only way people would actually see art was if it was either on some grand physical scale, or at least prominently displayed in some public forum like a church or a town square. This basically meant that artists only made money on large public works projects which, of course, were typically run by the church. That was more or less the only way to make ends meet as an artist, so you could say that this is another reason why Michelangelo’s options were at least significantly more limited than any artist today. Granted the big money is of course still only in those grand projects, but today we are surrounded by media–there is always some way to express oneself these days, and many of them are quite lucrative.

    Now, I’m not presuming to say that everything created by renaissance masters had some subversive message about the church; indeed many great works are obviously reverent regarding many religious subjects, but take a good look at them. The statue La Pieta is thought by many to be unrivaled. Why is it beautiful? Because it depicts a scene of human frailty, in other words, the human nature of God. Take a good look at Mary–she is a young woman in the statue, and yet her son is a grown man. It depicts an ideal…anyway, my point is that there is real genius at work here, and it isn’t because Michelangelo is trying to tell us that God is Great, although he clearly thought so.

    Perhaps there are great rock bands who only write christian music because they can only get gigs from christian evangelists/record labels, but my guess is that this isn’t very common. Most of these people write this type of music because they feel the spirit, and feel the need to get the word out there, not because they are inspired by some sublime genius. Again, motive and method are very important in this argument.

    Again, there are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule I believe this to be the case.

    I agree with your point about the point of view of the observer. How effective a work of art is certainly a matter of subjective opinion. My point is simply that if you analyze a work of sublime genius it will always reveal itself as such, regardless of how popular it is. As I said it is possible for works of propaganda to be real art, but I stand by my position that they will never be so because they are propaganda.

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