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.