Composition and Content: Seeking Excellence in Art
I have long believed that we (humans), being made in the image of God, are little creators. We all have outlets for this need to create. Artists, I think, are a proof of the Truth God spoke when He proclaimed this. In light of this belief, I’ve recently begun to think of art in a new way. Who am I and why should you care? I’m the brand new writer for Christ and Pop Culture, your favorite blog. Well, maybe I’m not actually thinking of art in a new way. Maybe I just started distilling how I was already thinking about the movies I was viewing, the books I was reading, the shows I was following, the music to which I was… jamming.
One day, while under the influence of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water”, I put names to the sides which had been battling it out for my artistic allegiance for years: “composition” and “content”, or what is being said and how? Now, to some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer, but there are so many lenses through which art can be examined. I’ve been to college and I don’t remember anyone breaking it down like this. I suppose it is possible I wasn’t paying attention, but whatever the reason, previously I was never able to streamline my thinking to this extent. In trying to analyze literature or movies, my mind would get cloudy and I would pass out. No, not really, but many times I wanted to. This naming has helped to clarify and shape the otherwise vague ideas my mind toys with, enabling me to better understand them myself, and communicate them to other people. In finally seeing that the building blocks for every work of art are content and composition, I am well-armed to tackle more volatile ground: the place where Christianity and art meet.
As a Christian, an artist and a lover of great art, I have struggled over the years in experiencing artistic works while trying not to compromise my identity in Christ. I felt for so long that my faith and love of great art were clashing, yet I was rarely satisfied with the work coming out of the contemporary Christian creative world – art created for Christians by Christians. I’ve asked myself the questions most of us do at some point. What is art? What qualifies something as good art? Why is it that the work coming out of the “Christian culture” so often falls short?
Yes, I have thought about the answers to these questions, and thought, and thought some more. Then I washed my hands and thought some more. You see, in my day job, I work as a certified massage therapist, and that work allows me great amounts of quiet time to think, and think, and think some more, and then wash my hands and think some more when the next session starts.
There! You see what I did there? I used the last sentence to explain the cryptic, yet related, sentence before it. I had to explain it to you. Heaven forbid I let you think about it and reach a conclusion as to what it meant using your mind and imagination and spirit. And there is the problem with so much art labeled as “Christian” today. Granted, this is not the best example. But it hopefully illustrates my point: by looking at the building blocks of composition and content, it is plain that much (certainly not ALL, but MUCH) of the art typically made by Christians for Christians lacks skillful composition.
Why is this? Maybe it is because the Christian artist is often trying so hard to make sure the Gospel message is understood, they don’t trust their symbols and metaphors to communicate this for them, and in the process, remove the artistry from the piece. This could be one reason. Though this is a noble motive, I might refer them to a preferred teaching method of Christ, the use of the parable. There are likely multiple other reasons for why this happens, but it is a regular occurrence, and a problematic one. We lose the opportunity to share the message of the Gospel with non-believers who are looking to engage with great art. This is one reason “Christian art” is not taken seriously in the world of mainstream media.
Please don’t misunderstand me, here. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the best content imaginable, and trumps all else. The Bible tells the Gospel, obviously, and is full of skillful artistry. If you want symbolism and metaphor, all the feasts of Israel are exactly that – symbols of Christ and His work. You can see God’s love of metaphor throughout the Bible. But if you take that content and put it in the middle of a formulaic fiction book, for example, and that book is being published by a Christian house, sold in Christian stores, and shows good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things, and little character complexity, and then at the end, the Gospel is given and someone gets saved, who exactly is going to be reading this book except for other Christians who are, understandably, tired of the nasty, unexpected surprises which pop up 150 pages into a secular novel when you’re so engrossed you don’t want to put it down? (Sorry for the rant- I mean, we’ve just met.)
I do understand that safer stories have a place in our faith. Not everyone’s conscience allows them to engage as freely with the art of mainstream culture. (See Romans 14) This article is not meant to judge those brothers and sisters. Each believer must decide between God and themselves what is or is not acceptable for them in disputable matters, specifically. But even the safer stories can still be told better, I believe.
The Gospel of Christ does not need artistry. It IS Artistry, the great and true Story written across time and creation. It is both the Composition and the Content. So, if we little creators are going to use it as our content in our little stories which reflect THE Story (and an argument could be made that all content is about trying to get to redemption and to Christ, but that is another article), let’s make everything about that work as skillfully and wonderfully glorifying to God as possible, including its composition. We are to believe that all talents are God-given, and we also must face the fact that some of the most compositionally talented artists are professed non-believers. Going back to Ms. L’Engle, “We would like God’s ways to be like our ways, His judgments to be like our judgments. It is hard for us to understand that He lavishly gives enormous talents to people we would consider unworthy, that He chooses His artists with as calm a disregard of surface moral qualifications as He chooses His saints.” Composition, even void of worthy content, must be important to the Lord, because it is gifted from Him. If we strive to make composition as important as content, then maybe the secular artistic world would not be so anxious to segregate themselves from Christian-created art, and maybe then they would learn more of our Christ.
But wait a minute. Let’s turn the tables. How DOES the secular world do it? Where do they generally fall in the whole composition and content question? Let’s look at Hollywood. The main concern of Hollywood producers is money. But the directors, the ones who carry the artistic vision of the film they are crafting, are almost always going to be concerned primarily with composition. Even Hollywood writers, who may be traditionally more content-driven, are looking for unique ways to tell their story, whatever it may be about. This is why so many mainstream films and shows are problematic for the discerning viewer as well, and why some movies are boycotted by many Christians. I can go on about why I don’t believe boycotting works and how it actually alienates the people we should be trying to reach for Christ, but if the answer is not to boycott, alienate, or withdraw from the culture, what is?
Again, I believe the answer that best glorifies God is for artists who love Him to create art which shows His Truth both in excellence of content and composition. Two great examples of films which accomplish this are Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ” (2004), and the 2008 Sam Mendes film, “Revolutionary Road”. I would argue that both of these films are exceptional in their composition. In content, they are, uh, pretty different, but consider it from this angle: I love “Revolutionary Road”, because at its heart is Truth in content. The characters are outside of Christ, and there are no dreams which will fulfill, outside of Christ.
And for the discerning viewer, do not violate your conscience. Not all art is for everyone to enjoy freely. I have my own boundaries for what I will and won’t be involved in artistically. But I challenge each of us to strive for excellence in our artistic choices, whatever our particular boundaries are regarding content. We are in this world, not of it. We are a part of the culture whether we like it or not. Let us make the most powerful, excellent impact on it for Christ that we possibly can.
Awesome Kristi! I love your article, and how personal it is. Your content is true and your composition is beautiful :) You said what you had to say in such a creative and interesting way. And I totally agree with you too.
Kristi, welcome to CAPC! I enjoyed reading this and I think you make some excellent points and certainly it feels like professing Christian artists often emphasize content over composition and perhaps that is why they are generally accepted by other Christians and ignored by the rest of the world.
Many Christians are trained to think in terms of content I think–that is a good and a bad thing. However when it comes to art, the result can be rather boring. I think good art asks interesting questions–perhaps our art would be more interesting if we were more concerned with composition and more concerned with asking good questions in our art without having to make the answer obvious.
For instance, I recently read The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Vol 1: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson. The book is constantly asking, “what gives human beings value?” “Are all people equal?” “What aspects of man are worth redeeming?” But the book doesn’t come out and give the reader the answers to these questions–it simply presents the reader with a fascinating story that explores them and the reader is given room to explore and come to those answers on his/her own. Some of these answers are obvious, but many are more nuanced and the care Anderson takes to challenge his readers without forcing them to a decision is what sets it apart I think.
I don’t know if that makes any sense, anyway, thanks for writing this and I am glad to have you on board at CAPC.
Good post. My frustration with christian art is that it is so often lacking in composition as to be not worth a watch or listen or etc, and I feel like we may turn people off because we can’t live up to the quality expected these days. And so often I watch or listen to some secular art and feel like “it’s almost there” so close….but just not quite.
Kristi, you really hit the nail on the head! I can think of so many examples that my comment could end up longer than your blog post, so I’ll resist.
And Drew, I read Octavian Nothing and liked it, also. As someone who has tried (unsuccessfully) to publish in the Christian fiction market, I can also promise that a book like that wouldn’t be published by a current Christian publisher because of COMPOSITION as well as content. The guidelines for how a book must be written don’t allow much wiggle room, either, in my experience, and Octavian Nothing used a lot of non-traditional story-telling techniques. I never really thought about it in this way, before–but I can understand why a Christian publishing company would want to ensure a Christian message in their stories. But why should the story-telling techniques also be so narrow? I know the editors will tell you it’s because that’s what they can sell, and maybe that’s true. But it makes me sad–and frustrated.
Thank you guys for your comments! Drew, I am really happy to be writing for CaPC, because I have been an admirer of the blog for a couple of years now. I haven’t read Octavian Nothing, but I followed you. Works that ask questions of us and make us think tend to make us appreciate our conclusions more, because we had to work for them. Just as with anything in life, we appreciate what we earn more than what’s handed to us. That’s one of the things that makes God’s grace so amazing- we never earned it, never could earn it so He earned it for us, and we don’t appreciate it even close to what we should, yet He pours it out on us freely.
One thing I’m finding is that to write for CaPC, I think I’ll have to bump up my culture consumption to turbo.
Chelsea, there have been so many times over the years when reading Stephen King, for example, when I have thought “you’re almost there- you almost get it- but you don’t.” And I think he’s a brilliant writer. Some people spend their whole lives telling stories, working in an area where the creations they are writing have needs for redemption they don’t understand because they don’t understand their own need for it, and they stay blinded to the Truth. Different frustrations for different reasons, when looking critically at secular and Christian art. We are looking for that perfect piece, and we will continue to be hindered in this until all things are restored. It just can’t be done by human hands. But we can reach for that attainable excellence, and it sounds like you are!
Robin and Penny, since I know you both personally, I have to ask…are you agreeing with me to make me happy? Just kidding. I know you both face these same struggles as well. Robin, I have known of your publishing efforts for years, so often thwarted by the ridiculous trends and guidelines of both the secular and Christian publishing markets. Here’s hoping they bring back multiple povs!
Also, Robin, I think one of the reasons the publishers think the non-traditional storytelling techniques won’t work is because they think too little of the reading public, maybe. This is why the readers need to show them they like imaginative, creative work that doesn’t look like every other work out there.
@Robin, I certainly understand your frustration. M. T. Anderson was a relatively successful YA author writing somewhat more run-of-the-mill stuff before releasing Octavian Nothing, so what you need to do is write a few teen vampire romance novels to establish yourself and then you can start rolling out the creative stuff!
I do agree with you that Octavian Nothing was a very uniquely told story–I loved the way so much of Octavian’s life was revealed through the letters of others who knew him.
@Kristi, I hope you don’t feel like you need to turn up your pop culture consumption. I realize you were kidding, but reality is that there is only so much time in the day and so much in our lives that is more important than taking in more pop culture. What I appreciate about CAPC with regard to pop cultural intake is that CAPC helps me to process the importance, message, influence etc. of pop culture that is all around me whether I am giving it special attention or not and helps me take in better (not necessarily more) pop culture. Pop culture is important because people are important–its important to remember that. Anyway, I just say that because I know it could feel overwhelming because it might seem that you really have to strive to keep up with what is going on in the world of pop culture to contribute here but you don’t–you just have to pay attention to the world you are already living in. Hopefully in the process we will all share some recommendations along the way but those are an optional bonus an in no way required ;)!
With so much good will on your first post, I feel it necessary to take up once more the banner of the curmugeon and fulfill my established CAPC role. Okay, not really. But sorta.
While I enjoyed your article and writing, there’s one thing from the beginning that I’m a little uncomfortable with: the idea that the imago dei is somehow tied to the human creative impulse. I’m perfectly happy to consider the creative impulse a wonderful gift of God even are athletic, taxonomic, sexual, and teleological impulses gifts from our creator; I just do not see scriptural merit to the idea that being created in the image of God somehow relates to artistic expression or creative endeavor. I’m even fine with making analogy between God’s creative aspect and our own. I just don’t see the tie between that and the imago dei.
Contextually, Scripture largely speaks of images in relationship to worship. Particularly in relation to the altar-practices of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures such as the Canaanite tribes. Images were used to facilitate worship of the gods. With this in mind, it seems reasonable that when Moses speaks of man as God’s image, he is probably tying man with the purpose of man. Just as a hunk of wood or stone, carved in Dagon’s image would direct worship toward Dagon, so is man, formed in God’s image, intended to draw worship toward God. This becomes more apparent when we see that man, fashioned as a tool of the divine to point creation toward God, is placed in the midst of God’s proto-temple (Eden) at put to rule over creation’s participation in worship of God—even as the idol to Molech rules or directs the worship of Molech.
And this idea plays throughout Scripture and the revelation of the redemption narrative. While man loses the ability to properly direct worship to God, he was still created in God’s image and intended to fulfill that role. And he would again. So to destroy an image that was to be devoted to God is a capital offense. And then at last comes Christ, the perfect image of the invisible God. Through him, worship is again restored and perfectly directed. And as we take part in him, we again take part in our role as intended—for as we take part in Christ, we are ever conformed more closely to the image of Christ, who is the true image of God, facilitating the worship of the creator.
So yeah. While I’m thankful for the creative impulse and enjoy seeing how God will glorify himself through it, I don’t see the merit in associating it with the imago dei. The end ^_^
@Drew, thanks! That is a relief. I didn’t feel I had to, but I did feel a bit lacking. Good to know.
@Seth, wow. Thanks for taking the time to respond in that way- you’ll keep me from getting the big head. I will admit that I am basing my theory not on a study involving an exhaustive word search of “image” in Scripture, but on my own conclusions based on what seems implicitly evident in them. What you say makes sense, and we are to worship God “in Spirit and in Truth”. I would tend to agree that the creative impulse is something gifted to some, if it wasn’t for what I see as a pretty obvious reality that everyone has this impulse. It seems to be tied up in our spirits. How we express that need is dependent on individual gifting- for some it may be through acting, writing, singing, and for others it may be through cooking, gardening, or engineering. All of these should be directed toward God in worship, but as you said, that has been distorted. And if I didn’t make it clear, I apologize, but I don’t see that as the only way we are made in God’s image. In the end, though, it’s just a theory, and doesn’t necessarily affect the bulk of the article.
This is a terrific discussion. What do you see as the “how” of it all? In all my wrestling with this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that transparency and criticism are essential to the development of good art. It’s the trial and error approach. Submit your work to honest feedback from people who won’t sugarcoat it and who have an ear or an eye for what you are working on. One of the problems I see in the “Christian art” world is that we tend to give each other a free pass because we’re dealing with other Christians or we’ve been trapped in a subculture for so long that we don’t realize the quality of others work.
David, I’ve been in two formal workshoping groups for dramatic writing and storytelling (mostly solo) for performance. Neither of them were Christian groups. And while I had to weed out what was not consistent with my faith in the advice department, I found the toughness of the critiques highly valuable. Now that I think of it, I’ve never developed alongside other Christians. Huh. I never realized that until now. Workshoping is important for writers, just as rehearsal and directing are for actors. My guess is that people who regularly engage with challenging art can give better feedback, Christian or not. Critical thinking is something which has to be used or lost, right?
Also, David, I see “how” the artist comes up with their various drafts (workshoping, outlines, rehearsals, etc…) as different than “how” they are expressing themselves within their piece, which would be the composition I was speaking of in the post. You probably already knew that, but just wanted to make that distinction. Thanks.
I’ve had discussions about “self-expression” in art as Christians before. What is your take? It seems to me that the such expression is only as good as the person who is doing the expressing. Consequently, it seems that Christian maturity and growth should be central to producing good Christian art. i.e. If the artist is a mature Christian, then his/her art will reflect a mature Christian understanding of the world. This would be in addition to his/her level of skill in a medium.
I think I agree with you David but I am not sure what that looks like in art composed by Christians. A mature Christian understanding of depravity could certainly result in very tragic art. I think an immature Christian is capable of producing worthwhile art as there is value to every stage of growth in life, and certainly skill in a medium helps.
Anyway–I don’t know if I answered your question at all but it is a good question.
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