Saturday, February 19, 2005


Today's vast wasteland

If you've read much of my blog, you've no doubt noticed that I like old stuff: old movies, old records, old books, old-time religion, etc.. It's not that I dislike new stuff in and of itself. For instance, I'm writing this article on a fairly new PC on one of the latest releases of the excellent Linux operating system, and I'm continug to build on a large and comprehensive DVD collection. Insofar as technology is concerned, I have no qualms about using the best of what's new, at least once the bugs have been worked out. :-)

However, I find much of what passes for artistic expression nowadays, whether serious art or popular art, to be sorely lacking. Aside from the all-too-common emphasis on the ugly and crude at the expense of the beautiful and virtuous, i find a certain coldness or heartlessness at the core of much of modern cinema, music, etc..

Let's take the movies for instance. Now, I can't deny that the technology that's available to modern moviemakers is marvelous. Just the other night I saw a movie that seamlessly integrated live actors with CGI-generated backgrounds and special effects. Except for a few props and the actors themselves, the whole movie was computer generated. Even on a small TV screen, the effect was extremely impressive visually and sonically. However, the overall effect of the movie was cold and lacking in passion. No wonder, given that the very purpose of the movie was to pay homage to the pop culture--science fiction, comic books, architecture, etc.--of the early 20th Century, in the form of a deadpan cliche-filled psuedo-adventure. Given the subject matter and viewpoint of the film, it was evident that the producers intended it to be detached, camp, arch, ironic, you name it. I'm certain the film turned out exactly what it was intended to be.

In my opinion, much of today's music could be described in much the same way. Now, sound quality is better than ever, thanks to digital recording and multi-tracking, and musicianship can be excellent in a technical sense, but much of the new music I hear falls into two major categories: (1) technically adept but highly derivative performances in styles of the past or (2) more adventurous performances that strongly emphasize the alleged ugliness of the "real world". When I hear most modern music, I either think, "I've heard this done before, but better," or "What in the world were they thinking?"

So far I've been writing about the arts in general, so I should point out, with sadness, that my impressions apply to much of the artistic product of professing Christians, too. Now, I'm happy to say ugliness and harshness are found much less in Christian art and music than in the product of the world as a whole, but that doesn't mean that it's quality art. Sadly, much of the Christian stuff I see and hear these days is extremely derivative. For instance, much contemporary Christian music sounds almost exactly like secular music, albeit with cleaned-up words and less-skilled musicianship, and much Christian art and illustration is cold, superficial, or simply derivative.

My friends, this ought not be! What has become of cinema, music, literature, and art of wit, passion, and beauty? Has it all truly been said before? Is there nothing left for us to do than to ape what has been said before? Is the only alternative to the ugliness and cynicism of the world to be bland, saccharine sweetness and light? Has the church forgotten that it is God's will that we do all things--yes, including our art!--for his glory? Why then do we so often settle for imitating the world? Are we not to be salt and light in this present age? If so, where is our voice?

Although I've not done an exhaustive search of the contemporary arts, I've seen several examples that may point to a better way. In the cinema, some of the literary adaptations such as the A&E/BBC "Pride and Prejudice" or the movies of "Sense and Sensibility" and "Persuasion" allow a degree of beauty and virtue to come through, and the recent biopic of "Luther" has many virtues in its own right. Quality music seems to be harder to come by. In particular, I've yet to find a modern performance of classic or contemporary hymns that combines doctrinal integrity (i.e., includes most or all of the verses) and quality musicianship. Of course, my search has not been exhaustive, so I'd welcome pointers to good modern films, music, literature, art, etc., whether Christian or secular.

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