Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour has come and gone from Singapore, but in her wake she left a hanging question not only about the responsibility of artists in today’s culture, but also the responsibility of those who patronize the arts.
Fans in Singapore paid anywhere from $150 to $1784 U.S. dollars for the opportunity to see the diva perform a censored edition of her roadshow. The Media Development Authority (MDA) in Singapore gave the concert a rare R18 rating, barring anyone below the age of 18 from attending. The MDA also prohibited the “Holy Water” number from the performance, which in past shows featured scantily-clad nuns on cross-shaped stripper poles.
About a week before the concert, Archbishop William Goh of Singapore took a firm stand on how Christians should view the arts.
There is no neutrality in faith; one is either for or against. Being present (at these events) in itself is a counter witness. Obedience to God and His commandments must come before the arts. As the people of God, we should subscribe to authentic Arts that lead us to God through the appreciation of beauty, harmony, goodness, truth and love, respect, unity and the transcendent; and not support the ‘pseudo arts’ that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths.
The singer’s next stop in Auckland provoked similar comments from Bishop James Dunn.
I find it hugely offensive. I think there are boundaries, especially in our society in New Zealand now, where we have such a mix of cultures and faiths, that artists have to be a little bit sensitive to values that are held by people in our society… There’s always a fine line, isn’t there, about artistic expression and how free artists can be.
On the other side of the argument, Presbyterian minister Glenn Cardy, acknowledged the artistic freedom of the singer. “My personal opinion is that Madonna is an artist and like most artists uses her experience and understanding of her culture in her work.”
But should artists really be given a pass to do whatever they want for the sake of their art, in the name of “artistic freedom?” In other words, just because they can do something, does that mean they should?
The idea of art for art’s sake, that art should serve no other purpose outside of its own existence is a relatively new idea in terms of human history. The idea begins to crop up in various writings starting in the 1850s. This is also about the time that the idea of the tortured artist, sacrificing all for his art, living a poor existence in a drafty garret (that’s the attic, kids) all for the sake of being true to his artistic vision, begins to take hold of the public imagination.
For the majority of human existence, thousands of years before the “modern age,” art served a purpose, it served a community.
Modern society tends to think art should have no limits, that it should be free to provoke and challenge in order to force us to re-examine our thoughts and prejudices. There is certainly a place for that, but art does not have to offend in order to do so.
As Christians we are asked to see things differently than the rest of the world. There are no individuals; there is only the one undivided Body. Those qualities that separate us, our different-ness, is not for us as individuals, but is intended for the good of the entire Body.
All of our gifts, talents, and abilities are not given to us for our own use. They are pieces of a whole, and all are necessary for the Body to function properly.
Chesterton put it this way: “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.” (“The Falling Value of Words,” London Illustrated News, May 21, 1927)
We must constantly be on guard against falling into the sleep of self-indulgence. If we use our gifts selfishly, if artists seek to use art only to please themselves, as a sort of toy or plaything, then society as a whole is diminished.
As we live in the ever present “today” of Christ, we live for Him, and for each other. Each of us has been given a specific task, a task that is necessary and irreplaceable for the well-being of the entire community. When we accept this task, when the foot stops trying to be an eye and sees the value in being a foot, then we truly begin to live outside of ourselves, in love for all and for the One. This applies to artists of all genres just as much as it does to every one of us.
So artists, like all of us, have a responsibility to use their gifts to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” Archbishop Goh is absolutely correct. The arts should be used to bring people closer to God, not to appeal to our baser natures and not even to make an “artistic statement.”
But the archbishop also places a share of the responsibility on the shoulders of patrons of the arts.
Every time we choose a painting to display in our home, a book to read, a television show or movie to watch or even a concert to attend, we are casting a vote, a vote that by necessity excludes everything else. The arts that we patronize reflect the type of art and culture that we as a society want to promote and encourage.
The issue then is less about Madonna or her show, and more about our response to it. Leaving aside for a moment the question of appropriateness or offensiveness, the real problem is that this is the type of entertainment that society as a whole promotes and encourages. The only way to change that is by voting with our pocketbooks. Amid all the sensationalism and media glee in pitting a Catholic bishop against a pop icon, the real point of Archbishop Goh’s statement was lost.
We can do better, we deserve better, and the first step is to stop supporting arts that “promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the minds of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths.”
The state of “Christian art” is frequently, and not without reason, criticized as being substandard but the solution is simple if not necessarily easy. If you want art that “leads to God through the appreciation of beauty, harmony, goodness, truth and love, respect, unity and the transcendent,” then patronize that type of art. If you have the means, commission that type of art and challenge the artist to put forth their best efforts in the most beautiful way they are capable of.
If we really wish to change the world and restore the arts to their proper role of turning hearts and minds to God, then we need to start showing that desire by what we patronize.