The Work of Christian Art

The Work of Christian Art must shock.  The closer artist’s heart is to Christ, the more shocking that work will be.  The farther removed the artist’s heart is from Christ, the more mundane—the more worldly—that work will be.  The artist’s purpose is not to shock.  The artist’s purpose is to seek singly-mindedly after Christ.  Yet if this is done, and done truly, the Work of Christian Art will surely shock.  The Work of Christian Art must shock for the gospel shocks.  Christ shocks.  And a work cannot have a character different than its model, just as branches cannot bear fruit different than the vine. This is not unlike saying that the art of the Marxist-Leninist must advance the proletariat’s worldwide revolution.  The artist for whom Communism is not merely a political adornment or the accident of citizenship but rather a deeply held conviction—to this artist certainly nothing could be more important than the final establishment of the workers’ state and its glorification.  And that would be the purpose of the artist’s work:  the single-minded promotion of revolution and the strengthening of the proletariat.

So Yen Ching Chung leads his score of the Yellow River Concerto with the words of Chairman Mao:  “Our literature and art is all for the masses, and primarily for the workers, peasants, and soldiers; it is created for the workers, peasants, and soldiers, and is for their use.”  And at the concerto’s climax, Yen writes below the score in bold red ink:  “Advance holding high the great red flag of Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tse-Tung Thought!”

Western critics sneer at such works of “Socialist Realism.” For them, art is for art’s sake alone.  For art to serve any other purpose, they argue, is to demean it, to somehow fundamentally dirty its inherent purity.  And certainly part of these critics’ complaint must be acknowledged.  Much of what passes for “Communist” art is aesthetically puerile and technically shoddy.  The Yellow River Concerto suffers from both of these faults.  Yet the blame for these shortcomings lies not in the notion of Socialist Realism itself, not in the desire to write for the glory of the proletariat, but rather in the manner in which such works are produced and judged.  Instead of allowing the artist to be the judge of his own work, the Communist states establish committees-- writers’ unions, all union congresses of composers and the like—that regulate artists “production.”  These organs commission works, and approve or disapprove of the completed products.

But when artists produce what they are instructed to produce, when they do as they are told to do and as they are paid to do, they then abandon their calling as artists (for it is the duty of the artist to surrender to no one his judgment as an artist), becoming instead artisans, even perhaps highly skilled artisans, and hirelings, grinding-out what they are commanded to grind-out.  “Yellow here?  Yes Comrade!  A bit off the nose?  Of course, Comrade!  The chin a bit to the left?  What taste Comrade!”  The works of these artists is not the result of their Communism, it is not the flower of their own deeply held and dearly bought convictions.  They are not the passionate evangelists of the worker’s revolution and class equality, but just cogs in a propaganda machine, turning as they are cranked.  These are accidental Communists, but intentional employees.  They do as they are told, and their work is as banal as their employers’ tastes:  the “art” of this proletariat is as stupid as Le Brun’s ceilings at Versailles.