[Ben Myers recently posted ’10 theological theses on art’. This is my response. As you can see, I find his theses — like the vast majority of Christian reflections on art — to be problematical.]
(1) Theodor Adorno famously remarked that writing poetry, after Auschwitz, is barbaric — Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch. This, then, prompted others to explore the possibility of doing any form of theology, music, or art ‘after Auschwitz’ (i.e. after the Holocaust). And rightfully so. Adorno is not simply questioning poetry; he is questioning the entire web of Western culture which has now been revealed as indissolubly connected with the mass production of death. Illustrating this point, George Steiner writes: ‘We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ and Adorno adds: ‘The idea that after this war life could go on as normal, that culture can be resurrected… is idiotic.’ Thus, Adorno and Steiner both pose deep moral challenges to our cultural or artistic endeavours.
(2) It is these challenges that are the proper starting place for any Christian discussion of art. Why? Because Christianity necessarily privileges the experiences and perspectives of those who are oppressed and who are not only excluded from the circles of the cultured, but from the community of the living. This is what necessarily results from following a crucified Lord.
(3) However, to question the value and role of art ‘after Auschwitz’ does not yet take us to the depths of our current dilemma. After all, the Holocaust is now more than half a century in our past and the world — including the world of culture and art — has gone on. People have forgotten what happened, the survivors have slowly been dying, and we are left with little more than the sentimental representations of the Holocaust provided for us by Hollywood — precisely the sort of representations Adorno warned us about. Thus, we have become incapable of creating art ‘after Auschwitz’ because we are incapable of properly remembering Auschwitz. Therefore, when we visit the location of Auschwitz, as a tourist destination, we are engaging not in an act of remembrance, but in an act that illustrates our inability to remember. Indeed, this is why aging Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to commit suicide than others — they are the ones who, unlike us, are unable to forget Auschwitz (which then leads us back to Adorno’s greater question: ‘Is life possible after Auschwitz?’ The answer, I suppose, lies in series of questions: ‘Life for whom? The survivors? The perpetrators? The spectators?’ and ‘What sort of life?’ but exploring these would take us too far from the topic at hand).
(4) That said, we must immediately recognise that we are not really living after Auschwitz. Proper reflection upon our contemporary situation should lead us to conclude that we are living during Auschwitz. By saying this we are not suggesting that the Holocaust of the Second World War is still ongoing; rather, we are retaining an understanding of ‘Auschwitz’ as a way of referring to the mass production of death related to Western culture and its self-absorbed lust for property and power. Thus, for example, every 200 days something equivalent to the Holocaust occurs — every 200 days another 10,000,000 people, mostly children, die due to starvation, water-borne illnesses, and AIDS. These are just a few of the largely preventable, but largely ignored, causes of death in our world. Causes of death, we must repeat, that are intimately linked to the web of Western culture, politics, and economics.
(5) Therefore, the question becomes, ‘what is the role of art during Auschwitz?’ and the answer, just as with the question above, depends upon whom is doing the art. On the one hand, we have seen that, even within Auschwitz, inmates produced art. Indeed, oppressed and persecuted peoples have always produced art, and it cannot be denied that both the act of producing that art, and that art itself, contain a great deal of life-giving-and-sustaining power.
(6) On the other hand, we must ask ourselves about the value or significance of art produced by those who are numbered amongst the oppressors and spectators during, but outside of, Auschwitz. Here, we must become much more critical. All too often such art is simply a contemporary manifestation of the madness and cruelty of the Roman dictator, Nero, who is rumoured to have played the lyre and sang in theatrical garb… while Rome burned. Thus, while children starve to death, we paint pretty pictures; while children die from drinking dirty water, we analyse films; while children are destroyed by AIDS, we deconstruct classical literature.
(7) Therefore, to continue to engage in art as though Auschwitz never occured, and as though Auschwitz is not continuing to occur, is unjustifiable and immoral.
(8) Instead, art must be created or performed in such a way that it becomes a part of a life-giving process of mutually liberating solidarity with victims and survivors, the dying and those left for dead, around the world.
(9) Indeed, to think that art can ‘seek the beautiful’, or be ‘a parable of redemption’, or come into the ‘proximity’ of the ‘beauty of God’ in the ‘crucified Christ’ apart from engagement in this life-giving process of mutually liberating solidarity is foolishness. Again, more strongly: to engage in artistic endeavours that seek the beauty of God (which is found in the crucified Christ), without simultaneously engaging the crucified Christ who is revealed in the poor people of history is, to borrow Adorno’s language, idiotic.
(10) To make this assertion is not to suggest that all art must then engage in some sort of overt or superficial didacticism. It is simply to suggest that the Christian artist — like Christians in every other profession — stands under the Lordship of Christ and is accountable to certain basic, and unavoidable, Christian commitments.