Everyone has to have an overarching story. A mythos that holds what they see and hear together. When I lived in California, I did evangelism on Wednesdays. I hoped to do it other days as well, but Wednesdays I did my sermon prep at the neighborhood park. I introduced myself to people and invited folks to church. Depending on the year, I got the same basic questions over and over.
“What does your church think about the war in Iraq?”
“What does your church think about the legalization of Marijuana?”
“Do you have to watch Fox News to go to your church?”
“What is your church’s political party?”
Whenever I tried to explain–“We are a church, not a voting bloc”, “We are not politically affiliated”, or “Jesus is concerned with politics, but he is concerned with other things too”–people looked at me squinty-eyed. One man, throwing a yellow tennis ball for his young black and brown retriever, said, “Oh come on. Everything is politics and politics is everything.”
Overarching story pinpointed. We need a new word for this. Politicizationism? Hyperpoliticizing? Idolatry? Wait. I know. Boring! Any ideology attempting to balance on one idea will tip over and crush people. Single issue ideologies are dehumanizing. Classical western humanism saw that a just society rested on the three legged stool of nobility, loyalty, and freedom (Gage 2013). For the Christian society, the stance is widened as justice and mercy are made to kiss. Faith, hope, and love are added, with the greatest being love (1 Cor. 13:13).
But the great modern myth-maker, from whose cauldron boiled forth the modern mind, was the hyperpoliticizer himself, Karl Marx. For Marx, history begins when people realize that they can purposely produce the means to satisfy their physical needs. Marx calls this his ‘First Premise.’ Before production there was only pre-history. Animals merely consume. Humans also produce. To not produce is to be less than human.
“Life involves,” Marx writes in The German Ideology, “before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself” (Marx 1972, 119-120, emphasis mine). These material needs were more easily satisfied with cooperation. Ipso facto, abracadabra, society evolved, and history progressed.
Getting food, clothes, and a roof–that is the real story of history. Everything else is the bubbly-brain-stuff of your imagination. Not a part of the real story. “The Phantoms formed in the human brain are…necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics…They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking” (Marx 1972, 118).
The real story, if Karl is our evening’s escort, is the struggle for power over the means of production. Each of us, therefore, is either with the Kingdom of Real that is meat and drink, or we are with the alienators exploiting the masses with fizzy-skulled fairy stories.
But politicizationism destroys creative expression, especially public art. When everything is politics, then all art is propaganda. Whether the artist intends it or not, all art is reduced to a political statement. Propagandizing art ruins art.
Politics is about the regulation and limitation of force. The powers-that-be are, after all, powers. And suddenly, art is taken out of the Great Conversation (since it has ‘no history and no development’). It no longer needs to worry about telling the truth. It is reduced to a weapon in the fight to substantiate or controvert an ideology.
A level could certainly be used as a weapon in a pinch, but it does more good in the hands of a carpenter. Minimally, you are not able to build a house with it if you are busy whacking your neighbor with its broad side. Politics, instead of protecting a place for art, consumes art into itself and digests it. Art for art’s sake is a drunk on wobbly knees. On a shaky foundation, but likely still singing. Art for politic’ sake is a quadriplegic in a circus cannon. The only foundation is the one you are about to bounce and skid across as you discover the inevitability of gravity.
Art is not a means of production of the necessities of material life. It is unnecessary. It is like friendship which, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival” (Lewis 1960, 71).
Marx was concerned with putting bread on every table and beer in every mug, but he seemed to care little about what bread and beer were actually for. Bread is on the table, between people, to be broken and shared. Mugs of beer exist to be banged together in toasts. To take away enough bashful so that we can Karaoke to Whitney Houston. The point is the fellowship and joy and connection. Not the caloric intake.
Art should also be a point of contact between people. Art should let me see what the artist sees, draw me into conversation, lift my eyes from the means of production, and be brought into contact with other eyes–other souls. Art is a service.
Dear artist, give me glimpses of glory in the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Which brings me to my point. My city an arts commission which is currently taking public art grant proposals. The arts commission produces and funds public art, events, and galleries. Artists apply for grants and can respond to calls for artists. Your city might have one too. I believe that we should be paying attention to what is going on with commissions such as these. Not simply as critics registering complaints, but as creators hoping to bless our communities. If you have artistic skill, explore the possibility of public art in your community. You may be given the opportunity to improve your city with public art.
Excellent art is a gift. As Vincent Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “Art is to console those broken by life.” Public art is an opportunity for an artist to serve his community. As Jesus’ said, “Let he who desires to be the greatest become the servant of all.”
Gage, Dr. Warren. 2013 Plato and Augustine: Introduction to The Republic. Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary Lectures.
Lewis, C.S. 1988 The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Marx, Karl. 1972 The Marx-Engels Reader: The German Ideology. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.