Some weeks ago, a friend of mine was invited to an advanced screening of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. As he described it, the whole audience loved the film, but he realized in retrospect that this audience, by virtue of who they were (invitees) were almost predetermined to love the film. Not only were they all McDonagh fans, they were the elite few allowed into this special screening. My friend wondered, then, how much of his admiration of the film was tempered by his own expectations before the film even began.
There is certainly something commonsensical about this: certainly expectation partly determines response. But a discussion this past week made me consider the dark side of the expectant audience. I had the fortune to sit down with a band who, especially very early in their career, could be described as very successful. But they have also found themselves in the odd, perhaps at times disconcerting, situation of being held (rather harshly at times) to the expectations of their fans.
Throughout their career, they have made efforts to vary their art, to experiment with styles, etc., and so it cannot be said that it was only after establishing a very particular brand that they surprised their fan base with a radically new direction. Rather, stylistically, they have tried many things.
But the expectations they have had to fight are those stamped upon them by virtue of being “Christian artists.” They described to me that they have actually been yelled at (after shows, and even in Christian bookstores!) that they didn’t explicitly preach the Gospel or mention our Lord’s name from stage.
There is much to be said about how the Evangelical sub-culture could fairly be described as an ‘un-culture’ insofar as has a tendency to reduce, amongst other things, art to propaganda (an idea unpacked a little here). But I had never considered before how this sub-culture can also serve as an anti-culture insofar as it encourages or allows a disposition that is antithetical to art, the attitude of utilitarianism. “How is this art profitable to me?” is a question that undercuts the possibility of aesthetic experience, and even though I’m sure Christians don’t explicitly use these terms, they do implicitly activate this mentality when they deem that a concert or a performance or an album has failed in some regard if it doesn’t lead to an explicit proclamation of the Gospel. This is, it would seem, the whole point.
But in one sense, it is hard to blame folks for such response, especially in the context of the Christian music market, for what is that market if not a place of great confusion, with no clear purpose in theory or in practice? Does the market (and the work therein) exist as an evangelical hook to snag the lost? Is it a cultural storm shelter where Christians can experience the beauties of art without all the pesky vulgarities of the outside world raining down upon them? Yes, the whole market seems to be problematic on a foundational level, and to my mind, it seems to cause more problems than it solves. (But admittedly, I have long become an outsider to that market, and lack the consumer’s perspective).
So where does that leave artists within that market, who have seen success at least partially in terms of that market, who now wonder if those terms are specious at worst or ambiguous at best? What of the artists who still have things to say, but by virtue of saying them, may be sentenced to contend with so much contextual cotton in the ears of not a few fans? How do you refresh the page if its been on the screen so long, it has burned itself into your browser?
After all, it is one thing to lay out a ‘theory’ of Artistic Vocation, but it is another thing entirely to activate it. And the context of that activation is never a clean slate. It is never engaged in a vacuum. (Have I used enough metaphors?)
And so, at the very least, what this discussion has made me realize is that just as much as there is a great need for reflection and wisdom regarding the Artistic Vocation, there as much, if not more, need for prudence (that is to say, practical wisdom) with regard to the Artistic Vocation. And this is itself something to mull over.