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Thursday
Jan262012

Art That Challenges: Aesthetic Challenges

This is the second in my series of articles about art that challenges and how we respond to it. In my previous piece, I laid out several categories of challenges art can present us with. The first category is Aesthetic Challenges—that is, art that may be opposed or offensive to our tastes or that may confront our ideas about what beauty is and what art should be.

For me there have been several experiences of this, but the example that comes to mind first is hard music. Just to demonstrate my age, I grew up in the '80s. I cut my teeth as much on Michael Jackson and Phil Collins as I did on my parents' music—Elvis, Motown and Johnny Cash. So, as a young man in the '90s, as I was confronted more and more with hardcore, punk, industrial and goth music, I was very uncertain of it at first. It interested me, but was honestly intimidating.

I remember listening to my first tape (yes, tape!) of what I considered “heavy metal.” It was the Orange County, CA band Plankeye, whose first album was a rough demo tape picked up and released by the pioneering Christian rock label Tooth & Nail. The drums were aggressive and came on the upbeats. The guitars were crunchy and noisy, the lyrics came fast and furious and everything sounded dirty, raw. I was fascinated, but wasn't sure if I really liked it. At first, it actually turned my stomach a little. I had trouble eating while listening to the album. It didn't make me ill, just...uncomfortable.

So why did I keep listening? There were a number of reasons. First, this was supposed to be “Christian” music. I knew Christian music as Amy Grant, Gabriel (remember them?) and Michael W. Smith. Smith's “Secret Ambition” was one of the most rocking songs I knew. Still is, but not in the same way. Anyway, I was torn. Christian music—indeed Christianity—was supposed to be safe. This music sounded dangerous, edgy, threatening. Could there be value here for a Christian?

Secondly, many people I knew and respected, guys and girls in my youth group who were a few years older than me, were listening to harder stuff like Sometime Sunday, Mortal, Lust Control and Focused. Some of this stuff was heavy grunge, some of it hard punk, some of it hardcore and the early stages of what would become rapcore. People screamed and growled on these albums. I had to cover my ears sometimes in my friend Brock's older brother's backseat just to avoid ear damage. My elder companions got something out of this music and I wasn't sure what. I wanted to find out.

Also, I was at a place in my life when I wanted to be unsettled, needed to be uncomfortable. I admit, I went looking for a challenge. As I got past the aural shock of transitioning from neo-Celtic prog-rock jazz (itself a revelation) to increasingly harder, darker and louder music, I began to see artistry in what was going on. I heard lyrics I could actually relate to, ideas I liked, and I felt emotions I'd wanted to express but hadn't found a channel for.

I began not only to stretch and adapt my aesthetic tastes, but also to dissociate my aesthetic biases from a presumed theological significance. I realized that much of my apprehension about these things had more to do with cultural expectations that had been given spiritual significance than with the intrinsic value of the music. Things like anger, aggression, satire, and the unruly activities involved with playing hard music were supposed to have no place in a “good” Christian life.

Since I worked in the Christian retail industry and specialized in music (eventually at the largest Christian store in America) I constantly encountered the quick judgments and disdain heaped on this type of music, even as it expressed and strengthened the faith of people like me who were increasingly out of step with radio pop.

The first store I worked at had fliers for local Christian clubs and rock venues on the front counter. The fliers were made using random images cut from who knows where, assembled and photocopied onto pieces of colored paper. I remember a woman in her sixties or so picking up a flier adorned with an image of a boy holding an ice cream cone. “This is Christian music?” she asked. “Yes, Ma'am,” I replied. She humphed a little and put the flier back, obviously disgusted. “Looks pretty worldly to me.” I let her end the exchange there.

In my head, though, I said, “Worldly? As in sinful and not honoring God? Because there's a picture of a kid with an ice cream cone on it? Get a grip, lady!” In that moment, I was reflecting an altered perspective. I was looking back on a mirror of myself—myself as I used to be. I saw how quickly I had judged things, how easily I had written them off, simply because they disagreed with my aesthetic sensibilities. It angered me.

After that, I stopped looking down on music just because of its genre. Many of my contemporaries thought Bill Gaither's Southern Gospel sing-a-longs were old fashioned and boring. I admitted they sometimes got on my nerves, but I saw such a great effort at preserving a musical legacy that I could never disrespect them and I often enjoyed the music. I was increasingly dissatisfied, though, with radio pop as it grew tinnier and shinier and way too sugary. But I knew that many of my customers were (by means that to my mind could only be the mysterious ways of God) truly uplifted and encouraged in their faith, even challenged to live better lives by Avalon or even (shudder) Jump 5.

Since that time, I've noticed something. My aesthetic boundaries in general have softened or altogether come down and I can appreciate a wider variety of music, film, painting, sculpture, dance, theatre or any other art than I ever have before. You know what else I've noticed? It's not just screamo and radio pop I can refrain from judging too harshly. It's other people.

When I worked in retail, I used to say that my job was to connect people with product—the right product for their needs. And, since every book, film, painting or CD (or cassette!) had at the other end a person who wanted to express something to others, my real job was connecting people with other people. So, I stopped seeing just a book on the shelf; I also saw the person who wrote it. I then began to take my habit of looking for the best in a work of art and apply it to the people I encountered every day.

My last day on the job at the store where I worked, there was a woman no one wanted to help. She was picky, time-consuming and terribly frustrating. I saw my manager trying to stay calm as he spoke with her, but growing red from the base of his neck to the top of his bald head. I walked by a fellow employee—one of the nicest guys there—who said, “I refuse to help that lady! If she comes up to me and asks for help, I will just ignore her and walk away!” Well, she didn't come to him. She came to me.

She was very particular about music and would ask endless, nit-picky questions. She would ask me to identify specific instruments she heard in tracks on the listening center's computer so she could find more music with that instrument. She totally derailed me from anything else I was doing, monopolized my time and tried my patience. But ultimately, after I had stayed an hour overtime to help her, she was satisfied.

As she held a small stack of CDs in her hands and smiled, all her questions answered to her complete satisfaction, I couldn't escape the idea that I had just ministered to this woman. I gave her all the attention and help she needed when no one else would and that mattered to her a great deal. I'd never felt better about doing my job and I walked away, never to return.

As I compare that moment with the anger I felt toward the lady who disapproved of the club flier years earlier, I hope I learned (and am still learning) to seek the good in people I don't understand or even like and to respect the value they may have in someone else's life. And I suspect that, if I have indeed grown in that way, it was at least in part due to the fact that I kept listening to a tape of noisy rock music, even though it made me uncomfortable.

You may not experience such a change yourself. You may come away from a work that offends your tastes and remain offended, but I hope you won't completely write off that work's value, or the value of the person who made it.

If you missed the introduction to Art That Challenges, you can read it here. Next month, we'll talk about moral and ethical challenges in art. In the meantime, I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments section and your stories via kevincneece@ymail.com. I may include your contributions in a future post.

Kevin C. Neece is a Contributing Editor for Imaginatio et Ratio: A Journal of Theology and the Arts, a Pop Culture Columnist for New Identity Magazine and the Founder and Editor of UndiscoveredCountryProject.com, where he writes and speaks on Star Trek from a Christian worldview perspective. He also writes and speaks on other topics at kevincneece.com and JesusFilms101.com.

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