Friday, June 18, 2010

The Power of Artistic Expression

It has been said that, regarding pop music, you are either a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan. That’s not to say that you can’t like both, but most people do prefer one over the other. Supposedly this preference says something about your general outlook on life, and considering how very different these two icons of music are, there may be something to this musical test. Artists such as Elvis and the Beatles use their medium (in this case music and song) to convey messages, express the stirrings of their souls, and to arouse emotions. The type of music that appeals to each of us may indicate something about our own longings and beliefs and can even shape our psyche, stirring up emotions and evoking a personal response in us. All art (painting, sculpture, music, film, theatre, and even architecture and commercial graphics) can have this power to influence us and provoke. In this way, life certainly imitates art – and we often imitate without consciously realizing the power that it has over us.

This is not to say that music and art controls us. We do maintain our free will – we can freely choose to reject the message of a song or the power of a masterfully rendered painting. Art can be appreciated without being manipulated by the artist. For example, viewing a violent film does not necessarily mean that a person will act out violently, as long as that person can distinguish between reality and the art that is presented on the screen and choose to reject the violence. But studies have shown that repeated viewing of violence can lead to an increase in violent behavior, especially in young children who have a difficult time separating truth from fiction. And someone who is prone to violent behavior may have that behavior reinforced by viewing violent images. The same is true of sexual references in music, for instance, or the influence of pornography. When something ceases to be “art” and becomes purely provocative and sensual, it is easy to see how we can be manipulated by our senses and society can be negatively impacted.

Besides these concerns about violence and other behavioral issues we must also remember that the artist often uses his or her medium to convey some “truth” as he or she perceives it in the world. Thus the ideology, faith, and/or philosophical and political leanings of the artist must be accounted for in evaluating the impact of the art. The artist often has in mind an agenda, a purpose for producing his or her work. Religious artwork (a Madonna and Child, a Reclining Buddha, a Muslim prayer rug) or political propaganda (Soviet-style images of workers, or the World War II “Rosie the Riveter” posters in the United States) convey different
messages depending on the artist’s beliefs. But in the world of ideas there are many competing concepts of the “truth.” Not all artistic representations can be correct. A painting that depicts the wonder of the incarnate God held in His mother’s arms, cannot be embraced on equal grounds with a statue of Buddha as he meditates on the mystery of his existence. One piece of artwork may be technically better executed, more beautiful, or striking, but the “truth” or ideological insight behind the art may be flawed. Meanwhile a lesser quality piece may convey a “truth” beyond words.

It is sometimes easy to be fooled into believing a “truth,” not because it is TRUE, but bec
ause it is beautifully portrayed: visually, poetically, musically, or on film, etc. But we must always remember that the artist manipulates the composition of the artwork to arrive at this desired effect. A well executed piece of artwork becomes believable when the artist’s treatment of the various elements blends together in such a way that his “truth” appears as the only possible explanation. We then enter into his world and understand things from his perspective. The messages conveyed in this way can be as varied and conflicting as there are artists who ply the trade. The important thing for us to remember is that these themes can subtly influence our thinking if we do not take the time to discern them and carefully weigh their worth. Some are more valuable and “true” than others.

Al
ong the same lines as the Beatles/Elvis analogy mentioned above, the science fiction genera gives us two franchises that exemplify the meshing of art and ideology and the divergent results that can come from two creators’ differing visions. Star Wars and Star Trek present sci-fi junkies with two separate worlds to explore and to be entertained by. While the spaceships, lasers, and alien creatures may seem cut from the same cloth, there are stark differences in how these two worlds explain life, the struggles of humanity, and the world around us.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, researched ancient myth, religion, and mysticism to come up with a fictional world in which Good and Evil clash and an unseen power known as the “Force” binds the universe together. In Star Trek, Gene Rodenberry, an avowed atheist, constructs a future for our own galaxy in which science rules the day and religion and myth play only a tangential role. In Star Wars, the Empire is clearly evil, while the Rebels are on the side of good. In Star Trek, good and evil are sometimes relative, depending on the alien culture encountered in a particular episode and the situation confronted by the crew of the Enterprise. In Star Wars, the good guys include the Jedi – the practitioners of an ancient “religion” with seemingly supernatural powers whose main objective is to ensure that good triumphs and their cause for justice spreads to every world in the galaxy. In Star Trek the heroes are the Federation – a group of non-religious (or at least not specifically religious) scientific space explorers whose main goal is to discover new worlds and observe them, but avoid influencing those worlds.

From their opening credits these two science fiction icons show their differences. Star Wars is set in a time “long ago.” This mythical story is meant to evoke ancient truths. Star Trek is set in the future. It leaves the past behind us and pushes forward, “where no man has gone before.” These tag lines tell much about how these two epic tales should be interpreted. A closer examination reveals more.

Gene Rodenberry had this to say about religion: “Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.” While religion was sometimes viewed favorably in some episodes of Star Trek, it was never a key component of the overall story arc and was occasionally seen as a flaw in some alien cultures. At best Star Trek is ambivalent toward religion. As Brannon Braga, a Star Trek producer, said concerning God and faith: “We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion…That, I think, was more interesting. We wanted to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”

While the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek examined religion from the outside as just another facet of human (or alien) behavior to be studied and analyzed scientifically, the main characters of Star Wars absorb religion into their lives. In the end, their faith in the Force wins the day. The climax of any episode of Star Trek likely includes Spock (the uber-logical science officer) analyzing and solving some mind-puzzle; whereas Star Wars ends with Luke switching off his targeting computer and blowing up the Death Star, demonstrating that the Force is certainly with him. And Obi Wan speaks words of encouragement from the afterlife.

This is not to say that Star Trek should be avoided by people of faith. There are many insightful truths and entertaining stories offered up in the Star Trek world. Some are very favorable toward faith and religion and even explicitly Christian in nature. Nor, on the other hand, is Star Wars a perfect example of Christian story-telling. The “Force” and the Jedi Order include elements of New Age mysticism, pantheism, and Gnosticism, and Lucas blends together so many different mythical elements that it becomes almost absurd in some of its contradictions and implausible assumptions.

As I have said on this blog before, Catholics should not mindlessly absorb the cultural trends and pop art that surrounds us on a daily basis. No art or mode of artistic expression should be taken at face value. But rather we should assess the relevance and moral worth of each piece produced for our consumption. We should know the ideals and values that shape each piece and how the subject could be viewed from other angles, whether the artist’s conclusions are based on false assumptions and how the artist has manipulated the medium to achieve the desired goal. Artwork may be fictional or unreal, but there is always some element of real life that makes the story, the painting, the song, believable on some level. There are themes and ideals embedded in art that can influence us in more subtle ways than we may perceive on the surface. We must question the “truth” of art and base our own conclusions on a higher TRUTH to which we must one day answer.

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