Art, in its every form, has always been volatile. It challenges people’s beliefs. It forces them to face uncomfortable realities. It constrains them to see the world through an entirely different set of eyes. In experiencing any form of art, but perhaps particularly the novel, we are plunged into the mind of another human being. And no matter closely the author’s thoughts may align with our own, then never align perfectly. There must always be a moment of friction, a word, a phrase, or an image that jars, a view with which we cannot agree, perhaps even one with which we passionately disagree.
This is where we find the groundwork for the interminable arguments over the morality of art. Since the beginning of time, since the very first artistic endeavor, humanity has struggled with whether or not the creative act of art is inherently good or inherently evil. Books and movies, paintings and even music have been banned in every age, by every religion and every government. Some artists are decried as debauched infidels, only be praised by others as extraordinary visionaries. Why is this? Why do we find art spit upon by some and extolled by others? And which view is correct?
Fiction is always inherently moral. Because every story must set forth questions of a moral nature regarding the characters’ arcs, it must also propose answers. Within these questions and answers, the author is inevitably putting forth a moral viewpoint. He is bound to communicate the truth as clearly as he sees it. All of fiction, even blatantly unrealistic venues such as science fiction and fantasy, must be grounded in the reality of human life. But because this reality is subject to every author’s personal beliefs, it is inevitable that no piece of literature can be universally agreed upon anymore than the author himself, as a person, will be universally agreed with.
In art, we explore. And what kind of explorers would we be if we kept to the beaten paths and never ventured into the shadows of the mountains and the canyons? Good art not only asks questions, it asks difficult questions. Artists cannot be content to wallow comfortably in stagnation; we must grow, we must question, we must study. In The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Hampton Wright points out:
[Exploring] gets artists into more trouble than any other aspect of creative work. Artists are put on earth to explore, to push the boundaries, to ask yet more questions, and sometimes to do away with—or at least challenge—traditional assumptions.
This trait can look like rebellion or simple contrariness, but it is in fact the nature of creativity. Creativity looks for a new way to say or depict something that’s been around forever. Every day we must rise and go about our life, and if creativity did not provide fresh ways in which to perceive our experiences and articulate them, we would grow dull and tired and aimless very quickly. ...
When you embark upon creative work, it will push your personal boundaries. It will open up parts of yourself with which you have been unfamiliar. ... The exploratory nature of creativity makes it scary at times. But it also adds intrigue and sizzle to life and moves the mundane into the realm of wonder.
Whether a piece of fiction is labeled “moral” or “immoral” often has more to do with current societal mores than it does with the actual morality of the work itself. Art rolls in and out of fashion with the times, depending upon current arbitrary views. Has the writing of Solzhenitsyn changed by so much as one letter since 1945 when it was labeled subversive? Only the times have changed to make his work, and the work of hundreds of others, acceptable.
None of this is to say that I believe the morality of any piece of art cannot be definitively labeled. As a Christian, I look to the Word of God as the bottom line in any moral argument. But I can find nothing therein to support the idea that art is inherently evil. In fact, I would have to argue the opposite—that fiction can be used just as strongly, if not more so, for good as it is for evil.
Art and spirituality are inextricable. Our religious and psychological views inform every area of our art, just as our art inspires exploration and growth in our spiritual beliefs. They are linked at their very core. I cannot believe that someone who is out of touch with his inner self, and therefore his inner beliefs (whatever they may be), will be able to create art that will harmonize with, influence, and alter the life of anyone else. In Creative Spirituality, Robert Wuthnow wrote, that “Art and spirituality are nevertheless similar in that both are sets of activities that infuse all aspects of a person’s life and gradually shape that person’s worldview.” Our art influences our religious views, and our religious views inform our art. It is an unbreakable cycle.
Because of this inherent connection, I not only believe art is far from being inherently immoral, but that its considerable power can be wielded for great good. The novel, in the hands of an artist who is willing to commit his every word to wherever the leading of the Spirit may direct, is not only an intellectual force, but a moral force.
In light of that thought, let me close with one more quote from Wright:
When you are attentive to the spiritual dynamics in your life, you don’t do something just because you can. You don’t create a work of art simply to create a sensation. You do it because the time is right. You do it because your own growth requires it. You do it because you have discovered a new way to see something that might help others see it too. You do it because the community of which you are a part needs for you to do it. That doesn’t mean that the community is always ready for it; sometimes the Spirit uses art to upset us and make us search ourselves. But the artist who follows the spirit is sensitive to doing the right work at the right time.
Story by K.M. Weiland