Yesterday I happened to turn on the radio to hear Terry Gross in the middle of an interview with singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. I had never heard of Vic Chestnutt, but I like Gross’s Fresh Air program and settled in to listen.
Gross and Chesnutt were talking about a song Gross had just played. Chesnutt explained that it had been about his love-affair with death. He had, he confessed, attempted suicide several times in his life.
At this point, Gross’s voice interrupted the interview to explain that the interview was pre-recorded; it had actually taken place in early December of 2009. Then she explained that Chesnutt had actually succeeded in taking his own life this year on Christmas Day (2009). Then she returned us to the interview.
After talking a little bit more about his depression, Gross cut to another of Chesnutt’s recordings, a song called “Coward.”
As I listened to this song, I was amazed at Chesnutt’s artistic ability. Because the mood in my van (I was driving alone) got darker and darker, and soon I felt as if I were inside the mind of an insanely depressed person. It was the darkest, sickest feeling I had experienced in a very long time.
Finally, I realized I was damaging myself by sitting in this darkness, and changed the channel. It was many minutes before I could regain any feeling of lightness or hope.
The whole experience left me thinking about the role of art. I have always been a big advocate of the good that can be done by art which refuses to look away from evil and ugliness. I don’t think we can ultimately learn from art that allows no pain and darkness, because life isn’t all light, and because I think that the hope I believe in means nothing without the darkness that comes before. I hate “art-lite” that calls itself art but which is really propaganda or cartoon, because it teaches lies about the universe and about the Atonement which, after all, is nothing without the darkness it heals.
So why did I turn the station? Was I being a “coward”?
No. Despite all I believe about the important role darkness plays in making something art, there is a line–there MUST be a line—over which something dark ceases to become art, which can heal because of its truth—and merges into propaganda of another kind, or, basically, the vomit of a diseased mind. (And I’m not talking just about salacious elements, but including also spiritual elements, the philosophical sum total of a work–the way it can suck hope of growth out of you, drain your ability to sense the ultimate, optimistic truth of the universe and how God works.) There is danger here, danger to my own sanity and spiritual balance. Some works can harm my health.
I believe there is nothing to gain and much to lose when a work crosses that line. In essence, I believe that a work that is ultimately hopeless may have some value as a historical artifact, but it isn’t art. Because, in ignoring light, it is as false as the works which ignore darkness.
What do you think? Where are the lines, for you, in calling something art, or “praiseworthy”? (By the way, if you are the type who needs to “prove all things,” you can listen to the interview here .)