Who will deny that much “art” today is both corrupt and corrupting? And yet the Christian community subsidizes corrupt modern art in numerous ways, not the least of which is at the box office. Sometimes I watch movies as well, but I am not the average movie-watcher. As an academic, I tend to look down upon commercial "art"that has broad popular appeal, convicted that, if the savage herd grazes upon it, then surely it must be fodder. However, every few years I come down out of my ivory tower to attend the theater or watch a rented movie. A few years ago, I found myself in a Blockbuster video store staring at the carton of The English Patient. I must admit that I was interested in this movie since its advertisements showed some beautiful scenery, and critics at large, including the Academy, heralded The English Patient an epic success. So I took the movie from the shelf and walked toward the cashier. However, on my way to check out, I noticed that the movie was rated "R," which prompted me to put it back on the shelf. I seldom watch R-rated movies, and never when nudity or vulgarity permeate or even infiltrate a film. So as I stood there in my brief moral dilemma, deciding whether or not to take or leave the film, my artistic sentiments won out over my moral sensitivities. "Besides," I reasoned with myself, "I can fast-forward any objectionable scenes." So I checked the movie out. Upon returning home, I popped the popcorn, poured the coke, and pressed "play." And I was not disappointed (But I was seduced, in a way!).
The English Patient is certainly one of the most complex, intriguing motion pictures I have ever watched. The plot is a stream-of-consciousness psychodrama in which a burn patient slips in and out of consciousness. This psychic action provides the viewer with two plots, an interior journey into the patient's past in which he narrates his passionate affair with another man's wife, and an exterior journey into the present of two other sub-plots; one, the burn patient's demise and eventual death, and the other, a second torrid affair between the English patient's nurse and an Indio-English soldier who is expert in disarming explosives.
The English Patient grips its viewer at multiple levels - intellectually, aesthetically, and psychologically. At an intellectual level, the movie appeals even to the staid academic with unusually substantive dialogue and plot, interweaving within its fast-paced verbiage such attractive academic motifs as ancient hieroglyphics, Herodotus's historical narratives, and Platonic philosophy.
The English Patient also has fascinating aesthetic qualities. The airborne scenes over the Sahara's golden sands are breathtaking and, from the pilot's point of view over the shining desert, moving swiftly and silently, the visual imagery takes on a surreal, otherworldly, and hypnotic quality as the planes fly silently without the sound of roaring engines or propellers. Numerous allusions to literature also enhance the aesthetic value of the film. Several of the main characters are intellectuals who are widely read and lead exciting lives. The English patient himself, and his illicit lover, seem mystically united by a common intellectual interest in the Greek historian Herodotus, and his mistress cites Platonic philosophy as if it were her major.
The two exterior plots also beg aesthetic appreciation. The English patient spends his last days in a burned out monastery, which gives the setting a hallowed tone including several eye-catching shots of the cross upon the monastery dome against a cloudless blue sky. The other exterior subplot focuses upon the English patient's nurse and her illicit lover. Even though the English patient's nurse is an uncultured technocrat caught up in the war-related necessity of nursing his horrific injuries, her illicit lover, the explosives expert, is a cultured Muslim who seduces her by an imaginative journey into the world of art. From her window to his boudoir, he lights for her a candled path, and then leads her to a bombed out church where beautiful art works hang high on the church walls. Inaccessible to her because of the height at which the art hangs, he creates a rope pulley by which he raises her eye-level to the paintings. With lighted flare in hand, she flies Peter-Pan like through the monastery and surveys the art works, while her sexual accomplice manipulates the pulley and enables her to gaze upon these precious works of art.
The English Patient also grips its viewer psychologically. The movie mesmerizes the mind, moving one's imagination through a complex labyrinth of interesting characters, thoughtful dialogue, and a triple plot. True to Aristotle's formula for a good tragedy, the tragic pathos of the characters evokes an empathetic response from the viewer as we witness their suffering through several cycles of tragic circumstances. But Aristotle not only said that a good tragedy must only arouse in the theater-goer a sympathetic pity for tragic characters, he also said that a good tragedy must arouse fear in the viewer from having viewed such tragic action, and by this fear the viewer should have a cathartic experience through which he might avoid such tragedy himself. But I dare say that such a moral purpose, inherent to classical Greek tragedy, is woefully lacking in The English Patient. The movie knows nothing of anything moral, admitting no right or wrong, demonstrating no cause-effect relationship between immorality and tragedy; the chief protagonist categorically declares at one point in the movie, "There is no God," and no character does anything to diminish the nihilism of that declaration.
The movie ends, having narrated the adulterous lives and tragic deaths of its two main characters, leaving the uncritical viewer with the grandiose delusion that he has witnessed a glorious spectacle of star-crossed lovers caught in adverse time and circumstances that destroy them. "Ah," says the viewer, "theirs indeed was a love to be envied." But this is a deception, subtly and probably unconsciously conceived by artistic minds who have not a clue about how their talents and works of art contribute to the moral demise of an already downward spiraling society such as ours.
The tension between art and morality, as well as art's seductive power to demoralize culture, is one of which many philosophers and artists have been aware. James Joyce, perhaps the greatest English novelist, advocates the essential incompatibility between “art” and morality in his work A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. In this novel, the main character's name, Stephen Dedalus, symbolically represents Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Dedalus the artisan. The plot is abstract; if Dedalus, the artistic side of Joyce's main character, is to cultivate his artistic talents, then Stephen, the Christian side of the character, must be martyred; more simply stated, Christianity must fall if art is to rise on waxen wings. Another brilliant English writer, Oscar Wilde, affirmed that an artist cannot have "ethical sympathies"; for Wilde, one of England's first public homosexuals, art must express beauty apart from any consideration of moral absolutes. In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde illustrates his philosophy of art by showing that beautiful art necessarily destroys one's soul, for art requires the soul's careless indulgence into “beauty.”
The next day after I watched The English Patient, I took a country drive. As I meditated upon what I had viewed the previous evening, I was bombarded with movie titles that all did the same thing--transformed adultery into art, such as The Bridges of Madison County and Fatal Attraction (I've seen neither), and television programs, novels, country songs, and other examples too numerous to mention. As I mused upon these art forms, it struck me that adultery is and always has been a favorite subject of art, and that one of the paramount purposes of art is to disguise the moral ugliness and bitter consequences of adultery and make it something beautiful, just as The English Patient had done. Such a purpose in art should make us recoil from it and examine, not only how artists and their audiences celebrate those transgressions God condemns, but also what our response should be as Christian to any art forms that glorify and beautify evil.
On a Satanic level, moral corruption seeks to cloak its dark ugliness and robe itself in a majestic but deceptive radiance that lures our souls to hell as moths to flame. When Lucifer fell, he fell as one perfect in beauty, but his internal corruption did not distort his external radiance. Though a morally and spiritually evil angel, Lucifer transforms himself into an angel of light whose radiance shines with multi-colored beauty irresistible to the natural eye. Every precious stone is his covering: the blue topaz, the shining diamond, the black onyx, the fiery opal; but no stone upon his deceitful breast pulsates with greater lucidity and warmth than the dark, scarlet ruby - adultery. Satan is the father, not only of murder and lies, but also of adultery, for adultery diverts affection and adoration from love's proper object and perversely bestows "love" upon an undeserving and indecent recipient. Lucifer fell because his love for the LORD God was adulterated toward himself and other creatures, and since his fall, Lucifer's business has been to pervert the true image of God and divert the affections of angels and men from the LORD God to adulterated images of deity. The first and greatest commandment is that we should Love the LORD our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and thus the greatest sin is to pervert love by diverting it from its proper object to some other object to be worshiped or adored. Except for false religion, what better device could Lucifer craft to misdirect the souls of men and angels than art? And Satan does misguide us merely through art but through any creature-centered attraction that redirects our affections away from God towards an object of worship. With Lucifer's help we have created gods after our own image, from movie stars to musicians, athletic icons to corrupt politicians and princesses. Our culture is so absorbed in this idolatry and adultery that even we Christians do not realize the extent to which our souls have been seduced.
Weak and pitiful beings we are, whose souls can be stolen away from God by what men's minds have conceived and their hands have created. Like hideous Zombies under a warlock's spell, our culture has been enchanted by an old witch's brew mixed sweetly anew with modern poisons - popular music, the drug culture, Hollywood, television, athletic icons, and, yes, intellectualism, relativism, and art both high and low. Low art-forms such as rock and roll and country music, television, romance novels, and movies, have not only diminished our ability to appreciate higher art-forms, but have also vulgarized our morals, for the subject matter of these lower art-forms is often blatant immorality. By watching and listening to such vulgarity, not only to we desensitize ourselves morally but we also actually unconsciously participate in the evil these art-forms express. High art-forms, such as master painters and composers, can also be the means whereby Satan deceives both the artist and his devotees. No one was ever more evil than the atheist Wagner, and Picasso warped our perspective of the human figure, especially woman, more than any European since the Marquis de Sade.
Plato asserts that art holds a superior sway over its subject matter; that is, the artist is sovereign over his canvas, the musician over his instrument. But art can also hold a superior power over its observer. By spending an hour watching television, two hours at the movie, or a day listening to music, one willfully submits himself to the authority of the artist behind the thing observed or heard, whether music or image. What movie-watcher or music listener can truly watch or listen with complete moral guard, showing no chink in his intellectual, emotional, psychological, or moral armor? Hardly anyone. We cannot take fire into our bosoms without being burned.
The art to which we give our eyes and ears also proves that we have some kind of affinity for what we see and hear, and even more dangerous, art provides us with the opportunity to participate vicariously in what we see and hear. Can mortal men and women, in whose flesh are the motions of sin, deny that our sinful nature cannot be attracted to, excited by and, to some extent, satisfied with watching and listening to that which is evil? Can our fallen emotions, corrupt minds, and lustful flesh concentrate upon art forms which deny moral absolutes, rationalize evil, and subtly invite us to participate in the same folly? To the high-minded and self-righteous who say, "Not I! I can watch or listen without being affected," hear the words of Jesus: "You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do." He who thinks he can stand strong in the face of artistic evil should take heed lest he fall into its quagmire.
Mightier men and more virtuous women than we have been dragged into the pit by lesser powers than those which seek to seduce us. The electronic demons of music, film, and technology fill our ears and eyes with their seductive chants and images. Add to this the dark, spinning vortex of our corrupt society that is spiraling downward to destruction at light speed, the vacuum-like power of evil can suck us into hell's gaping jaws and swallow us up like a fly on a snake's tongue. In view of art's seductive and destructive power, perhaps we would be wise to remember the words of a children's hymn:
O be careful little hands what you do . . .
O be careful feet where you go . . .
O be careful little ears what you hear . . .
O be careful little eyes what you see . . .