The Intentionality Of Art
“It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” - T. S. Eliot
I remember how, as a would-be playwright, I succumbed to the youthful temptation to ignore writers like William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Thornton Wilder so I could be wholly “original.”
Clearly, I had not paid attention to the book of Ecclesiastes where the writer stated that “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Nor had I read C. S. Lewis’ observation that “no man who values originality will ever be original.”
I learned quickly that my hopes of originality became a poor excuse for ignorance. I wrote without knowing that I was dealing with the same characters, plot lines, themes and styles that the Bard and the other great playwrights had dealt with – but I was doing it far less effectively. Worse, my lack of study meant I had no point of reference for the quality of what I was writing. I could be unintentionally good or unintentionally bad without really knowing.
“People have no idea how hard it is to make our show look so bad,” said one of the creators of South Park, the outrageously offensive animated series that has been airing since 1997. It was a joke, I’m sure, but one need only look at a moment of it and see that they created a particular style for the show that was nothing like Disney’s animation in its best years. It wasn’t only a case of budget, but of intentionality. They wanted it to look the way it did.
Years ago, composer/arranger Paul Weston and his wife, the renowned singing legend Jo Stafford, created a duo called “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.” They butchered classic pop songs with Darlene/ Jo singing flat or sharp, Jonathan/Paul doing painfully ill-timed piano rolls, and mind-numbingly cliched arrangements. Their debut album was so comedically awful that it won a Grammy Award in 1960 for Best Comedy Album. When I first heard them, my immediate thought was: “You have to really know what you’re doing to be this bad on purpose.”
I remember playing Jonathan and Darlene to a friend who led music at her church. She couldn’t understand why I thought it was so funny, since she couldn’t hear what was wrong with the music. I thought, sadly, that it’s probably what is heard in her church every Sunday.
We can add to the roster of intentionally “bad” artists the classical music satire of PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele), the heavy metal spoof Spinal Tap, and The Beatles lampoon by The Rutles (spearheaded by Eric Idle of Monty Python fame).
The quote from T. S. Eliot has been an important reminder for me – and followed by the best artists in many disciplines – that intentionality is vital to whatever we create. When we create new videos at the Augustine Institute, there is an intentionality to everything the viewer sees and hears. Nothing about our audio dramas is left to chance. We are intentional about using the talent and skills we’ve spent years developing. If a video has the “rough” look or sound of a low-budget amateur style, it is because we wanted to employ that style for a specific effect. If we decide to bend or break the rules, we do it knowing fully what those rules were and why they were put in place by greater minds than ours.
I occasionally speak to writers’ groups and quote T. S. Eliot. I am adamant, if not overly strident, about the importance of heeding his advice. If we don’t, then we’re guilty of willful ignorance or a presumption on the part of God’s grace - believing, as some do, that God can and will use anything we create for his glory. To that, my standard response is: “God can redeem our worst efforts, but we shouldn’t keep putting Him in a position where He has to.”