Good Work

Dear Catholic artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, photographers, architects, bloggers, designers and everyone else. C.S. Lewis has something extremely important to tell you. Listen.

Until quite recently – until the latter part of the last century – it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct his public. There were, of course, different publics; the street-songs and the oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they wanted at first; but he could do this only by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing; we owe him “recognition,” even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests or habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop, the customer is always wrong…

But [...] I doubt whether we have a duty to “appreciate” the ambitious. This attitude to art is fatal to good work. Many modern novels, poems, and pictures, which we are brow-beaten into “appreciating” are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children’s story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labor successfully used to do what is intended. Do not misunderstand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

“Great works” (of art) and “good works” (of charity) had better also be Good Work. Let choirs sing well or not at all…”

- C. S. Lewis The World’s Last Night 

Is your work for the Church “mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection”? Because everyone’s sick to death of crap art, worse architecture, incredibly long blog posts describing the contents of your day, articles that barely scratch the surface of their subject, and, in general, the puddles of reflection that often take the place of good work.

I’m not grumpy! It just hit me that those words should be taken to heart every time I go to post.

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  • Alexander John Marra

    No wonder all of your posts are good. This is probably the only blog in which I've gone through its archives to read all of its content.Keep it up, Marc. You're doing a real good job.

  • Nick

    Your timing is impeccable, as I just started writing a blog, "The Bible Papist." I shall take this as a challenge to rise to. I hope you don't mind if I shamelessly plug my blog. Well, not entirely shamelessly, as you'll notice a link to "Bad Catholic" under my favorite blogs.

  • Jonah Arc

    Hey I know this has nothing to do with the article, but could you guys pray for my mom? She's being admitted into the heart hospital for cardiac damage. I have no idea what that means, and I'm really scared. Please pray for her you guys.

    • Paul Ford

      praying . . .

  • Marc

    on it.

  • ~Cita

    Love this. Was totally talking to my friend yesterday about word vomit and the difference between saying a buttload of stuff and saying a buttload of good stuff. Thanks for posting!

  • Mary

    A good reminder, thanks for posting. And as they said above, it is evident that you take this to heart. Keep up the good work!

  • Zita Louise

    As an art major, I appreciated this. Good old Lewis. :) It's hard to strike a balance between being a slave to your audience taste (making "what sells" is a rather mercenary philosophy for an artist) and trying to enslave your audience, guilt and shame them into joining the elitists who "appreciate" modern art. The work of creating something that is equal parts challenge and appeal fascinates me. And that is why I plan to live in a well decorated cardboard box with a type writer and a violin for company. Mercenaries and elitists are the only artists who make money.

  • Annalisa

    Thank you for the reminder!

  • Abby

    Maybe I just am not intellectually advanced enough, but I can’t understand what you’re talking about. It sounds like an interesting point but I just don’t understand it. Can anyone break it down for me? I like BadCatholic blog but many of the articles are a little “over my head” in terms of understandability. Keep writing these great articles, but maybe towards the end of them try to do a little summary in simpler terms for those of us who struggle with the philosophical arguments.

  • Kenny Williams

    All enduring works of art are populist at heart. The more “refined” an audience the artwork demands for itself, indeed CREATES for itself, the shorter the artwork’s lifespan.