What Cromwell's Warts Say About Good Art

Oliver Cromwell is not a name you hear often (or ever?) on a website about pop culture. Cromwell was the Puritan political leader in England during the 1600s. I’ll grant that he isn’t directly relevant to a discussion of pop culture, but I remembered a story about him recently that reminded me of one of the benefits of good art. An artist who was painting Cromwell’s portrait stated that he was going to remove the warts from his face in the painting (17th century airbrushing). Interestingly enough, however, Cromwell insisted that he be painted “warts and all.” The art was to reveal who he really was, it was to tell the truth and not hide those “blemishes” from the public.

As I reflected on this request of Cromwell’s I can’t help but think of the way much good art depicts humanity’s warts as well. Often I have heard Christians criticize and denigrate certain films or television programs because the heroes turn out to be far less than perfect. I can recall the reactions of some friends after seeing 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, and Amadeus. Some of us have become so used to the dashing, daring, and untouchable prince charming that when the prince turns out to be Shrek, we’re disappointed. But there’s reflective value to be found in considering humanity with its “warts and all.” What kind of value, specifically, does “warty-art” contain?

  1. It Serves As A Mirror Let’s be honest, most of us view ourselves “more highly than we ought.” We don’t like to acknowledge our warts, deal with our sins or expose our struggles. Good art can help us come to terms with our pride (which we often call self-confidence), our addictions (which we often call freedoms), our judgmental nature (which we often call honesty), etc. Good art can shows us how ugly it truly is, and what its logical outworking could be. I think often of There Will Be Blood on this point.
  2. It Highlights Reality The truth is we live in a wart-filled world. Sin has contaminated everything and everyone. There is no one above reproach or accountability. There is no one who is perfect, and no matter what the world tells you, you can’t fix yourself or your neighbor.
  3. It Destroys False Hopes The warts on our heroes can serve to remind us that ultimately no earthly hero will do. We need a hero who comes from beyond us, who is unlike us in our sin. Ultimately we need Jesus because he bears no warts of his own.

Of course I know that some good art paints the world as it ought to be, could be, or (for Christians) one day will be. There’s value in this as well. But we as people constantly try to hide our faults, our sins, our “warts” and Christians in particular can often criticize art that reveals these warts. “It’s too ugly, too dark,” some say. Some even go so far as to chalk the whole product up to a nihilistic worldview, “there’s just no hope,” they complain. In so doing we may very well miss the important pointers to the log sticking out of our eye…or to the wart on our face.

About Dave Dunham

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