Bad Places, Bad Art

In Story Craft: Reflections on Faith, Culture, and Writing, I make the point that a story should be more than an unedited videotape of experience. It is a moral frame that we build around experience. Art should seek out and imitate the structure that artists of previous generations called God’s design for the world. However, what if you live in a place where your eyes and ears are giving you a flood of sensory data that lacks coherence and does not seem to have any structure? What chance does art have of finding the broad motifs that underlie human experience? There is little chance, because where you live shapes what you see and how you interpret what you see.

I grew up in a small farming and ranching community in the Texas Panhandle. As a young man, I was fascinated by cities and felt confident that I would end up living in one. During the tumult of the Sixties, I lived in cities and found them incomprehensible. They activated a warning light deep inside my mind. I had no compass there, no clear sense of direction. The missing ingredient, I think, was a network of family and social relationships that were grounded in a Christian worldview. That structure still existed in many small communities, a fossil remnant of what author H.R. Rookmaaker called “the consensus of biblical attitudes” that shaped Western art before the Enlightenment. In small towns, it had survived the implosion of art and the worst effects of postmodern entertainment culture

I had my fling with city life, moved back home and began burrowing into my small-town roots. I was also practicing the craft of writing. The people in my community not only became the subjects of my stories but also my customers. This was a radical departure from the conventional template I had encountered in college: angry writer leaves home, goes to a city and writes hateful books about his hometown.

One of the defining characteristics of modern and postmodern art is its sense of estrangement and alienation—belonging nowhere and to no one. Artists who are not rooted in a place risk becoming disembodied spirits, those whose words and images are jagged, out of focus, asymmetrical, dissonant and, ultimately, toxic to the human spirit. We might say that bad art tends to come from bad places, which means that sometimes bad art can be remedied if the artist changes his habits or location. If a city seems incomprehensible, leave the city.

I am not naïve enough to argue that moving to a small town will solve every problem for every writer, but I would suggest that urban centers, which were so hospitable to artists and writers in the past, might have reached a point of diminishing returns. In our time, noise and complexity sometimes make cities inhospitable to the creation of crafted products that nourish the spirit. We must bear in mind that no generation in human history has ever tried to cope with the kind of sensory deluge that occurs every day in metropolitan centers. This includes traffic, crime, high population density, instant communications, as well as advertising images and noise that never ceases. When laboratory rats are exposed to such conditions, they become neurotic and even resort to cannibalism. So far, Americans have resisted cannibalism, but tormented art might be a symptom that all is not well.

As a small-town author, I am very sensitive to the worldview messages embedded in books, movies and music, and I often respond in a visceral manner, with feelings of shock and horror: “Would the people who made that film allow their own children to see it? Do they have no sense of accountability to a community or a church? Don’t those people have mothers?” Perhaps writers who live in cities, university communities and art ghettos do not have to ask those questions, but a small-town author, who lives among his readers, does. If he writes books that are chaotic, profane and immoral, and if the plumber’s son gets caught reading one of them, the next time a pipe breaks on Saturday afternoon, the plumber might say, “Fix it yourself. The experience might give you something real and honest to put into your next book.”

Of course much of popular culture does not even recognize “immoral books” as a category in the real world, but many of us do. Deep instinct tells us that there is something twisted and (dare we use the word?) wrong about art forms that mock the customs and values that for 4,000 years have served as our torches in the darkness of human experience. This kind of instinctive response has managed to survive in small communities all over the United States, though it has taken a beating in recent decades. Small towns are no longer immune to divorce, flabby self-indulgence, drug use and the fashionable pantheism of popular culture; but some members of those communities still retain a memory of Mosaic Law and the teachings of Christ. In such places, it is still possible for artists to use their skill to reveal structure, coherence and meaning as well as produce cultural materials that can help ordinary folks hold their marriages together, raise the next generation of Americans and, maybe, figure out why God put us here.

One of the challenges of young writers and artists is to seek out the memory of “the consensus of biblical attitudes” and to trace it back to its source. A small community might be a good place to look. Every small town needs the redemptive power of art, and every artist needs a good home.