Feature 06.18.2024 8 minutes

The Purpose of Art in Wartime

Man talking to his partner with eye contact. Two opponents facing each other. Conflict. The concept of rivalry. Emotional connection, relationships, exchange of ideas or telepathy. 3d vector.

Between provocation and propaganda.

There’s a war on. Commercial. Cultural. Technological. Global. An information war for control of the soul; being waged with propaganda. Which causes propaganda to be more readily recognized and seen through than perhaps ever before.

One result is a propaganda glut driving its per unit value toward zero.

But there are other problems.

Propaganda isn’t all bad. It might even be necessary to win. But it erodes trust over time. And time is accelerating. Fast. Our warring factions lack the trust to win outright. So they think only of winning the war. Not winning the peace.

Victors lose after they take power without public trust—the trust propaganda degrades and destroys.

Some try to cope with that negative feedback loop by simulating trust, working to directly control, instead of just influence, by thought and speech. But we always feel the lie because truth is spiritual, not factual. Just like trust. To win the peace, tomorrow’s victor must speak spiritual truth today.

But there’s a deeper problem still.

Those who fight for power aren’t trusted when they speak of the spirit. And those who sell religion are seen as false prophets. The solution? Art. Art forms images that shape souls. That makes art the opposite of propaganda, which sculpts messages to shape attitudes. Winning tomorrow means earning trust now by making true art at scale.

What Is Art? What Is Truth?

Some say there’s no one definition of true art. This is willful ignorance. Everyone already knows what true art is. It’s easier to forget today, or pretend to forget, because the digital medium has made the worship of human imagination, which peaked when video was the apex medium, so cringe.

But masters of the televisual medium, from the most spiritual auteurs to the most secular celebs, understand that true art is a specific, knowable thing we inherently long to make and share in.

“Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” People laugh at this line in Nicole Kidman’s pre-movie ads for AMC Theaters. But it’s an instant classic for a reason. People in cinemas cheer.

Would Andrei Tarkovsky laugh or cheer? “They have shared with the author the misery and joy of bringing an image into being.”

True art at scale communes artist and audience in the joyful suffering of bearing witness through image-making to the eternal in life unveiled right here and now in our present.

In that sense, truth and art are in love, and that’s why we love true art. But in wartime, especially one like ours where fake news at scale is the weapon of choice and necessity, both truth and art suffer from artificial scarcity, and we suffer along with them in a manner denuded of joy.

And so the value of true art that scales is incredibly high right now, but the market for true art that scales is incredibly undervalued and underserved.

Not just because millions and millions clamor for this thing that feels nowhere to be found. Because, amid the great disenchantment and distrust sown by the information overload that results from our war of all propaganda against all, the only way for the eventual victors to win the peace as well as the war is by strongly, credibly signaling their commitment to the postwar restoration of soulful human flourishing by supporting, and associating with, true art that scales.

This is the only path today to a victory that can last long enough for ordinary people to stake their future on. The alternative is a false and fleeting Potemkin peace, an unstable, unsustainable arrangement where scapegoating and human sacrifice hold disenchantment and distrust at bay only for a bloody time.

Between Idols and Icons

Some will insist there is an insurmountable obstacle to the postwar restoration of soulful human flourishing through true art that scales: religion. They will point out the spiritual essence of today’s inescapable war, arguing that the only art capable of delivering proper peace is religious art—visual art brought to heel, brought to kneel, by the Church.

Idols out, icons in, or else!

Certainly, the kernel of this kind of critique is as important as it is sound. Icons are sacred, and idols are profane, and mixing up the two in our minds and hearts, whether for innocent or strategic reasons, is a dreadful error. But amid the deepening division, confusion, and intensity of today’s debates about what tests of virtue or purity must be applied to properly judge culture, some crucial distinctions are in danger of being swept aside.

In what follows here, I consider the ancient wisdom of the living Orthodox tradition, beginning with the observation that it has never been the mission of the Church to eradicate arts and crafts from society. This kind of attempt at spiritual purification has always been deeply at odds with the Church’s tradition and teaching, which concerns always beginning the hard and unceasing work of purifying one’s own heart. The fleeting things of this world are to be turned away from only in that spirit, not out of vengefulness, fear, or spite.

A truly repentant change of heart can happen in an instant. But people can place themselves in acute spiritual danger by attempting to execute a turn away from “the world” with impatience, rashness, or a single bold stroke.

Making a show of oneself loudly denouncing and renouncing all “non-religious” arts and crafts is a spiritual extreme deeply susceptible to disfigurement, delusion, and distraction from the immediate goal and duty of beginning in secret: in humility, with the far more difficult and demanding process of ascetically purifying one’s own heart one stumbling step at a time, at a pace one can not only take up but maintain over the long haul, enduring until the very end.

The realm of art outside the Church cannot be reduced to the forceful application of laws and rules. It demands discernment. Risk. Experience. Struggle. Suffering. Failure. Forgiveness. Much like the rest of life outside the doors of the Church, nearly all of us, including many of the most devout, must live, work, touch, see, share, and endure what and who we find therein, handling the challenges of life, large and small under the circumstances, with a wise and intimate apprehension of the capabilities and frailties of the people involved.

On the one hand, it is clear that a merely human embrace of (to take one example) the idea that “beauty will save the world” leads to all manner of temptations and delusions. But seeking spiritual safety and simplicity in loudly proclaiming that beauty will not save the world runs a very unwise risk of pridefully and presumptuously “deciding” for oneself and others what it is God’s to decide. And not just to decide! But to understand, to put into words, to extend mercifully to us in a manner beyond the ken of the merely human understanding of justice, human or divine.

The Grace of Art

In other words, even if everyone was best off giving up arts and craftmanship outside of Church life and Church purposes, demanding or trying to impose an abrupt heel turn away from the artistic “things of this world” would do far more harm than good to the actual people in our real life. In America, specifically, such an imposed turn would act like a shattering blow on the ability of hundreds of millions to process the spiritual war raging around and inside them.

Rather than delivering them unto a peace beyond human understanding, it would plunge them into still greater confusion and despair. The Church is not and cannot be a place of forced conversions. Art in the world—true art that scales—should draw people into a shared “place” where the deeper and more bracing experience of the commingled joy and misery of our moment opens gradually, at a pace they can endure without giving up, onto the full sweep of our eternal identity and spiritual condition. Shutting down or circumventing this tempo is tempting but lacks grace. There must be some grace toward art, reflecting the grace extended toward people in their present condition, which leads so many to seek, and encounter, a taste of grace in true art.

Accepting and encouraging this process, avoiding the twin temptations either to slack off on spirituality or to speedrun it, offers geopolitical advantages, and not just spiritual ones. The American people are in an extraordinarily vulnerable and weary spiritual state. Amid the constant panic concerning their various forms of division, disfigurement, derangement, and decline, what they need is some human expression of divine patience, even though the hour is late and the spiritual urgency great. A little patience can go a long way, and the appointed end, which might come at any time, is nevertheless not for any of us to know.

To survive the process of wrenching transition from a satisfaction-saturated secular mode into a spiritual mode of ascetic athleticism, Americans will need to be handled with some care, and the breakneck pace of technological and political change will need to be offset and buffered against by cultivating a culture of well-measured spiritual change. In their behavior and words, people have a deeply felt awareness of their need for this kind of active grace, encouraging and engrossing but without sticks and whips. This is what they turn to art for today—these generations who turn to the screen, not the book or the computer, to help them work out who they are, what is happening to them, and why.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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