Preachiness Doesn’t Damage Art; Bad “Artists” Damage Art

by John Ellis

Words are a funny thing. I don’t remember who said it – Winnie the Pooh, maybe? – but the observation has been made that words don’t stay where they’re put. If the Fall and Fall’s Curse (not to mention the Tower of Babel) are true, and I believe they are, this is to be expected. Communication traverses through the same thorns and thistles as all our other crops. This, however, doesn’t mean that all communication is doomed to failure; that we’re subjected to a never-ending trek through an interpersonal communication desert of loneliness and failure to connect. If that were true, I’m merely writing to myself. So, yes, words often don’t stay where they’re put. But it’s also true that words are often a powerful, precise sword.

So far, what I’ve written is a given for many, especially to my intended audience. The question of “does preachiness damage art?” that many (especially my intended audience) believe has already been answered, is what’s in front of me. It unfortunately wanders around in a communication desert of (perceived) self-evident platitudes, exiled there by those aesthetically sophisticated enough to sneer at Branson, MO, and Sight and Sound, but apparently not sophisticated enough to do a deep dive into George Bernard Shaw’s essays, sit through a Bertolt Brecht play, study Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, bother to learn the rich history of commedia dell’arte, or read anything ever written by Tolstoy[1].

So, no, preachiness doesn’t damage art. What a dumb thing to say.

I’d simply put forward the Bible as exhibit A, but that’s too easy. Plus, doing so comes with the high risk that I’ll drown in the sputtering caveats of my opponents. So, I won’t point out the gorgeous artistry of what is a preachy book. Instead, I’ll start with the ideological antithesis of the Bible: George Bernard Shaw.

G.B. Shaw opens his essay “The Problem Play – A Symposium” with the delicious words, “I do not know who has asked the question, Should social problems be freely dealt with in the drama? – some very thoughtless person indeed.”[2]

A more artful way to express my “what a dumb thing to say” from above.

Worth quoting in full (I’m tempted to delete everything I’ve written and just print Shaw’s essay), the great English playwright (and devoted and preachy socialist) continues:

“Pray what social questions and what sort of drama? Suppose I say yes, then, vaccination being a social question, and the Wagnerian music drama being the one complete form of drama in the opinion of its admirers, it will follow that I am in favor of the production of a Jennerian tetralogy at Bayreuth. If I say no, then, marriage being a social question, and also the theme of Ibsen’s Doll House, I shall be held to contemn that work as a violation of the canons of art. I therefore reply to the propounder that I am not prepared to waste my own time and that of the public in answering maladroit conundrums.”[3]

Spoiler alert: Shaw goes on to “waste” his own time “and that of the public” by demolishing the arguments of those who believe art should stay in its lane and not “preach” to its audience.

My entire life – specifically, my entire time as a theatre artist – I’ve had it drilled into me that didactic art is bad art. Preachiness damages art, I’ve been informed. At first, and confessedly out of a sense of faux aesthetic superiority, I embraced the platitude. “Look at those bad Christian movies,” I smugly poured out in tribute to the aesthetic gods. “I’m thankful that I’m a true artist who makes important (theatre) art like Notes From Underground and No Exit.”

Delving further and further into theatre theory, especially the theories of Artaud, Grotowski, and Augusto Boal, my deepening understanding of theatre’s possibility sat alongside the voice of Mick Napier. The longer I sat with them, the more the veracity of the claim that didactic art is bad art began to be severely challenged. Mercifully, it was ultimately upended in my own understanding of art. Unpacking Artaud, Grotowski, and Boal would be a fruitful exercise (and an enjoyable one). But, alas, it’s an exercise that would transform this short, semi-snarky article into a lesser, although no shorter, version of a PhD thesis. Best to stick with the more easily accessible improv guru Mick Napier to underline my argument. And if you think that’s a slight to Napier, you’ve probably never read Artaud.

The founder of Chicago’s Annoyance Theatre, a resident director at The Second City, and having worked with and taught the likes of Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Jeff Garlin, and Andy Richter, among other accolades that demonstrate his artistic bona fides, Napier takes a jackhammer to the rules of improv in his book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. Which is an odd thing to do considering he makes much of his living via teaching improv.

Everyone who has ever taken an improv class (or watched The Office) is aware of the rules – or at least, one of the rules. Those Ten Commandments of Improv that begin with the almighty dictum, “Thou shalt NOT deny.” Napier, without allowing the unsuspecting reader, who is hoping to have his improv training undergirded by the book, become comfortable, almost immediately asks, “Why am I so snitty about [the rules of improv]? Because I don’t believe they work. That is, The Rules do not help one improvise well. As a matter of fact, I believe that they help one not improvise well. They are destructive. And why do I believe this? I will now tell you in excruciating detail.”[4]

One of Napier’s primary arguments is that the rules arose from a faulty process. Over time, he comically argues, after extrapolating from bad improv, people constructed rules out of those extrapolations. These rule-makers watched improv scenes and concluded, “It seems that every time a bad improv scene happens, the same patterns of behavior show up. So, perhaps, if we could get rid of the bad behavior, a good scene will materialize.”[5]

For Napier, though, that’s a fallacy. “Yes, there is a correlation between bad scenes and a specific behavior, but it is not causal. The behavior is consequential. Scenes that are bad to begin with often yield such behavior, but the behavior itself does not cause the scene to be bad.”[6]

For me, the most relevant takeaway is his observation that “scenes that are bad to begin with will often yield such behavior.” Change it to “art that is bad to begin with will often be didactic” and my argument emerges. Yes, there is a lot of bad art that is didactic. A lot. A lot a lot. The questions should be asked, though, is it the didacticism that makes it bad? Or is it the bad art that makes the didacticism bad? Or is it bad didacticism … you get the point. Along the same lines, do those who “create” bad art often rely on a certain style of didacticism because they are bad artists? Yes. The answer is, yes.

However, those are questions that are missing from Trevin Wax’s latest article for The Gospel Coalition. “We Should Talk About Disney” purports to offer a better take on the loud calls from conservatives to boycott Disney because of the Mouse House’s “wokeism.” After acknowledging the near impossibility and futility of boycotting an organization as vast as Disney, especially considering all their tentacles spread throughout our society, Wax offers, “Another way forward would be to keep up the public pressure on Disney to avoid tainting their future artistic endeavors. Preachiness damages art.”[7]

And there it is: “Preachiness damages art.” It’s now codified in reformed, neo-Kuyperian thought.

Look, I’m all for taking shots at Disney (and the entirety of Orlando, for that matter – the whole place reminds me of Bunyan’s Vanity Faire – ooh! Speaking of preachiness in art, have you read Pilgrim’s Progess?), but if Disney’s art is tainted by their preachiness, it’s generally because we don’t like what they’re preaching. Hence, the proposed boycott (or “cancelling,” whatever we call these things now). The art isn’t necessarily bad, just the intended message.

Circling back to the Bible, the irony inherent in the sputtering platitudes of my opponents is that this comes down to the word “preach” not staying put in one place. Preaching done artfully in, well, art, is, well, artful. To such an obvious point that one wonders how the tautology is missed. Or rather, one realizes that it’s so obvious as to (possibly) render it invisible in the face of bad examples like War Room, Janette Oke books, and whatever Robert Jeffress’ church is going to put on their platform this Easter.

Again, words move around. What is preaching? What is didactic? Do they have a singular definition in all times and places? No. Of course not. But it doesn’t matter. Art – good art – is more powerful than the handwringing gives it credit for.

However, I’m sure some remain unconvinced. So, okay. Whatever. You want to point to bad art that includes preaching? Fine. It exists. On that, we agree. But I want a turn, too. For starters, I want to introduce you to the plays from the Black Theatre of the 60s and 70s. Ed Bullins, the esteemed and award-winning playwright, leader in the Black Theatre movement, and member of the Black Panthers, said in no uncertain terms in an interview, “When you have a Black theatre and you have a Black audience and a Black artist, then the idea of getting people back together will be passe. The people will be together and all you will have to do while they are together will be to tell them things which are beneficial and progressive and revolutionary. Those are some of the aspects of the National Black Theatre.”[8]  

Read some of the plays from the Black theatre movement. They’re gorgeously crafted. They’re powerful. And they’re preachy.

If you believe that preachiness damages art, I’d next like you to explain to me the enduring artistic legacy of Commedia delle’arte, and its more contemporary descendant Theatre of the Oppressed. Go ahead. There’s a comment section below this article.

Using a basic foundation of continued stock characters (usually signified by extravagant masks), ready made plot devices, and stock jokes, the players of Commedia delle’arte used their craft to “preach” at the local powers wherever they performed. Engaging local dynamics and satirizing local politics and scandals, Commedia delle’arte adroitly (although, not subtly) held up a sermonizing mirror to society, specifically society’s elite. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed takes that a step further. My word, Boal and his company traveled to communities under the oppressive thumbs of dictators and used their art to confront dictators with the wrongness of their dictating. Whatever else it is, Boal did not create bad art, as a general rule.

Art for art’s sake makes for a nice saying in a Hallmark card to give to wannabe artists who lack the nuance in their craft to be able to tweak the noses of dictators without losing their own nose via having their whole head chopped off. But if the road isn’t trodden cautiously, art for art’s sake terminates in solipsism. Without a message speaking to the community on behalf of someone, art tends to steer us into private moments of expressive individualism. “It makes me feel certain ways that confirm who I want to be,” is the raison d’etre for that type of art(lessness).  Even Aristotle’s catharsis was intended to be a communal device (I’m somewhat stretching here, but the contrast is important). With it, the play is supposed to say to the polis, “Hey, outside this theatre, things are fine just the way they are. No need to change. Have your cathartic moment here so that you can leave any urges to challenge the status quo at the door as you leave.” The extreme of art for art’s sake, though, means that art cannot be a shared experience; it’s private.

So, does art’s purpose find a parallel in a neo-romanticism-styled solipsism that finds Ferdinand the Bull smelling roses? Or is the purpose better located in the first recorded example of experimental theatre?

Recorded in Ezekiel 4-5, the prophet, under God’s divine direction, performed theatre in ways that melded the world of imagination with the world of reality, creating a form of confrontational theatre that was vivid and frightening. And the play, written and directed by God, was didactic. It contained (much) “preachiness.” At its best and most powerful, art is communal, not private. As such, the best of art calls for a change of stasis; art requires conflict. Conflict expects resolution – a change of stasis. If that doesn’t require preaching, then I don’t know what preaching is. And I don’t know what art is either. It boils down to this: for art to be good, artfulness is required. And artfulness molds a variety of techniques and approaches, including “preachiness,” into a cogent and coherent whole that effectively communicates the story in ways that produce a change of stasis. If art is damaged by “preachiness,” the problem isn’t necessarily the preaching. The problem might very well be the so-called artist.

[1] Granted, using Tolstoy as an example is a dangerous game to play. Some would argue that his preachiness did, in fact, damage his art.

[2] George Bernard Shaw, “The Problem Play – A Symposium” Shaw On Theatre ed. E.J. West (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958) 58.

[3] Shaw, Shaw on Theatre, 58.

[4] Mick Napier, Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004), 4.

[5] Napier, Improvise, 7.

[6] Napier, Improvise, 7-8.

[7] To be fair, I’m not really responding to Wax’s article, just his one claim that “preachiness damages art.” He does offer some nuance in the article that is usually absent most “didacticism = bad art” arguments.

[8] Ed Bullins, “Interview with Ed Bullins by Marvin X” New Plays From the Black Theatre ed. Ed Bullins (New York: Bantam, 1969), x.

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