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Is there a difference between evil art and evil in art? Or, to put the matter differently, is there a difference between the dark arts and the art of darkness?

As soon as we begin to ponder the relationship between evil and the arts we find ourselves in the realm of paradox. If God is the Creator, and if all human creativity is an outpouring of God’s creative gift in Man, how can Satan, the Destroyer, have any role to play in art? Isn’t art, the expression of creativity, a gift from God, and isn’t evil merely a privation of the good? If human imagination is the image of God’s creativity in Man, how can Satan have any part in it? Satan is infertile. He can create nothing. He is Nothing. He is the Real Absence. What does this Thing, this No Thing, this Negation, have to do with the fertile expression of creativity? It would appear that he has nothing to do with it; and yet, if this is so, why is there so much evil art? This is the very heart of the paradox.

In order to unlock the priceless pearl of truth at the centre of this paradox we need to understand the nature and supernature of the creative act. The creative gift, the Muse, is the grace of inspiration that comes from God. It is pure and perfect, and untouched and untainted by evil. It is the pure potency and potential of God’s very presence in the talent of the artist and in the moment of inspiration that engenders all creative work. But, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, between the potency and the existence falls the Shadow.[1] The falling of the Shadow is the Shadow of the Fall. Satan is the Shadow that falls over all acts of creativity. He is not to be found in the purity of the gift, any more than he is to be found in the purity of the Giver; he is to be found lurking in the shadows of the fallen personhood of the one who receives the gift. It is in the darkened heart of Man that the art of darkness emerges.

All art is the incarnation of the fertile relationship between grace and the sinner. The grace is pure, the sinner is not. The more the sinner acknowledges the grace, the more graceful his art will be. The more he is grateful for the gift, the more grateful will be his art, the more it will be filled with the gratitude and humility that breathes the life of wisdom into creativity. If he seeks to use the gift to give a gift back to the Giver of the gift, he will be using his talents wisely and in the manner in which they are meant to be used. If, on the other hand, the sinner fails to acknowledge the grace, the more graceless his art will be. If he is ungrateful for the gift, believing that it is not a gift at all but his own property, the more ungrateful his art will be. If he chooses to take the priceless pearl of divine inspiration and cast it before swine, he will be squandering his talent in the squalor of the gutter in which his art belongs.

To answer the riddle with which we began, we can conclude that there is so much evil art because there are so many evil artists. It’s as simple as that! But why does God cast His own priceless pearls before such swine, seemingly squandering His own creative gifts on those who will only abuse the gifts and use them against Him? The answer, of course, is to be found in Christ’s parable of the talents. God bestows His talents as He sees fit, giving more to some than to others. Great things are expected of those with great talents, and there will be a great price to pay for those who fail to use their talents wisely.

In the interim, we are free to use or abuse our talents at will. God does not prevent those with great artistic talents from abusing those gifts abominably. They are free to do with their gifts as they will, while time is theirs, and will face the consequences of their choices when time is no longer theirs. The gift of creativity, like the gift of time or the gift of life, is not removed as soon as we use the gift sinfully. Deo gratias!

Our discussion of Satan and the art of darkness must now proceed to further paradoxical questions. Is there a difference between evil art and evil in art? Or, to put the matter differently, is there a difference between the dark arts and the art of darkness? The question is crucial because the answer is the very crux, the very cross, on which the artist hangs himself. All artists have their crosses to bear and all artists must carry them to their own Golgotha, their own Mount Doom. This is the mystery of suffering, the art of darkness, at the heart of reality. The only question is whether we will suffer our crucifixion in the manner of the Good Thief or in the manner of the Bad Thief. The good artist, like the Good Thief, knows that he is a miserable sinner and that he lives in a world of darkness. He understands the reason for the darkness and confesses his responsibility for making it even darker. The bad artist, on the other hand, like the Bad Thief, does not acknowledge that he is a sinner, and yet he can hardly deny, from the vision afforded him from his cross, that he lives in a world of darkness. In fact, he blames the darkness and not his own sin for his desperate suffering. He does not know the reason for the darkness because he does not know the reason for anything. He believes that there is no reason, affirming that everything including the darkness is meaningless. And since everything is meaningless, everything is darkness. Nothing means anything. “Nothing, again nothing,” complains Eliot of these denizens of darkness. “Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing? Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”[2]

In this difference between the Good Thief and the Bad Thief, transposed as metaphors onto the two types of artists, we can see the crux of the difference between the dark arts and the art of darkness. Evil art makes sin attractive, denying its sinfulness and seducing us with the lie that it is only a pleasure to be grasped when the opportunity presents itself. Such art reduces all morality to mere ambivalence and ambiguity, and replaces the truths of religion with the mere opinions of the relativist. The art of darkness, on the other hand, shows the ugliness of sin and illustrates its destructive consequences. It is not evil art but the realistic portrayal of evil in art. It is not sinful but is full of sin.

Thus, for instance, Byron’s poetry beguiles us with the seductive pleasures of sin whereas Baudelaire revolts us with its ugliness. Baudelaire is paradoxically darker than Byron but he is much less sinful. Similarly Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is much darker in its depiction of impassioned and illicit love than the literary legion of titillating pulp fiction that glamourises adultery. Brontë’s novel horrifies us with the destructive consequences of selfish obsession masquerading as love; modern novels treat the same phenomenon as attractive and harmless pleasure-seeking. The former shames the devil, warning the reader of the dangers of selfishness; the latter does the devil’s dirty work, serenading us with the sensuality of lust. The former shows us Catherine and Heathcliff in their self-made hell; the latter places Paolo and Francesca in an adulterous heaven. The former uses the art of darkness to show us the truth; the latter the dark arts to weave a seductive lie.

Ultimately the chasm that separates the virtue of the former with the vice of the latter is as wide as the unbridgeable abyss between hell and purgatory.

This essay was first published in Joseph Pearce’s book, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture.

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Notes:

[1] “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot.

[2] From “The Waste Land.” The purist will note that I have subjected the quotation to the demands of my own syntax. If this sin taxes his academic sensibilities, I humbly beg his forgiveness!

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