Introductory Note:

What should we expect from art?

Writing in the 1940s, Dorothy Sayers prophetically diagnosed a problem among her contemporaries. They had settled for art as entertainment or moral sentimentality. “The average British citizen,” she writes, “does not expect or desire to be upset by sudden revelations about himself and the universe.” And yet this kind of truth-telling is exactly what we should expect of art, according to Sayers.

Renovaré Team

From a letter

Public Enemy No. 1 — if you must use these expressions — is a flabby and sentimental theology which necessarily produces flabby and sentimental religious art. The first business for church officials and churchmen is, I think, to look to their own mote and preach and teach better theology. 

But the point which they do not recognize is this: that for any work of art to be acceptable to God it must first be right with itself. That is to say, the artist must serve God in the technique of his craft; for example, a good religious play must first and foremost be a good play before it can begin to be good religion. Similarly, actors for religious films and plays should be chosen for their good acting and not chosen for their Christian sentiment or moral worth regardless of whether they are good actors or not.

This is what I mean when I ask that the church should use a decent humility before the artist, whose calling is as direct as that of the priest, and whose business it is to serve God in his own technique and not in somebody else’s.

It is very noticeable how well the great medieval hymns stand up to the test of time and the test of translation, on account of the soundness of the theology which inspired them.

From a lecture

The true work of art, then, is something new — it is not primarily the copy or representation of anything. It may involve representation, but that is not what makes it a work of art. 

This recognition of the truth that we get in the artist’s work comes to us as a revelation of new truth. I want to be clear about that. I am not referring to the sort of patronising recognition we give to a writer by nodding our heads and observing: Yes, yes, very good, very true — that’s just what I’m always saying.” I mean the recognition of a truth which tells us something about ourselves that we had not been always saying” — something which puts a new knowledge of ourselves within our grasp. It is new, startling, and perhaps shattering — and yet it comes to us with a sense of familiarity. We did not know it before, but the moment the poet has shown it to us, we know that, somehow or other, we had always really known it.

Very well. But, frankly, is that the sort of thing the average British citizen gets, or expects to get, when he goes to the theatre or reads a book? No, it is not. In the majority of cases, it is not in the least what he expects, or what he wants. What he looks for is not this creative and Christian kind of art at all. He does not expect or desire to be upset by sudden revelations about himself and the universe. 

Like the people of Plato’s decadent Athens, he has forgotten or repudiated the religious origins of all art. He wants entertainment, or, if he is a little more serious-minded, he wants something with a moral, or to have some spell or incantation put on him to instigate him to virtuous action.

Now, entertainment and moral spell-binding have their uses, but they are not art in the proper sense. They may be the incidental effects of good art; but they may also be the very aim and essence of false art. And if we continue to demand of the arts only these two things, we shall starve and silence the true artist and encourage in his place the false artist, who may become a very sinister force indeed.

The great thing, I am sure, is not to be nervous about God — not to try and shut out the Lord Immanuel from any sphere of truth. Art is not He — we must not substitute art for God; yet this also is He, for it is one of His images and therefore reveals His nature. Here we see in a mirror darkly — we behold only the images; elsewhere we shall see face to face, in the place where image and reality are one.

These selections from the British novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) are taken from a collection of her writings The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers (Plough, 2018). Original sources: Letter to Brother George Every of the House of the Sacred Mission, Kelham, Nottinghamshire, May 21, 1941. Published in Barbara Reynolds, ed., The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers: Volume Two: 1937 – 1943 From Novelist to Playwright (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 261 – 262; Towards a Christian Aesthetic,” Edward Alleyn Lecture (1944), published in Unpopular Opinions (London: Victor Gollancz, 1946).

Photo by MJ S on Unsplash

Text First Published May 1941 · Last Featured on January 2022