artistic intentionality

Crooked Still.

I told Aoife O’Donovan on Friday her voice made me love Jesus more.

This was a big step for me, as far as conversing with beautiful lead vocalists of multi-album folk bands goes. My previous attempts have included merely ogling at Jill Andrews of The Everybodyfields. (OK. I think I might have told her I thought she was gorgeous, or that she played a good show—or both. Curiously, my memory fails me.)

Aoife responding kindly, “I personally don’t love Jesus, but that’s great.” (I’m pretty sure she also squeezed my hand.) 

This otherwise inconsequential interaction left me thinking about the role of intention in artistic production. I remember an argument (excuse me, “conversation”) with my friend Jamie a few weeks ago in which he denied the that an artist’s intention ought to influence our aesthetic judgments. For example, John Mayer has made no effort to hide the fact that his songwriting exclusively  targets hormone-crazed teenage girls—and that it doesn’t reflect his personal experience whatsoever. Now, that may make his music (or at least the lyrics) less sincere, but does that affect its aesthetic quality altogether?

The question gets murkier when we try to account for the same phenomenon in art containing a Christian message. Often, the best “Christian” music is recorded—and even written—by non-Christians. Some of my favorite renditions of gospel hits are produced by musicians that publicly deny their theological content. Ought that affect my assessment of their art or not?

Revival album cover.

Take Gillian Welch, for instance. Her first album, Revival, blends minimalistic country-western instrumentation with folk spirituals from Appalachia. The album’s lyrical poetry opens before its listener like a pocket book of pressed flowers; meticulously antique, haunting in their pale luster. One can hardly decide whether to admire them at a distance (after all, they might molder upon touch) or to climb into the pew and sing along. 

“By The Mark,” one of the easier ballads to join in on, proclaims,

On Calvary Mountain

where they made him suffer so

all my sin was paid for

a long, long time ago.

And on the first track, “Orphan Girl,” Welch bids the Lord to come play the role of familial community until she is reunited with her biological relatives.

O Blessed Savior

make me willing

and walk beside me

until I’m with them

be my mother, my father

my sister, my brother

I am an orphan girl.

Surely these are the words of a believer’s visceral encounter with an immanent, living God.

Or are they? Welch, in an interview, admits, “I didn’t grow up in church.” Far from being a card-carrying evangelical, she tells us she “would probably qualify as a semi-spiritual person.”

That’s fair enough. I sometimes wonder if I’m a Christian or only a semi-Christian. (More often I wonder if I’m only a semi-Presbyterian.) But why write gospel music? Welch’s response is provocative:

Gospel tunes are great to write because you know what’s going to happen. There’s only so many things that go on in a gospel tune. You can sin. You can repent. And you can be saved. You can be remorseful of the sinning you’ve done. It’s a very restrictive form. I like that.

According to this statement, Welch’s motivation for writing gospel tunes is purely aesthetic. It arises out of an appreciation for the form of gospel music, not necessarily its content

So far so good. But our original problem remains. As Bill Baue at Killing the Buddha appropriately asks, “do the songs she writes qualify as spirituals, or as ‘semi-spirituals’?” Baue’s answer is that it doesn’t matter. By resisting to lay claim to the theological propositions vocalized in her songs, Welch not only forces the question of faith on us—as her listeners—but also takes a side in a longstanding theological debate. This is the issue of the certainty of faith, one’s own as well as another’s.

How can I be sure I’m saved? How can I be sure you’re saved? Works? Signs and wonders? 

Different churches give different answers, thereby producing different ecclesiologies. Baue’s answer, and the one he thinks Welch authorizes, is that we can’t know for sure. All we have is life on earth. That’s why we must ground our vision of eternity in the temporal, in matters and materials native to worldly experience. 

That may be Welch’s take, as well as many others in the gospel music industry. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but I can sure sing along, pretending at least as well as she seems to pretend that God is present in Jesus, that (ultimately) the “joy of redemption” outweighs “the grief of loss, the imprisonment of addiction, the degradation of labor, the violence of desire, the attraction of evil.” (Baue, again.)

Jamie says that the nuanced articulation of a problem is already half an answer. I can’t vouch that I’ve done that here—but I clearly don’t have an answer, either.

So listen for yourself and comment after the gap.




3 responses to “artistic intentionality

  1. To help facilitate discussion, check out this quote from an article by music journalist John Harris which appeared in the Guardian:

    “On account of Welch’s Californian upbringing, the latter has long been a prompt for the kind of journalistic attacks that can still cause her no end of irritation. ‘You get the sense that Welch is writing her songs out of reverence for the form rather than from personal experience,’ carped the Houston Chronicle in 1998, ‘and folk music (or any music) without authentic emotional reference points is, well, inauthentic.’


    ‘I wish no-one knew anything about me; that no-one knew where I was from, because none of it matters,’ [Welch] seethes. ‘You know, you find The Old Man Of The Sea sitting on a shelf and you read it, and you like it, and then you find out the guy who wrote it wasn’t really Cuban or a fisherman, and then it’s shit? I mean, What are you talking about?'”

    I found this after I had written the above, but it confirms that others have a similar hesitation to bless music crafted “insincerely.”

  2. Michael Parker

    I just thought that your readers might enjoy a video by Canadian gospel singer Stephanie Mainville.
    Stephanie has recently placed second in the 2009 Radio Star songwriting competition. She has also been nominated for an ECMA and has won several national Gospel awards.
    You can see her perform a live version of her song Nowhere here:
    Mike Parker

  3. Thanks, Mike. Unfortunately, I don’t actually have any “readers.”

    But I did take a listen to Stephanie’s song myself, and she’s rather talented. Canada has been producing a fair amount of gospel and folk music recently, hasn’t it?

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