David Grohl: The Grammy’s, Art and the Gospel
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
“This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine. To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].” David Grohl, 2012 Grammy acceptance speech
The reason everyone’s talking about this is because, well, there’s some truth to it. When Nicki Minaj becomes a pop icon, we really have to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly is wrong with our culture.
So we’re not just thankful for Grohl and the Foo Fighters for staying true to their craft, but we also can find some deep, spiritual insight in his comments. Christian theology has always emphasized that man was made in the imago Dei, the “image of God.” This means we resemble God, perhaps not in appearance, but in His character traits. And the phrase “image of God” first appears in the opening chapter of Genesis, a chapter that primarily emphasizes God’s creativity. This means that all humanity is similarly gifted with the capacity for creativity.
This means that all creative expressions have a spiritual side to them, even though they might not necessarily be explicitly “Christian” in nature. Art – all forms of it – becomes a spiritual act. But because art is a spiritual act, it has profound implications on the shaping of our souls and character.
In his work An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis observed that we can either “receive” art, or we can “use” art. He explains:
“We sit down before [a work of art] in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it…[When we ‘receive’ art,] we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist…[When we ‘use’ art, we] treat it as assistance for our own activities. ‘[U]sing is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism)
What Grohl is (perhaps unknowingly) reacting against is the tendency to “use” music for the thrill of temporary, subjective experience. Grohl admits the lack of perfection in his own art, but recognizes its value in contrast to the inherent “forgetability” (yes, I made that word up) of so much pop music (remember the Spice Girls? Neither do I).
And the problem, spiritually speaking, is that a tendency to “use” rather than “receive” numbs us to the inherent beauty that God breathes into the world. When we teach ourselves to put on our iPods and “use” art that glorifies shallow, transient relationships, when we teach ourselves to medicate ourselves with synthesizers rather than musical chords, when we teach ourselves that excellence is determined by popularity, we have allowed ourselves to be shaped into people who fail to appreciate beauty and depth.
The problem, as I see it, stems from at least three key factors:
(1) The subjectivity of beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ve repeatedly been told. This means that no longer are we concerned with traditional standards of beauty such as proportion, rhythm and progress, but rather evaluate beauty on the basis of subjective experience. No longer do we ask, “Is the music good?” but, “Do I like it?” And a generation beneath us is having an increasingly difficult time differentiating between those two questions.
(2) The loss of moral center. The artist Paul Klee once wrote that “The more horrible this world is, the more abstract art will be, which a happier world brings forth a more realistic art.” Our world is fractured and broken. The wave of technology has only brought such brokenness not only to our front doors, not only to our living rooms, but constantly fed to us through hand-held devices. Just as the horrors of the last century brought us the abstraction of artists such as Kandinsky and Pollock, so our present world will continue to churn out “low” forms of pop music, often in an effort to numb us to the brokenness that we inhabit. Stated another way, what’s the point of creating beautiful music if the world isn’t beautiful?
(3) The culture of charisma. Traditional cultures value the presence of authority, systems that help us evaluate things such as meaning and beauty. But today popularity is governed by the ubiquitous cult of celebrity. Value is determined by one’s number of Twitter followers. In such a climate, we are forced to “use” art, because by its very nature it can never truly add to our lives or improve our character.
The Christian doctrine of creativity helps us navigate our way out of these problems by offering us a viable solution.
(1) Valuing reflection over entertainment. In his excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observes the way our culture has been shaped into something that resembles Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman argues that Huxley “was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 163) The solution, therefore, is to be a people who critically evaluate the standards of our beauty and creativity in the world around us.
(2) Suffering should nurture, not stifle art. In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy and Red discuss the value of music. Red insists that music doesn’t “make much sense in here,” referring to the bars of their prison world. But Andy protests: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget. … Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.” “What’re you talking about?” Red asks, to which Andy replies: “Hope.”
The optimism of a previous century collapsed under the collective weight of wars and rumors of wars. Art gives voice to a culture that yearns for beauty and meaning, values that are integral to the Christian story.
(3) Blurring the line between sacred and secular. The language of common grace tells us that beauty, goodness and truth may be found in creative expression regardless of the faith of the artist. There is no more “hard surface of secularity” (to borrow Barth’s phrase) in a culture that has become enamored with spiritual exploration. It’s no accident or clever phrasing that the former pope spoke of the via pulchritudinous (“the path of beauty”) as a vehicle toward the via veritatis (“the path of truth”). The arts form a natural bridge for truth in a world that suffers without it.
I’m thankful for Grohl and his optimism that beauty and authentic creative expression can be recovered. And I’m glad to hear that great garage-band sound back in their music. Is it “high art?” Maybe not exactly. But certainly award-worthy, and certainly a great teachable moment for a culture that has lost the capacity for reflection on such things. I mourn the fact that such a moment moment will quickly fade with the “next big story” about a Kardashian wedding or something (the consequence of the “culture of charisma,” as I mentioned above). Still, a good chance to pause and reflect, and to appreciate art far as the curse is found.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.