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Raphael, Saint Michael (detail)

The Business of the Artist

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  • Melanie L Griffin

    This is inspiring and so true. I had no idea that Dorothy Sayers wrote or pondered this sort of thing. I am only familiar with her mysteries. Thank you for sharing this. It's just what I needed to hear while struggling with my memoir. If it's not real, it's own unique image of God, it's not worth it.

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. (A notorious case to the contrary is the religious film society which chose its photographers for their piety, with the result that a great number of the films were quite blasphemously incompetent.) The practice, very common among pious officials, of asking writers to produce stories and plays to illustrate a certain doctrine or church activities shows how curiously little these good people as a class understand the way in which the mind of the writer works. The result in practice is that instead of the doctrines springing naturally out of the action of the narrative, the action and characters are distorted for the sake of the doctrine, with disastrous results.

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. Matters are only made worse when Sunday Observance Societies and other groups talk wildly about modern tendencies in art and so bring the church into contempt, not only for bigotry but also for ignorance.

I quite agree that a great deal of ecclesiastical bric-à-brac needs purging. It is, as you say, so difficult to choose the really sound authorities to pronounce on the artistic merit of hymns and so forth. I believe that here again the soundest method is to purge at once the works which express a sickly brand of religious sentiment… It is very noticeable how well the great mediæval 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. It is not manufactured to specification, as an engineer works to a plan – though it may involve compliance with the accepted rules for dramatic presentation, and may also contain verbal “effects” which can be mechanically accounted for. We know very well, when we compare it with so-called works of art which are “turned out to pattern,” that in this connection “neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” [Gal. 6:15]. Something has been created.

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 new collection of her writings The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers.

Raphael, Saint Michael (detail)

Raphael, Saint Michael
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Contributed By Dorothy Sayers Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers was a renowned British writer best known for her detective stories, as well as for her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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