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Christians and the Disneyfication of Great Art

Kathleen and I are teaching at a media conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since we’re culture hounds, one night we went out to see a performance of the Tango. The dance was born during the 1890s along the Río de la Plata, the river between Uruguay and Argentina, and grew from there. The audience at the venue we attended was largely tourists – although we sat next to a group of very artistic older fans. In spite of all the tourist atmosphere, it was a fascinating performance, and as I watched, I thought of how many similar art forms were born out of poverty, war, or other desperate circumstances.

Think of Jazz or Blues in America, Flamenco in Spain, Polka in Eastern Europe, Russian dance traditions, and many more. I was thinking about Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, sitting in smoky basements reciting poetry, folk music, the Cabarets of Berlin or the Moulin Rouge in Paris before World War II.  Or the recent art exhibition featuring the creations of artists who were forced to escape Hitler’s Germany because he considered their art degenerate.

The problem is, when we have the opportunity to see these art forms enacted today, it’s almost always a commercial production. Our Tango performance was highly professional, but felt like we were in Branson. Even old haunts like the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood where so many major rock bands got their start is now overrun by tourists taking pictures.

Great art is often born in hiding. Rebellion lives on the run, and thrives in the back rooms of bars, or dingy basements. But today, rebellion takes its message to Facebook and Twitter. These days, great causes don’t birth great art – they birth 140 character posts. When we feel oppressed, we lash out by creating a social media page.

I’m certainly not against social media. I advise clients on it every day. But an important question is – if you’re a real artist out there – are you content with being a Disneyfied duplicate? Does “trending” in social media make you feel like you’ve made an actual difference? In the Christian world should real worship music be a category on iTunes, or a subversive force in the culture? Should Christian movies be content with hiring formerly famous secular actors to get box office traction, instead of creating such a powerful and compelling message the culture can’t look away?

Coming out of that highly packaged Tango performance I had to wonder if creativity and art matter enough to me that I’d be willing to express it while the fire hoses were turned on, the police dogs were unleashed, or the National Guard closed in?

For past generations, great pain, suffering, and crisis expressed itself through great art. But today, it’s difficult to find any art that hasn’t been pre-packaged, catagorized, and marketed – or “artists” who won’t lift a finger until their attorney has worked out the details of their contract.  It’s all become so safe.

I need to remind myself regularly that as a Christian, I can’t expect to change the culture, until I’m ready to challenge it.

And sometimes that means paying a price.

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Phil Cooke is the founder and CEO of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles (CookeMediaGroup.com) where his team helps church, ministry, and nonprofit organizations engage the culture more effectively through media. He's a filmmaker, media consultant, and author of "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media."