Friday, December 23, 2011

An Indictment of "Christmas Shoes"

Etienne Gilson wrote The Arts of The Beautiful decades before the release of "Christmas Shoes", but this passage couldn't be more appropriate:

Lacking the ability to produce beauty-which alone would justify their work from an esthetic point of view-artists bestow upon it other kinds of interests, of a higher order at times as in the case of religious, patriotic or social arts, or of a lower order, as when art makes itself subservient to plain entertainment. These foreign ends are not incompatible with beauty, but art certainly can do as well without them and, at best, it only tolerates them in small doses. (132)

The truth about "Christmas Shoes" is that is worthless from an aesthetic point of view. This fact is (rather less than effectively) masked, as Gilson describes, behind a veil of religiosity. We are not supposed to listen to a song like this to appreciate the song itself. We are supposed to listen to it to feel something that has nothing to do with the song.

Using less than compelling music for religious purposes is perhaps excusable when the music really is serving religious purposes. As Gilson points out, we might reasonably place religion among the "interests of a higher order" than art (I'm no fan of most worship music, but I'm not disturbed by the fact that worship services aren't high art; worship services should be aimed at planting truth in minds and hearts; aesthetic excellence is a means to that end in that context). The trouble with "Christmas Shoes" is that it isn't really aimed at religious purposes. It's not about God; it's about getting a good cry at Christmas time. It's aimed at entertainment, at stirring up feelings that have nothing to do with the quality of the song and too often have little to do with the God the song mentions so casually. The real problem with "Christmas Shoes" is not that it makes art subservient to religion (which can be unobjectionable; even the most sophisticated of hymns does that), or even that it makes art subservient to shallow religion (as do poorly written worship songs that are nevertheless really aimed at worship), but that it makes religion subservient to entertainment.

(There is, of course, good original Christmas music to be found, as I discuss in my next post)

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