In defense of sweetness and light

It’s Christmas, a time many people claim to dread because of what they might call “sappy” music, or “sickly-sweet” sentiment, or “corny” expressions of goodwill and happiness.

For some reason, there are critics–a majority of them, I sometimes think–who believe art is only worthwhile if it’s “edgy” or “dark” or “explores the seamy underbelly of life.”

To which I reply, “Bah! Humbug!”

Oh, I’ll be the first to admit we need art and music and books and movies and television shows of the dark, edgy persuasion–but I refuse to discount the art and music and books and movies and television shows that show us a happier view of the universe in the bargain.

People who rail against stories with happy endings, TV shows with uplifting messages and artwork that exists solely to be beautiful often use the argument that such work isn’t “realistic,” that “the world isn’t like that.” I’ve heard of a composer who said he didn’t see how he could write beautiful melodies while there was war and suffering in the world, and so his work was all dissonance and ugliness.

But there’s a serious problem with that argument: namely, that work which focuses exclusively on the dark and sordid, the violent and profane, is no more an accurate reflection of the world than work that focuses solely on beauty and light.

In the real world, the world we all live in, there is evil–but there is also good. There is ugliness, but great beauty; hatred, but also love; pain and suffering, but comfort and contentment; moments of violence, but times of peace.

Art never captures the world in its entirety; it’s not capable of that. It is, by its nature, “artificial” (yes, the words are related), something that is created. Each artwork captures or reflects only one or, at most, a few, aspects of the world.

So while art that captures or reflects the dark aspects of the world is legitimate, so is art whose creator chooses to capture or reflect positive aspects of the world. Unfortunately, there exists a mindset today that discounts the art that reflects positive aspects of the world while glorifying the art that reflects the negative aspects of the world, rather than giving both their due.

There’s nothing more inherently unrealistic in a story about, say, a loving family that overcomes troubles to have a wonderful Christmas together than there is in a story about a family in which the father comes home in a drunken rage on Christmas Eve, beats the children and runs over their presents with his car. Both sets of events could and do happen each and every Christmas. Yet the former is the kind of story some would condemn as “sickly sweet” while praising the latter as “dark and edgy.”

I believe adopting that kind of one-sided attitude is bad for both the individual who adopts it and the society in which he or she lives.

It’s bad for the individual because it results in a sour, cynical view of the world that, at its worst, leads to a kind of selfish detachment, a feeling that the world is a mess, that it will not and cannot get better, and you might as well grab your kicks wherever and however you can and say to hell with everyone else.

It’s bad for society because–well, would you want to live in a society made up of individuals like that? (We’re close enough to being that kind of society now.)

I believe the balanced approach is the best; to recognize the world’s problems, and embrace art that illuminates them; but also to recognize that there are good things in the world, that even in the midst of problems things sometimes do work out, that some stories do have happy endings–and to embrace art that brings those truths to our attention, and treat it with the same seriousness and respect that the darker work receives.

And what better time to focus on the good things in the world than at Christmas, in the Christian faith the celebration of the happiest event in all of history, the coming of the Son of God? In fact, for Christians, history itself is a story with a happy ending–the return of Christ.

So this holiday season, I suggest you follow the suggestion of Paul, recorded in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Time enough for the dark and edgy in January.

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