My previous post on cakes has provoked a good deal of comment, and one of those comments, as well as Sara’s post on autonomy, have made me consider an issue that had been hiding in a dusty corner of my mind for a while. This is something I would welcome feedback on from those who have practical experience dealing with clients, since I have mostly considered it theoretically.
This issue is this: Christian artists are obligated to do their work to the best of their ability because it is service to God. This presumably means that their concern in making a work of art should be that it excellently fulfill the functions a work in that genre is meant to, whether beauty, truth, or some other set of functions. Christian artists are also obligated, however, to love their neighbors, and this includes serving them with the particular gifts of artistry the artists possess. But what if one of those neighbors asks specifically for a work of art that the artist believes to be inferior or in bad taste?
This is the opposite problem to having unhealthy autonomy. Instead of being unsure what a client actually wants, the artist is unsure whether he is willing to do what has been clearly stated. If the client trusts the artist’s judgment sufficiently it is only necessary to explain why making what he asked for is a bad idea. For example: a few months ago I walked into a sandwich shop that permitted a wide choice of toppings and heating methods. I ordered a baguette that would be heated after being filled and asked for one of my toppings to be lettuce. The man taking my order then pointed out that the cooking would wilt the lettuce, and I agreed that a different topping would be a better choice for this sandwich.
But there are plenty of cases from cakes to films to songs where the one paying for the work is sure his requirements are good, no matter what the artist thinks. In this case, I think that love of one’s neighbor requires an attempt to do what he wants, while attempting the difficult task of pleasing both one’s own artistic standards and the client’s. Yes, we should do all things to God’s glory, but one necessary function of art that has been commissioned by another is to subordinate one’s own purposes to the requirements of the particular task. Perhaps the work will not be as objectively excellent or philosophically coherent as the artist would like, but perhaps also God can best be glorified in such cases by service to neighbors.
As a followup to my views on extreme cakes, then, while I still find them a troubling trend, there may be justification for them in some cases. Clients who want such an exotic cake must be pleased somehow, and the attempt to maintain standards of (literal) taste while creating a sculpture within their parameters is a legitimate artistic challenge.