Serving Clients with Bad Taste

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.


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  1. says: Wes

    If I am hearing you correctly, Ben, your argument is as follows: service to our neighbor might sometimes call for producing “bad” art. Is that correct?

    If so, I have just a few follow up questions. Why would an artists have to accept a commission if he things that it would sacrifice his standards of excellence or taste? Would it not be possible to refer this person to another artists that might be willing to produce this work? I would wonder about the motivations for accepting such a commission: are you accepting because it is a job that pays money, or because you are really desiring to serve?

    In other words, Christians are definitely called to serve and love our neighbors by doing unpleasant things and even by suffering, but it does not seem that this necessarily transfers to the area of accepting untasteful commissions.

  2. says: Sara

    Thanks, Ben, for raising this. While I do agree that we are called to love our neighbour, I think that we have to be careful to not shift the autonomy to the ‘client’. It seems to me that an underlying assumption you make is that by serving, the artist has no influence over the final product. Granted, in a capitalist society and for the sake of living, artists will have to create things that they don’t personally like. But in my experience, the artist always has the opportunity to influence the outcome. What artists can learn to do better is influence the outcome with grace and humility rather than arrogance and superiority. Frank Burch Brown in ‘Good Taste, Bad Taste, Christian Taste’ sees the artist as playing a crucial role being the discerning eye for taste. It is inherent in their gifting and part of their responsibility. It seems to me that if an artist abdicates that role, then they aren’t truly serving their neighbour.

    1. says: Ben

      Wes and Sara: you both make some good points. As I mentioned in the post, this has been a theoretical issue for me, so I haven’t had the practical experience of thinking through all the variables. It is certainly the case that an artist may have to refuse a commission altogether if it departs too far from his standards. And it is critical not to flee so far from autonomy that we make artists mere automatons–perhaps my post leans too far in that direction.
      What I was trying to get at is how serving one’s neighbor in art may not mean doing what the artist would like to do. I do not think claiming obligation to art can justify producing a piece of work that does not fit the bounds of a commission. At the same time, a quote from H. R. Rookmaaker’s The Creative Gift that I came across in my dissertation research just recently perhaps makes a more coherent statement:
      “The artist must be free to realize the commission in his own way, his own style. A person who gives a commission may ask for a piece of music of a certain length, for a book on a certain subject, or for a wall decoration of a certain size…. However, an artist must never be asked to comply with norms which he finds altogether alien and which are outside the scope of a given commission, as for example, ‘A Christian novel must always have a happy ending.’”

  3. says: Bruce

    I have a commission experience that may shed a little light here: a Roman Catholic gentleman from a local Rotary International discovered that I was a painter who had done religious art. He approached me to paint an anti-abortion poster — but specified that he wanted a true fine-art image of Jesus holding a dead fetus. He was clear that he wanted the fetus to be human looking and to have a recognizably human visage. When I produced the first version, he rejected it saying “YOUR Jesus looks like a Jewish carpenter — I want a more effeminate Jesus — more like the ones in our churches!” When I respectively demurred, saying that I was not willing to produce a travesty, he said, “You are only my hands, and you are simply to carry out my instructions.”
    I went back to work attempting to compromise, making my Christ figure a little less muscular and more tender. He accepted it reluctantly on second try, but never used the painting for his poster campaign. Interesting experience for me, but I resolved after that not to take on commissions of this sort. Thoughts?

    1. says: Ben

      Thanks for your example. I’ll leave aside what that says about the quality and truthfulness of art in churches; as an instance of attempting to find a workable compromise, it’s helpful. I think this illustrates what Wes said about some commissions simply being impossible for an artist to do without sacrificing his standards. In your case, it looks like your standards and the commissioner’s standards were too far apart to mesh.

  4. says: James

    Ben, in your example with the sandwich, the sandwich maker was simply giving the truth. And even with the art example, the artist was trying his best to maintain the simple, yet historic truth about Christ.

    Should we ever compromise when we know the truth? If I know that a certain type of sandwich disallows the use of lettuce, why wouldn’t I tell this to the customer? In fact, we are obligated to give the truth to our neighbor, and in that way, we love them.

    1. says: Ben

      We should never disseminate error, so you are right that we should give the truth to our neighbors as one part of our love. It can be difficult to determine whether the truth is at issue, or some other aspect of artistic excellence, as well as whether compromises on those other issues are permissible as part of making something that will satisfy a less-developed artistic taste.
      After thinking through all these comments, a revision of my views in my post would go something like this: an artist who finds a client’s request to go against his artistic judgment should first attempt to explain and convince the client of what would work better. If they cannot come to agreement, the artist should refuse the commission because neither would be likely to be satisfied with the result, and a client’s attempt to direct artistic details also rather oversteps his proper bounds as the one who is not the artist. There are cases, though, where the artist can find a way to make to his satisfaction a work he would not have been willing to undertake on his own, through taking a client’s request as a challenge to balance competing ends. Partial or complete success in satisfying both his ends and the client’s can produce worthy art. The artist loves his neighbor in all these situations because he is concerned with making what is good and satisfying for him, and is unwilling to deliver something that is not good for him. He also honors God by maintaining excellence in his work.

      1. says: Bruce

        Ben – I think you are right. I’d add that the servant posture of the artist potentially yields even better art than the artist might have otherwise produced. The history of music and art are full of instances of masterpieces being produced under the conditions of servitude (an unwelcome word in our era of uber-Romanticism wherein the artist is expected to be a superstar producing visionary art from high above the rabble and the bad taste of the bourgeoisie). As a painter that has worked with near total autonomy for nearly four decades I can honestly say that I think my best work was done over the past few years while working on a large commission that I would never have undertaken otherwise. My “client” in this instance was a diverse group of Christians (Protestant evangelicals and Catholics) associated with a college and an overseas program. I was given a great deal of freedom but the subject matter was chosen for me by the needs of the group. What I discovered was that my former autonomy was a straightjacket. I could say more, but I’ll leave it there.

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