When I was in high school, an English teacher told me that poetry required emotional tension, and that if the only response a poem produced was happiness, it was not a real poem but a Hallmark card. Since I was writing what I thought was poetry at the time, and since most of it was optimistic in tone, this naturally disturbed me.
The type of attitude that praises dark art and denigrates cheerful themes has become prevalent in art today. We see it in museums, where artists strive to be controversial, through work that is either outright grotesque or simply so abstract and confusing that it disturbs the viewer. We see it in film festivals, where the films that are seen as the most insightful and sophisticated films address dark or taboo themes. People may not flock to see these works, but most would admit, with varying degrees of embarrassment, that these choices are not “high art.”
The artists that produce all of this “highbrow” artwork see themselves as philosophers, who are using their work to proclaim a message about life. Sometimes, the message is political and aims at correcting a particular real or perceived injustice. Other times, it is more theoretical, expressing the sense that life has no meaning or purpose other than what we impose on it.
Ultimately, though, the belief that true art must be negative reflects a worldview without hope. The various worldviews of most intellectuals are outgrowths of various types of naturalism. The common assumption is that there is no God or supernatural entity, so all that we are is matter and energy interacting.
The worldviews diverge when they get to the question of purpose, or of how we ought to live. Some naturalists devote their lives to political or social causes based on ethical principles that they feel intuitively, even though their worldview has no transcendent base to ground them. Others recognize the meaninglessness of life in a purely natural world and become nihilists. Others try to create their own meaning, either by sheer willpower or through cultural assumptions shared by their communities.
What all of these have in common is that there is no ultimate hope. Indeed, if there is no objective meaning, we do not even have a way to define what is good, much less a reason to believe that good will triumph. If we try to create purpose for ourselves, how can we know that our purpose will be realized, instead of a vision that contradicts ours, such as radical Islam? And naturalistic crusaders for various causes see their goals as the meaning of life, which means that if it does not come about, life is utterly pointless.
Obviously, if we wish to change the evil in the world, we must face it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. However, evil is not the whole of reality, nor is it the most lasting part of the world. One of the reasons I love Christianity is that it explains both the bad and the good in our experience. The evil comes from the human choice to sin, which explains both the awful things people do to each other and the horrors of natural disasters that result from the curse our sin attracted. However, there is an incredible amount of beauty and goodness in the world. The naturalist must see this as a cosmic accident, or a trick our genes play on us to get us to act in ways that will help us survive. The Christian can realize that the goodness in the world is objective and real. In fact, it is older and more fundamental to the universe than evil is, because it was part of the original creation. Moreover, God has a plan to redeem the world and to eliminate evil and restore the good to what it was meant to be. This means that ultimately, evil is not the essence of reality; good is.
My teacher was right to urge us to face the dark realities of a fallen world, but her worldview blinded her to the good that is also real and worthy of our attention. True art needs to honestly portray both the good and the bad to give a coherent account of reality.