“’Well, I don’t want to leave my brains at the box-office.” Sitting next to Donald Drew in a movie theater when I as in my early twenties, he explained why he had taken a piece of paper from his pocket, and pen in hand was ready to watch the movie with me. It was a completely new idea to me.
From Saturday matinees in Davis, CA when I was a little boy on through my first exposure to more serious cinema in London in my “dropped-out” years, I had always loved movies. But never had I thought about “leaving my brains at the box-office.” I listened to him, and learned.
That same year IVP published his Images of Man: A Critique of the Contemporary Cinema. There had never been a book like it. Taking Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,“ Donald argued that every film is “an image of man,” an exploration of what it means to be human. So, I kill therefore I am…. I work therefore I am…. I play therefore I am…. I love therefore I am, and on and on.
He persuaded me of that, and of many other things. One idea that stuck was central to a conversation I had today with about 50 people from all over the country. Gathered together on the phone through the little company of hobbits that is the Wedgwood Circle, we were discussing the recent Grammys and Oscars, especially wondering what the winners tell us about our culture, viz. what are to we to learn when the Civil Wars win, and when “The Artist” wins? We had some good people who know more than me from the worlds of movies and music to help us interpret.
Remembering Donald, I said that he had taught me that art always reflects and promotes a vision of the good, the true and the beautiful; it does both at the same time– not just one, but both. What is being reflected about what we prize, about what matters most to us? And what is being promoted for us to prize, for us to see as most important? Both are happening at the same time.
Art at its best is not propaganda; but it is also always “an image of man.” Something is being argued about the human condition, about what it means to be human. What should we learn about ourselves and our world from the songs and stories judged as the very best of this year? That was our conversation, and I hope there are consequences.
(Photo is Josiah Wedgwood’s famous plate, offered to William Wilberforce as part of the effort to renew the social fabric of English life so that slavery might be seen as the evil it was. The plates were beautiful, and he sold them, changing the cultural conversation as he did. His vision has inspired us, and we have the plate in our office, keeping the story alive.)
Dr. Steven Garber is Founder and Principal of the Washington Institute and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness.