Responsibility of the Artist in Faith in a Tree

Responsibility of the Artist in Faith in a Tree

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Responsibility of the Artist in Faith in a Tree  

The philosophy found in "Faith in a Tree" deals heavily with responsibility. One of the responsibilities which was explored was the responsibility of the artist. Paley's portrayal of artists in this story is certainly less than flattering. In one of the most thematically important paragraphs, Faith decides, (to summarize a paragraph) "if it's truth and honor you want to refine...let [God] be in charge of beauty....and let man be in charge of Good." (p.89) The comment was given directly after a dialogue in which artists were labeled as speculators; speculators in the sense that they did not "invest" in life, they merely observed. One gets the sense from the tone of the pages that artists are not being put in a favorable light.

Paley is trying to say something important about the responsibility of an artist here. Her condemnation of artists as cited above does not extend to all artists. There is a qualifier at the beginning of the paragraph which is very important, "if it's truth and honor you want to refine". In essence, if the artist is trying to discern something true or noble then they should stop painting, writing, or sculpting for it's own sake and start doing something Good. Faith reveals her own disdain for musicians who are absorbed in art for art's sake when she comments satirically, "when darkness covers the earth and darkness a great people, I will think of you: two men with smart ears." (p.89)

Paley is obviously aware thin ice of hypocrisy she is skating on. An artist herself, her own story should be actively supporting the Good, or her critique of the painter and the musicians would be meaningless. Before going further, it is necessary to define just what Faith's idea of Good is. Faith doesn't directly define Good, but she does define Bad which is just as important, because a fight or artistic work against something bad, is in essence, something Good. In Faith's words, "Evil is bad, Wicked is bad. Robbing, Murder and Putting Heroin in your Blood is Bad" (p.85) Any act which is wicked, evil, or destructive is part of the "Bad". Faith's definition of Bad is very general, but leaves a good jumping off point into the main theme of the novel, the Vietnam War.

Surprisingly, the war, which I consider to be the main theme of the novel, takes up very little of the action in the story.

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The climax of the war conflict within the text comes at the end, when the protesters march. It is in those few brief moments where the characters directly address the war. The question of the first poster asks, "Would you burn a child?", and the response, "When Necessary." of crucial importance to Paley's argument about artists responsibilities. The Good response to the question, "Would you burn a child?" is a resounding "NO!". The burning of children is a destructive act, and is therefore Bad. Not only is it Bad, but the entire story has been intimately involved with children. Unfortunately, as American history shows, the entire nation knew about the atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, and gave the cold answer, "When Necessary". Paley avoids the hypocrisy of the "Faith in a Tree" being labeled a piece of art for art's sake by the undeniable and historical need for a commentary on a Bad situation which an entire nation accepted as Good. It is on these grounds that Paley is justified in her writing "Faith in a Tree".

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