Art—The Good, the Bad and the Mediocre

Or is it all just a matter of taste?

If you fear that younger generations are tragically apathetic, just scroll through the comments section of a popular YouTube music video, and you’ll discover heaps of evidence to the contrary. Although most of these netizens are apparently indifferent to rules of grammar and courtesy, they are deeply passionate about music. In page after page of oscillation between the loftiest praise and the most scornful contempt, users make their opinions on music inescapably clear.

Many of these arguments are also peppered by pleas from diplomatic souls urging restraint from both the fanatics and the detractors. One such commentator said, “Music taste is not objective. You cannot factually, beyond all deniability, prove one piece of music to be better and more enjoyable than another, or of better quality.”

Another user broadened the discussion’s scope beyond music, saying, “Like all art, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to music. It’s all personal opinion. One person’s [trash] is another person’s good. That’s how human beings work.”

The issue these commentators raise is one that long predates YouTube and music videos. Since ancient times, arguments have raged about what is beautiful, important and worthwhile in the arts. Greek philosophers debated the question. Scholars of the Renaissance deliberated it. Modern experts have only continued a discussion that began millennia ago, and the only solid conclusion many participants seem to agree on is that beauty in art is in the eye of the beholder.

But is Rembrandt’s startling accuracy superior to Jackson Pollock’s arbitrarily paint-splattered canvases? Are the fugues of Bach and Mozart—where masterful musical engineering unites with profound expressivity—more valuable than the random lunacy of many of John Cage’s compositions? If artistic value is entirely a matter of opinion, then the answer to these questions is a disillusioning “no.”

But could it be that there are standards by which artistic expression can be judged? Is an objective assessment of aesthetic value possible?

To the Gallery or the Garbage?

First, what is art? How can you tell whether a certain human work of creative endeavor qualifies?

Some say art is any creative expression that gives others amusement or pleasure. Few object to schools encouraging students to study the arts, but how would society view this encouragement if the purpose of the arts was strictly to amuse, or give pleasure to those students? There is meaningful pleasure to be gained from the arts, and beauty to be discovered in them, but if that is all we seek, we’re overlooking those components of art that are often more valuable.

Leo Tolstoy formulated a widely accepted definition of art, calling it “a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them” (What Is Art?). There is considerable value to this definition. Artists are stirred by an experience of emotion, and use their talents with clay, music, motion, words or camera to encapsulate that emotion in a creative work. The evidence of its successful encapsulation is that it rouses the same emotion in those who view or hear it. The trouble with this definition is that there is limited value in the arousal or expression of emotion just for emotion’s sake.

In Philosophy of the Arts, Prof. Gordon Graham makes the case that art is most accurately defined as a creative expression that helps others to understand experience. Graham says art is most valuable when it serves as a source of understanding.

The most effective works of art will meet all three of these: giving others pleasure, conveying emotion to them, and helping them to better understand experience.

Digging into the question of what art is also unearths an undeniable fact: The capacity to create and appreciate art is a major demarcation setting human beings apart from animals. What animal can paint a watercolor landscape, choreograph a tango, or sculpt a likeness of itself? What critter can compose a symphony upon the blank canvas of silence? Of the millions of species living on Earth, only humans can engage in artistic creation.

This is because the Creator God—the first and supreme Artist—gave mankind those abilities. The entire universe proclaims God’s creative power and brilliance. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). The universe and all the wonders it contains represent one vast art museum that showcases God’s ineffable creative power. Recognition of this mind-boggling fact prompted King David to sing, “I meditate on all thy works; I muse [which is what museums are for!] on the works of thy hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God is an unequalled master of form, texture, space, color, balance, rhythm, contrast, emphasis, harmony, proportion, repetition, scale, unity, craftsmanship and variety.

We are offered a glimpse into some of the intricacies of God’s creative process in His exchange with the patriarch Job. Job had some remarkable artistic creations of his own, but he became vain about his accomplishments. God wanted to give Job some perspective—to humble him—so He asked Job pointed questions about His own artistic creations, which were of far greater scope and importance than Job’s: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof” (Job 38:4-6).

The Creator likely used architectural language in order to relate to Job’s background in building, but there remains clear indication of form, planning, specificity, design, process and structure in God’s creative process. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and He orders all things to be done “decently and in order” (verse 40).

How Did Art Get Corrupted?

How did mankind arrive at the point where placing a crucifix in a jar of urine is called art, and where respected experts routinely construct long-winded treatises on the merits of Jackson Pollock’s paint-splattered canvases?

In the same conversation He had with Job, God explained that after He had completed creation of the physical universe, the angels—which He had created some time prior—were so moved by its beauty that they shouted for joy. This shows that God’s art—His creation—conveyed purposeful understanding to others and gave them pleasure, because God’s creation is good (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25).

God’s creation of the host of angels was one spectacular part of His “good” handiwork. The Prophet Ezekiel indicates how spectacular these created spirit beings are, describing one of them as “the measure of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12; Darby Translation).

But it was in this very being that the seeds of artistic corruption first took root, and a segment of God’s creation became ruined. This magnificent archangel rebelled against God, became filled with lawlessness, and warped his mind with perverted thinking (verse 17). Since the earliest days of man’s history, Satan—originally called Lucifer—has broadcast his warped ideas of art (and all other facets of life) to mankind.

Lucifer’s rebellion was the true beginning of depraved art.

Today’s cultural landscape is shaped by volumes of good art—inspiring expressions of God-given ability developed by relentless human determination—but also by an even greater quantity of creative ideas that have been influenced by dark attitudes, moods and impulses, broadcast into human minds by Satan (Ephesians 2:2).

So, how can we differentiate between art that is valuable and that which is corrosive? How can we tell the good from the bad?

The Good, the Bad and the Mediocre

Those who argue that aesthetic value is strictly a question of taste seem to overlook the fact that, in all branches of the arts, there are established competitions that rely on the judgment of experts: John Moores Painting Prize, the Booker Prize, American Idol, the Cannes Film Festival, etc. If artistic merit is purely in the eye of the beholder, then these institutions wouldn’t have purpose. The existence of judgment by experts as a regular feature of our experience in the art world implies that art is not strictly a matter of personal preference.

The question of judgment for a Christian includes discerning and choosing what is acceptable based on the standards of God’s law as revealed in the Bible. The Bible is the instruction book for mankind, and was engineered to teach people what they need to know to discern the good from the bad, the constructive from the destructive, and the right from the wrong.

For example, we should avoid submersing ourselves in artistic works that openly promote or delight in lust, violence and other evils prohibited in the Ten Commandments. We should steer clear of art that parades and celebrates sin with defiant pride (Isaiah 3:9).

In his letter to Church members in Philippi, the Apostle Paul offered this guideline explaining which aspects of experience—including artistic expression—are most worthy of our time and attention: “[W]hatever is true, whatever wins respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovable, whatever is of good repute—if there is any virtue or anything deemed worthy of praise—cherish the thought of these things” (Philippians 4:8; Weymouth).

How many plotlines of today’s films and novels are propelled forward by respectful, lovable and reputable characters? How many Top 40 songs are pure and just? There are some, but the unwholesome works outnumber them by a considerable margin.

In this perplexed world, questions about which endeavors of art are respectable, just and pure are not always straightforward. A single piece of artwork may simultaneously embody wholesome and unwholesome elements, or may depict villainy or immorality for essentially moral purposes. There’s a colossal difference between a work that portrays evil in order to address social issues (like violence), and those that give cheap thrills by exploiting it. To understand the vastness of this discrepancy, compare Schindler’s List to the series of Saw movies.

How much does the morality of the artist come into play? There is no single correct answer for this either. To reject any and all art formed by unconverted people—those with whom God is not yet working—would be to cast out virtually every shred of art and music ever produced (Genesis 3:22-24), and men of God have not taken that route. The Apostle Paul, for example, was well acquainted with the plays written by Menander, a Greek dramatist who lived hundreds of years before him (1 Corinthians 15:33). Paul also committed to memory the poetry of Epimenides the unconverted Cretan (Titus 1:12), and that of Aratus and Cleanthus, two pagan Greek poets (Acts 17:28). Paul studied the creative and artistic works of these men, and quoted from them in order to help explain God’s truth to the people of his day.

If all poetry and artistry produced by unconverted minds is to be avoided, God’s apostle would not have taken this approach. But if a given artist has postured himself as a spokesman or poster-child for a certain sin, then it would be difficult to justify consuming his creations.

A discerning consumer will learn to identify the overall intent of a particular creative work of art, and to value those works that reflect the best of mankind’s God-like creative abilities and extraordinary potential. A discerning consumer will develop the discipline to reject that art whose lifeblood is depravity.

A judicious patron of the arts will also push himself to refine and improve his tastes. On this topic, the Apostle Paul said to the Hebrews, “[S]trong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). This applies primarily to spiritual maturity, but it has relevance to all vistas of life—including the arts. A person exiting Walmart with a 3-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bag of pork-rinds may argue that he derives as much enjoyment from his culinary choices as any sophisticated epicurean does from his fine wine and caviar, but the quality of his enjoyment is at a lower level.

Rather than settling for what is immediately easy to enjoy, we should strive to educate ourselves and refine our senses. If, for most of our lives, we’ve subsisted on a strict musical diet of pop music (which is popular because it is accessible, and easy to appreciate), then considerable effort may be required to exercise our senses to a degree that will let us appreciate meatier music. But this effort is an investment that will pay dividends. A comic book—with its vivid images and rapid dialogue—is easy for most any inexperienced reader to become engrossed in. But how much richer is the enjoyment of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, whose treasures a student labors arduously for, and learns much about human nature from? There is certainly a time to enjoy art that is accessible and undemanding, but cultivating the ability to digest strong meat will greatly enhance our lives. As Ernest Dimnet wrote, “Don’t read good books—life is too short for that—only read the best.” That logic applies to all genres of art.

Jesus Christ said He came so that people might “have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Rich, abundant living does not mean easy existence, but worthwhile living.

Mankind’s capacity to create and appreciate art is an awesome gift from God of value beyond measure. We should deeply appreciate it, strive to use it as He intended, and labor to drink in more of the good, less of the mediocre, and none of the bad.