By arts I mean music, writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, and dance at least, and Iâ€™m willing to include other disciplines if you like.Â And by absolute standard I mean the same sort of standard that enables Christians to determine if, say, murder, or selling church offices, is always and everywhere right or wrong, good or bad.
In the old days â€“ that is to say pretty much all human history up to the last hundred years or so â€“ people believed they could say what was good and bad art.Â Socrates had a lot to say about good music, for example.Â Ancient Chinese artistic training was very regimented.Â Classical schools of art and rhetoric taught how to be artistic.Â Critics were clear about what good art was in the Renaissance, and concert-goers who grew up listening to Mozart and Beethoven had no hesitation in stalking out of the theater when they first heard Stravinskyâ€™s â€œRite of Spring.â€
Have we twenty-first-century people matured beyond the narrow intolerance of the past, or have we lost some essential understanding of what art is?
Most people nowadays, Christians and non-Christians, resist the idea of absolute standards in the arts.
An artist friend of mine speculates that arts of all types are closely entwined with our emotions growing up, and judging the arts against absolute standards can feel like judging beloved people and memories.Â Someone criticizing your Hummels feels like someone criticizing your Grandma Bess.Â Judging certain popular music as insipid seems to undermine those glorious memories of the summer after you graduated, when that was all you listened to.
Even commenters here on iMonk, who are at least willing to entertain the idea of absolutes,Â get defensive if someone claims that one song is good and another is bad, or one genre of writing is worthwhile and another a waste of time.Â These defensive arguers always retreat to the bulwark of â€œtaste.â€Â They howl, â€œWho are you to criticize someone elseâ€™s taste?â€ and at that point the argument either degenerates into growling or escalates into an attack.
If you donâ€™t believe these arguments are always crouched and ready to spring, I can toss out a bone and let you see the dogs begin to pile up.Â Something like this would work:Â â€œThomas Kinkade should be ashamed to call himself a painter.Â His work is poorly executed, sentimental tripe.â€Â Or â€œEugene Petersonâ€™s The Message is only a string of embarrassingly dated clichÃ©s that detracts from the real meaning of the Bible.â€Â Or â€œJ. S. Bach is the greatest composer who ever lived.â€
Are those points true? Can they be true, or is anything I say about art just a matter of taste?Â If I or anyone makes the claim that those statements are true, that Kinkadeâ€™s painting and Petersonâ€™s paraphrase are bad and that Bachâ€™s music is great, can that claim be proven?Â And by what standard?
Standards are easy in the case of murder.Â We know thatâ€™s bad because the Bible and society say so.Â An issue like the sale of church offices can be dealt with by applying biblical principles, even if there is no outright commandment concerning it.Â But as far as Iâ€™m aware, the Bible doesnâ€™t give us any overt standard to discern good from bad art.
Can a standard be found elsewhere?Â What might it be?
Skill, perhaps.Â At most periods of history, skill according to the dictates of the art was considered important, but nowadays skill is seen as opposite to, and inferior to, genuine feeling.Â So maybe genuine feeling is a requirement for great art.Â But how can we tell if a feeling is genuine?Â A skillful artist can counterfeit feeling.Â And I know of art that is highly skillful and fierce with genuine feeling that nonetheless strikes me as perverse and horrifying.Â Skill and feeling play a part in determining good art, but they canâ€™t be the only criteria.
It could be that art is good because of the response it evokes from people.Â Â But no piece of art evokes consistent responses.Â You and I might have diametrically opposed views of any piece we considered.Â We would have to have some other standard to measure our responses against.
So the evoked response canâ€™t be our absolute standard of judgment, any more than skill or feeling alone can be.Â But I believe there is a standard.Â There is a genuine qualitative difference between good art and bad art, even if I struggle to express exactly what it is.Â I suspect that the touchstone that enables us to tell the gold from the dross is not skill or feeling, not the response of the viewer, not the commandments of the Bible; it is God himself.
This is the touchstone:Â God is truth.Â God is beauty.Â Any art that skillfully reveals an aspect of God or his creation or is faithful to his truth and beauty is good art.Â Any art that distorts God and his creation or is not faithful to his truth and beauty is bad art.
An angel says to a dead artist in The Great Divorce, â€œWhen you painted on earth â€“ at least in your earlier days â€“ it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape.Â The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.â€
Measuring art against Godâ€™s beauty and truth would eliminate some of what is called art from this and other ages.Â I donâ€™t mean that everything challenging or painful or negative should be eliminated; the human encounter with God will not be easy, any more than it was easy for Isaiah or for Paul.Â But perhaps good art is a well-disposed guide that leads us, as Virgil led Dante, closer to God and heaven, even if it leads us through hell on the way.Â Some art, in contrast, encourages us to continue to roll around in our comfortable mud; some leads us toward our ultimate destruction.
It seems, then, that art is a profoundly moral subject, concerned not just with good and bad but with true righteousness, which is relationship with God.Â Is this why people resist absolute standards in art?Â Because they want there to be an aspect of human life that is not moral?Â In our relations with people, work, clothes, money, etc., we always have to think, â€œIs this good or bad; does it lead to life or destruction?â€Â Sinners that we are, we get tired of that.Â Like Job we want God just to look away from us for a while.Â Â We want to enjoy things without having to think about them â€“ things like songs, books, or pictures.Â We donâ€™t want to know if theyâ€™re good or bad.Â We donâ€™t want to worry about our relationship with God for a few minutes.
Notice that many people who are resistant to judgments of their songs or books generally donâ€™t claim that their favorite items are good.Â These people claim that whether theyâ€™re good or not doesnâ€™t matter.Â Thatâ€™s the most profoundly amoral stance of all.Â Art, the representation of God and his creation, doesnâ€™t matter.Â What matters is my comfort or my sense of familiarity.Â Donâ€™t rattle my cage by suggesting that Jane Austen is better reading than a Harlequin romance or that the St. Matthew Passion is better listening than Green Day.Â It doesnâ€™t matter.
But if all humankindâ€™s sojourn on earth is either a movement towards God or away from God, if every choice is either a choice for him or against him, how can art not matter?
Art itself and the difference between good and bad art are profoundly important.Â Hereâ€™s my suggestion for a standard to distinguish good art from bad:Â Is it a friendly guide, one that seeks my good and that leads me closer to God and his creation in some way;?Â Or does it reassure me that my current state of sin and separation is just fine or even drag me further down in realms of ugliness, self-indulgence, and degradation?
Weâ€™ll never have perfect discernment about art in this dark world.Â I donâ€™t know either God or art perfectly.Â I canâ€™t always tell which direction something is leading me in, nor can I always tell whether itâ€™s the book or music thatâ€™s leading me astray or my own inability to understand it properly.Â But we have to agree that the difference between good and bad art is an important difference, that art is a profoundly moral subject, and that we are called to be discerning.Â This agreement would at least give us common ground to measure our tastes against and to begin an important dialogue.
What do you think, iMonks?