Christians have a long-standing relationship with the concept of objectivity. Our apologetic efforts are shot through with absolute, objective truth arguments. Our morality hinges on the objective antithesis between sin and godliness. Our gospel is an objective and exclusive gospel; we believe that there is objectively one Father, and that there is objectively one way for man to reach him–namely, through faith in the objective life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is objectively the eternal Son of God. The Bible is our objective standard for all belief and practice, and we believe that it is objectively the authoritative, inerrant, inspired word of the Triune God, who, necessarily, objectively exists.
We love objectives. We love absolutes. We love standards. Because we know that the world cannot function without them.
We also know that those who deny the reality of objectivity in theory contradict themselves in practice (indeed, the denial of objectivity is, in and of itself, an embrace of objectivity).
Christians aren’t afraid to be counter-culturally objective in the realms of philosophy and morality. We are not tempted in the slightest to follow the world’s self-defeating, self-destructive endeavors, as her lack of standards in philosophy degenerate into pop-postmodern thought, and her lack of standards in morality degenerate into hedonistic moral relativism. We aren’t compelled to blaze that trail with the rest of the world because we can see its bankrupt future.
The world, in its rejection of objectivity, is in serious debt to objectivity. For example, the prolific postmodern author is counting on the objective nature of his publishing contract when he sends his many words (which argue for the subjectivity of words) to his editor; he expects a paycheck with an objective number on it. And the moral relativist betrays his convictions when he wakes up and is objectively outraged to find that his car has been broken into. What injustice! We see objectivity in the realms of philosophy and morality–or truth and goodness–well enough, but what about beauty? What about art?
It’s my contention that the world’s mutiny against standards has crept in through the church’s backdoor; we have believed the lie that art is, fundamentally, subjective. It seems as though we have not deemed the arts an important enough sphere of life to be governed by the lordship of Christ. And when we finally do turn to art–in order to consider it through the lens of a Christian worldview–we discover that the way in which we think about art is utterly counter-intuitive when compared to the way in which we think about everything else; we have inherited a standardless conception of art.
But what makes art, art? The truism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rolls off the tongue almost instantly. But is beauty truly that subjective? “I think this is good art, therefore this is good art”?
Now, some readers may be worried that I’m on a “slippery slope.” I may be thought to be one step away from those crusty old white guys who sit around and condemn hip-hop and minor-keyed tunes. Fear not, those fellows won’t hear any cheers from this corner when they shame Lecrae for spending time on the Devil’s playground.
But it is important to note that these old party-poopers err in having too rigid of a criteria for what constitutes as good art, not in their insistence that good art must have a criteria. Hip-hop isn’t bad, but there is such a thing as bad hip-hop.
When it comes to aesthetics, it’s important for us to have different criteria for judging different genres. This is inescapable. We expect one thing when we watch a western and something entirely different when we watch a romantic comedy; we don’t expect the same thing from classical music and the blues, or from poetry and a novel. But within all of these categories and sub-categories, we carry a set of objective criteria for judgement. It’s possible to have a western film that is objectively garbage because it’s possible to have a western film that is pure gold; having the possibility of one necessitates the possibility of the other.
There may be disagreements from person to person about a particular piece of art, and that’s where dialogue happens. But dialogue can only happen because some sort of a shared criteria is at least assumed; individuals can only argue about how great or awful a western is because they both assume that an objectively good western is possible. There is such a thing as a good western.
So genre determines what criteria is used. However, the multiplicity of genres does not–as some might assume–mean that no type of art is off limits from wholesale judgement; that’s simply moving the problem of utter subjectivity one step backwards.
For example, I would argue that pornography is bad art; it’s bad filmography and bad photography. Wholesale. And it’s bad art, not merely because of the sin that makes up its content (though that is part of it), but also because it is, as a genre, predicated on sin. It doesn’t merely have sin in it, it depends on sin to be a genre at all. Every one of the aesthetic effects are fundamentally working to beautify something that is ugly; the camera angles and lighting and music and makeup are all working to make sin look beautiful. In other words, the aesthetic element of porn rests on the assumption that sexual sin is lovely, and the genre cannot function as such outside of this basic assumption. So the genre of porn is, wholesale, bad art.
But I would like to go a step further. With respect to visual art, I would say that the abstract impressionism of people like Jackson Pollock could also be judged as bad art. Wholesale. Why? Because of the worldview that it is fundamentally trying to communicate. Porn is a genre that communicates hedonism. So what does randomly splattered paint on a canvas communicate? Chaos.
Allow me to explain how I could be so bold as to pronounce a worldview judgement on a seemingly contentless form of artwork.
Content is not the only component of art that matters (or at least, explicitly stated content). Many Christians will readily admit that the truth in God’s Not Dead does not excuse it’s bad character development, bad acting, bad plot, and bad…everything else really. Even though the film’s content contained truth in it, it wasn’t a good piece of art. Why? Because that other stuff matters! You could say it like this: method and style are, in and of themselves, an aspect of content. How so? Well, let me try to work this out.
I would argue that art is ontologically part of creation. If Cornelius Van Til has taught us anything, it’s that creation is fundamentally derivative. God’s truth is ultimate and our truth is derivative. God’s goodness is ultimate and our goodness is derivative. God’s artwork–the work of his hands, his creative craftsmanship, his symphony that he wrote for nature to sing–is ultimate and our artwork is derivative. In other words, God is the only truly original artist; all of our artwork is imitation.
As image bearers of God, we cannot escape this; in everything we do, we are communicating something about God that may or may not be true. For example, in the same way that man is made in the image of God, marriage is made in the image of the gospel–that is, God’s marriage to his people–and every marriage communicates something about who God is (even if it misrepresents God). So a faithful husband communicates that Christ is faithful to his Church, and a cheating husband communicates that Christ is unfaithful to his Church; every husband reflects Christ–accurately or inaccurately. And in the same way that man reflects image of God, and marriage reflects the image of the gospel, so too our art reflects the image of of God’s art. Subsequently, an artist reflects the image of the Artist. And just like it’s possible for a marriage to misrepresent the gospel, so too an artist can misrepresent the Artist.
Now, think for a moment about God’s artwork. Think about the perfectly woven tapestry of nature: every atom has a specific job description, the universe hangs on an unbending skeleton of mathematics, animals and seasons and elements and natural laws and colors and tastes and sounds are all working together like a synchronized dance.
Think about the song that creation sings: the birds above the trees take the soprano part, the volcanic core takes the bass, the babbling brooks sing their complex harmonies, exploding stars crash like massive symbols, all while the melody of God’s glory booms from church to church.
Think about the sunsets he paints with his divine brush: pastels of blue and purple and yellow and grey, contrasting with clouds and oceans and mountains. What do we see when we look at God’s artwork?
We see intention.
We see care.
We see order.
The finished product tells us something about the Artist. There is a unique and intimate relationship between the Artist and his canvas; he is transcendent, yes (he is not his painting), but he is breathtakingly imminent as well.
Now, from looking at this painting, what can we surmise about the relationship between the artist and his canvas?
He is removed.
He is nonexistent.
He is apathetic.
His intention is to remove intentionality; the only principle that governs his methodology is chaos. He grabs a fistful of dripping paint and chucks it at the wall. He ties a bucket to a string, pokes a hole at the bottom, and lets it swing over the canvas. He lets his paint spill, freely outside of his sovereignty. His purpose is to work with all of his might to remove the purpose. For him, there is a very conscientious resistance to the notion that art necessitates intentionality. He wants no providence over his painting.
Now, forget for a moment how intrinsically self-defeating this endeavor is (how intentional do you have to be to remove intentionality?), just notice how antithetical this conception of art is to the Christian worldview. As Christian artists, we strive to reflect the artistic qualities of God. Granted, different genres can express different components of God’s artistic qualities, just like different genders express different components of his image. But has God ever made a work of art in which he was removed, aloof, and indifferent? Has he ever created any masterpiece in which chaos was his fundamental governing principle? Has he ever operated outside of the realm of intentional, purposeful, providential sovereignty?
As we move away from these fringe examples of art (hedonistic pornography or standardless postmodern impressionism), the discussion gets more complicated. I don’t have an exhaustive list of criteria for judging a work of art, and as we zoom in on particular genres, the discussion gets even more nuanced and more complicated. This may seem intimidating to some, especially because of the unresolved disagreements that such a discussion is bound to stir up.
But this is one of the ways that we can love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. This is one of the ways we can bring every thought captive to Christ. This is one of the ways that we recognize Jesus’ actual, holistic, universal lordship.
*It occurred to me that I may have given the impression that the truthfulness of a worldview is the only legitimate criterion for judging a piece of art, and Pollock’s art is therefore bad only because it propagates an untrue worldview. This is not the case. I would concur with Francis Schaeffer when he wrote in Art and the Bible:
I will discuss technical excellence in relationship to painting because it is easy to point out through this medium what I mean. Here one considers the use of color, form, balance, the texture of the paint, the handling of lines, the unity of the canvas and so forth. In each of these there can be varying degrees of technical excellence. By recognizing technical excellence as an aspect of an art work, we are often able to say that while we do not agree with such and such an artist’s world view, he is nonetheless a great artist. (page. 62)
In the case of Pollock, one may argue that he is a great artist, despite his improper worldview, on the basis of his use of color, form, balance, etc. In which case, a discussion governed by a set of criteria should ensue. My point is that Pollock’s consistency of worldview actually led to his rejection of such a set of criteria. In other words, the point of abstract impressionism is that it’s not submitted under such a set of criteria; rather, it’s value is judged by the subjective impression made upon individual viewers. In my estimation, this absolute rejection of objective standard is what makes it bad art.