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Is Art Good or Bad? Four Standards to Help You Decide

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As a young believer and a cultural separatist in the 80s and 90s, I was pretty sure that “the arts” were very bad in some foreboding but non-specific manner. I wasn’t sure why the arts were so bad, but it seemed self-evident that I was supposed to be against them, not for them.

During my childhood years, I had a rather limited television intake (“The Andy Griffith Show” was an exception, although the presence of Otis made even this show “iffy”), an almost non-existent movie intake (except for Billy Graham movies) and a zero-calorie music diet (classical music and hymns only. Rock music was Satan’s music, and I knew this because Bill Gothard told me so).

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m happy about the alternatives my parents presented. I read books (lots of them, including biography, history, theology, fiction, etc.), I played sports and I spent time with my family. But by the time I got to college, I wasn’t sure what to do with the arts, including popular art forms like cinema, television and Top 40 music.

I knew that I disagreed with a lot of the messages that were being put forth through those media, but I also knew that some of it was beautiful — and that all of it was powerfully influential.

Because of this recognition that I didn’t know what to do with the arts, in my college and early seminary years I fluctuated between cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony, sometimes within the span of one week.

It wasn’t until I met the Christian philosopher L. Russ Bush and read books by Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and others that I began to learn what to do with the arts. Here’s what I learned about evaluating the arts.

How to Evaluate the Arts

In Art Needs No Justification, art historian and critic Hans Rookmaaker notes that good art does not need to have Bible characters or church content as its subject matter. God made us artfully and wants us to be artful, so the subject matter of the art doesn’t matter so much. What matters more is that the art is done from within a Christian worldview, for God’s glory and in a way that helps human beings flourish.[1]

God made us artfully and wants us to be artful.

Francis Schaeffer expands on this theme in Art and the Bible. After building his theological case for the value of the arts, he shows us how to value specific works of art. In particular, he provides us with four standards by which we can judge a work of art. Although Schaeffer had in mind primarily oil paintings, statues and similar types of art, the standards he articulates are ones that any Christian can use to evaluate other types of art, such as movies, music, graphic design, or home design.

  1. Technical Excellence
    Schaeffer asks whether a painter’s canvas gives evidence of technical excellence in categories such as color, form, balance, the unity of the canvas, its handling of lines, and so forth. Similarly, one could ask whether a movie director is skillful in his use of sound and lighting.
  1. Validity
    In order for a work of art to possess validity, it should have been produced by an artist who is honest to herself and her worldview (or does she, for example, sell out for money?). Does the artist explore themes or questions that are within her depth, or that indicate she is merely trying to impress?
  1. Content
    Is the artist’s worldview resonant with a Christian worldview? A piece of art gives glimpses of an artist’s worldview, and an artist’s whole body of work will tend to reveal the broad contours of his worldview, even though he may not be aware of this.

    When a singer sings about love, is his view of love shaped by the biblical teaching about love? When a screenwriter produces a movie script whose theme is the meaning of life, does her treatment of the theme reflect Christianity’s deepest teaching on the matter?

  1. Integration of content and vehicle.
    Does this work of art correlate its content with its style? If the lyrics speak to a theme of personal loss, does the music similarly convey a sense of loss? If the lyrics portray the beauty of romantic love, does the music enhance that sense of beauty or subvert it?

Conclusion

Schaeffer was not a professional art critic, and his work has some flaws. However, we can learn much from him.

We learn that we should strive to produce good art — art that arises from within a comprehensive Christian worldview and contributes to the well-being of God’s people and of the broader community.

We learn that good, Christian art does not have to be explicitly religious and often is more powerful when it is not.

Good, Christian art does not have to be explicitly religious and often is more powerful when it is not.

And we learn that we should pay careful attention to the art arising from our culture, because it is a significant component of the culture and likely reveals something about the predominant beliefs and lifestyles operating in our context.

So is a given work of art good or bad? Hopefully you now have the tools to answer that question for yourself.

This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Ashford’s new book, Every Square InchLearn More>>

[1] Hans R. Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification (Vancouver: Regent College, 1978), 40.

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Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is the author or co-author of six books, including 'The Gospel of Our King' (Baker, 2019), 'Letters to an American Christian' (B&H, 2018), 'One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics' (B&H, 2015), and 'Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians' (Lexham, 2015).

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