October 19, 2019

The Touchstone

I have a question I’d like all you InternetMonks to tackle.  It’s this:  Is there any absolute standard of good and bad in the arts?

By arts I mean music, writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, and dance at least, and I’m willing to include other disciplines if you like.  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 – that is to say pretty much all human history up to the last hundred years or so – people believed they could say what was good and bad art.  Socrates had a lot to say about good music, for example.  Ancient Chinese artistic training was very regimented.  Classical schools of art and rhetoric taught how to be artistic.  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 Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

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.  Someone criticizing your Hummels feels like someone criticizing your Grandma Bess.  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,  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.  These defensive arguers always retreat to the bulwark of “taste.”  They howl, “Who are you to criticize someone else’s taste?” and at that point the argument either degenerates into growling or escalates into an attack.

If you don’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.  Something like this would work:  “Thomas Kinkade should be ashamed to call himself a painter.  His work is poorly executed, sentimental tripe.”  Or “Eugene Peterson’s The Message is only a string of embarrassingly dated clichés that detracts from the real meaning of the Bible.”  Or “J. S. Bach is the greatest composer who ever lived.”

Are those points true? Can they be true, or is anything I say about art just a matter of taste?  If I or anyone makes the claim that those statements are true, that Kinkade’s painting and Peterson’s paraphrase are bad and that Bach’s music is great, can that claim be proven?  And by what standard?

Standards are easy in the case of murder.  We know that’s bad because the Bible and society say so.  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.  But as far as I’m aware, the Bible doesn’t give us any overt standard to discern good from bad art.

Can a standard be found elsewhere?  What might it be?

Skill, perhaps.  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.  So maybe genuine feeling is a requirement for great art.  But how can we tell if a feeling is genuine?  A skillful artist can counterfeit feeling.  And I know of art that is highly skillful and fierce with genuine feeling that nonetheless strikes me as perverse and horrifying.  Skill and feeling play a part in determining good art, but they can’t be the only criteria.

It could be that art is good because of the response it evokes from people.   But no piece of art evokes consistent responses.  You and I might have diametrically opposed views of any piece we considered.  We would have to have some other standard to measure our responses against.

So the evoked response can’t be our absolute standard of judgment, any more than skill or feeling alone can be.  But I believe there is a standard.  There is a genuine qualitative difference between good art and bad art, even if I struggle to express exactly what it is.  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:  God is truth.  God is beauty.  Any art that skillfully reveals an aspect of God or his creation or is faithful to his truth and beauty is good art.  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, “When you painted on earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape.  The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”

Measuring art against God’s beauty and truth would eliminate some of what is called art from this and other ages.  I don’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.  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.  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.  Is this why people resist absolute standards in art?  Because they want there to be an aspect of human life that is not moral?  In our relations with people, work, clothes, money, etc., we always have to think, “Is this good or bad; does it lead to life or destruction?”  Sinners that we are, we get tired of that.  Like Job we want God just to look away from us for a while.   We want to enjoy things without having to think about them – things like songs, books, or pictures.  We don’t want to know if they’re good or bad.  We don’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 don’t claim that their favorite items are good.  These people claim that whether they’re good or not doesn’t matter.  That’s the most profoundly amoral stance of all.  Art, the representation of God and his creation, doesn’t matter.  What matters is my comfort or my sense of familiarity.  Don’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.  It doesn’t matter.

But if all humankind’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.  Here’s my suggestion for a standard to distinguish good art from bad:  Is it a friendly guide, one that seeks my good and that leads me closer to God and his creation in some way;?  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?

We’ll never have perfect discernment about art in this dark world.  I don’t know either God or art perfectly.  I can’t always tell which direction something is leading me in, nor can I always tell whether it’s the book or music that’s leading me astray or my own inability to understand it properly.  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.  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?


  1. Not sure if artistic sensibilities were that well-codified in the old days either. Take this quote:
    “Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing.” — St. Augustine of Hippo, “City of God”, chapter 24

  2. Okay at first I thought you were asking if there were objective standards by which art can be measured. I do think, for example, that there are elements of craft that can judged. But it looks like you’re asking about whether or not different kinds of art are good for Christians…this does feel more complicated to me and is certainly something I’m not as likely to jump in and issues absolutes about.

    • I am asking if there are objective standards by which art can be measured, and I’m suggesting that those standards have to do with how faithfully art represents the ultimate reality, which is God. I would utterly refuse to draw up a list of what is or isn’t good for Christians, knowing that St. Paul’s distinctions between the freedoms of weak and strong Christians would apply here.

      • This is a hard one. On one hand, I know one blogger who thinks Picasso and the whole of modern art from that period on isn’t art at all, because it retreated from reality and went the whole, subjective, “l’art pour l’art” route that has led us nowadays to things such as Tracey Emin’s bed and Damien Hirst.

        On the other hand, I’d say that Picasso (even in a non-representational, Cubist piece) is an objectively better artist than Kinkade purely on skill and execution.

        On the gripping hand, if we’re talking about the subjects of art, and not the technical exploration of paint, form, colour and so on – then what is the absolute? Depictions from reality and nature, or the freedom to explore moods and internal states of mind?

        Again, I’d criticise Kinkade here, not because I object to associations of nostalgia or romanticism, but because in his way he’s inauthentic. He’s developed a particular palette and sticks to it, and I don’t think he’s developing it at all. Even Botticelli, in his later paintings, was moving on from the pure depiction of beauty; he could have continued churning out a developed and stable line of ‘what the clients want’ but he started back to exploring such conceits as the mediaeval trope that the most important figure in a painting was the largest.

        Ah, well, time for another Chesterton quotation:

        “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.”

      • I’ll follow up to Martha on this. In my opinion as well, Picasso YES; Kinkade NO.

        But I’m not the absolute judge of that. As Martha said, there are good reasons for considering each of them art; and perhaps to consider each of them not art, but that would be a shakier argument to make.

        Picasso said, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” In my opinion, art should move the observer to see or feel something beyond the ordinary. Art should get beyond mere illustration, into the heart and soul of the matter. Some would say that Norman Rockwell was no artist but merely an illustrator. I disagree, because in all of his work he told a story that pulled a person more deeply into a memory of a time and place. Picasso did that too, however more boldly, with his lies that he claimed told the truth.

        To paraphrase Socrates, “Does God love it because it is good art, or is it good art because God loves it?” (And how would we know?)

        Ideally, art should point to God and glorify him; but the same art will glorify God to one person and send another into a rant about sacrilege. Why do I feel great after listening to some of Tom Waits’ songs (“The piano has been drinking—not me”, or “I’ve got a bad liver and a broken heart, and I’ve drunk me a river since you tore me apart”) when others will think I’m a terrible person for not destroying the recording? It could be the same reason that Chapter 8 of Romans follows Chapter 7; because Paul’s skid row blues (like those of Tom Waits) can be redeemed. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

        I’ll leave with another quote, this one by Franz Kafka:

        “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

  3. Kenny Johnson says

    If there is an absolute… who knows it? Who is the judge?

    If I say Led Zeppelin is a great band. And you said Led Zeppelin is an awful band. Who is right… and why?

    I can tell you without hesitation that The Backstreet Boys made terrible, soulless, music. But someone else will tell me that it was fun and romantic. Who is right?

    Of course I’m going to get defensive if you tell me that a band, a movie, or a book I love is bad. Because I think they’re great and you’re the one with the bad taste.

    • This response only darkens counsel.

      The question is, “Are there objective standards?” Surely the standards might exist and some people not know them. The worst of all possible outcomes would be that the standards did exist, yet men only shrugged and said, “Who knows?” or “Who cares?”

      Anyway, the existence of objective standards measuring inherent virtue in art doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying any sort of artistic production. Go ahead, if you wish, and have fond memories of “Kiss on my List,” by Hall and Oates. Just don’t claim that Daryl Hall’s voice is mellifluous or the lyrics provide a profound commentary on romantic feeling.

      • Dan Allison says

        “Kiss On My List” is a great pop song because it is NOT deep or profound and doesn’t pretend to be. One of my pop favorites.

  4. I’ve been reading iMonk for two years and this is the first comment I’ve made, which is probably sad that I’ve waited so long, but I’ve spent hours talking to my brother about this subject. Instead of answer the question directly, I’m going to write about why contemporary Christian music and Thomas Kinkade is basically disingenuous.

    The purpose of popular music and art is to appeal to the masses. Hit songs follow patterns and tackle subjects that the public can digest. Tom Sawyer by Rush may be considered a great rock song, but odd time signatures and lyrics about Mark Twain characters does not crack the top 20. (Tom Sawyer hit #45 in the pop charts.)

    By the same token, contemporary Christian music seeks to appeal to all Christians. Worship and praise are important, but not everyone can sing or keep rhythm, so you have to write very basic songs that everyone can follow. The problem is that the songs rarely tackle the heavy issues. If they do, it comes across as a token issue that was never much of an issue because the author always had faith that God could handle it. Well, life isn’t like that all the time. Sometimes you pray to God but you don’t think He’ll answer. Sometimes you curse Him. It’s ugly, but it’s true. But because it’s an ugly topic for art, it will never be popular. Habakkuk is a great book, but when’s the last time you heard a sermon on it?

    Thomas Kinkade can paint well. But if you’ve read anything about him as a person and compare it with the idyllic cottages and landscapes he paints, you can tell his work doesn’t come from the heart. It is 100% commercial.

    Is any of this bad? Is any of it good? I think God only cares if you’re faking it. I’m sure there are some old people who think “Are You Gonna Go My Way” is terrible rock music. I know there are Christians who would never listen to it because it was written by a secular artist. But the way Lenny Kravitz sings it, I’m sure God approves.

    As far as Led Zeppelin is concerned…anyone who says they aren’t good is wrong. That’s not up for debate. 🙂

    • Led Zeppelin is good art — and I’ll be happy to defend that claim!

    • FollowerOfHim says

      “…so you have to write very basic songs that everyone can follow. The problem is that the songs rarely tackle the heavy issues. ”

      I full agree with the latter opinion, and at one time woud have readily agreed with the former as well. My recent experience, however, has been that, oddly enough, modern worship choruses — insipid as they generally are — tend to actually be too hard for congregational singing.

      Whether it’s the lack of rhyme, odd rhythmic patterns, or key selections that would have made Michael Jackson’s voice break, it’s become a problem. A high-school friend of mine, well-known in the CCM scene in the 90s, recently lamented the lack of congregational singing in his own church. “People just stand there and listen to the band play.” As well one might expect, given the concert-performance origin of many of the choruses being sung in churches today. The acolytes should just carry lighters to hold up.

      To tie in to the blog’s larger theme, I think it’s safe to say that, at least on the narrower question of congregational worship, such communal inaccessibility indicates bad art to an significant degree.

      • FollowerOfHim says

        Oh, backslash-i……

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As well one might expect, given the concert-performance origin of many of the choruses being sung in churches today. The acolytes should just carry lighters to hold up.

        Or take their socks off and Spin Them Round Round JESUS Round Round…

  5. “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.”

    Just gotta say, I really don’t think that’s true. Like Lael mentioned, I think we have to distinguish between “art” just for popularity’s sake and lasting art, which many people would probably define as good. There’s been skill-less art for centuries…probably millenia. We just aren’t as aware of it because–guess what?–it didn’t last, just like what’s crud today won’t last.

    And even if it’s popular opinion, and my next door neighbor thinks skill is the opposite of genuine feeling, I don’t think many people pursuing art, who will create what future generations recognize as great work, think that. I think time is probably the best arbiter of what’s good and what isn’t. Not that that answers WHY the things that last do, but it’s a start.

    At 12:30 am, off the cuff, my current sleep-deprived theory is that art that lasts, lasts based on its affect on humanity/the accuracy of its portrayal of “reality.” Is it “true”? Does it change the course of thought? Than maybe people will still be in awe in 200 years.

    I dunno. Maybe.


    “Notice that many people who are resistant to judgments of their songs or books generally don’t claim that their favorite items are good. These people claim that whether they’re good or not doesn’t matter. That’s the most profoundly amoral stance of all. Art, the representation of God and his creation, doesn’t matter. What matters is my comfort or my sense of familiarity. Don’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. It doesn’t matter.”

    I think, this point would benefit from a finer distinction. For instance, if, for nostalgia’s sake, I found and watched a clip on YouTube of Cookie Monster singing “Cookie Starts With C,” I might say to a friend, “This is so great…Genius.” If they said, “Cookie is no Mozart,” I’d probably give them the side-eye and tell them to leave me alone, then get back to singing along. 🙂 But of course that doesn’t mean I disagree with them.

    There’s a difference between me saying something is great because it impacted me in a way that stirs my emotions, and me saying something is great because it’s true and beautiful and lasting. And I’m aware of that distinction, even if I don’t always articulate it when I give an opinion.

    I think in the examples you gave, those people might just be speaking on a different level, like my perspective on Cookie Monster. They may just be saying that, at the moment, they want to enjoy nostalgia, even if it’s inferior; not that they think that art is amoral, and creating truly good art doesn’t matter.

    I’m gonna go search Sesame Street on YouTube now.

    • Excellent points, Ansel. I agree that we can enjoy less than good art for various reasons, but let me provide some background to the comment that good vs bad just doesn’t matter. Recently an old high school friend said to my husband that his church had removed any songs with words in them that people might not understand — “diadem” was his example. What if in doing so you’ve tossed out all the really good songs? my husband asked. It doesn’t matter, his friend replied. This simple, good-hearted fellow would be appalled to know that I think he’s the most cynical person since Voltaire.

      • So much for the educational role and ministry of the church. Unbelievable.

        • Dan Allison says

          I agree, Chaplain. Teaching is a function of the church. I used to tell my students, “If I’m over your head, then stand on your toes and reach a little higher.”

        • The King James Version is a literary masterpiece. I don’t use it any more because it is a stumbling block to those who are interested in investigating. The reason that it was created in the first place was to give people the scripture in their own tongue. It no longer fulfills that purpose.

          So should we educated people to speak and read in King James English, or should we go with more current language versions of the Bible. I would argue for the latter.

          Quite frankly I would say the same for hymns as well. If you want to disagree, feel free, but start of by telling me how many hymn you sang in Latin last Sunday.

          • Michael, my question would be—if they are going to cut out songs that have words people don’t understand, how will they teach the Bible, even a modern language version? The faith has a language. All I’m arguing is that we educate people in that language.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Recently an old high school friend said to my husband that his church had removed any songs with words in them that people might not understand — “diadem” was his example.

        “Why are you using big words, Pastor? We don’t want to learn any more big words. You’re only here to Keep Us Comfortable.”
        — what one of my writing partner’s congregation actually told him to his face

        • I heard a similar comment from my pastor, in talking about Sunday’s readings. He wanted an easier word for “Righteousness”.

          Sigh. I wonder how many years we have before he retires. (Some of us think that he is just putting in time until he does)

        • WenatcheeTheHatchet says

          Heh, even in comparatively educated congregations this can sometimes come up but I’m the kind of church-goer who throws out stuff like that I’m a pretty convinced amillenial partial preterist and don’t think that N. T. Wright’s ideas about justification are really destroying double imputation as much as some people think. I once had a friend of mine explain to another guy (who eventually became a pastor) that I wasn’t a heretic for being a partial preterist, that it was the FULL preterist position that was the problem. One of the dangers of big vocabulary isn’t merely that it can sail over the heads of the flock but that the people who think they know what the terms mean or ought to mean can go on heresy hunts without really knowing what they’re talking about. Here I’m thinking of people who freak out that not being a dispensational premillenialist means you’ve got all these other doctrinal problems.

    • Let’s hear it for Cookie Monster! Mmmm….cookie gooood!

    • I think the distinction you may be trying to make is that of mere entertainment versus art. Mere entertainment is not art, but it’s what people, including well-meaning fellow Christians, often want and even have emotional attachment to. We live in an entertainment- and marketing-saturated culture, so people often confuse these with art. Art may be entertaining, and it may even get hijacked for marketing purposes, but that is not its intended purpose.

  6. “True art, by specific technical means now commonly forgotten, clarifies life, establishes models of human action, cast nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worth trying to make fact.”

    From “On Moral Fiction” by John Gardner

    • Dan Allison says

      Gardner was probably our generation’s best “philosopher” of art. I strongly recommend “On Moral Fiction” to anyone interested in further reading on this topic.

      • I do not recommend very many books that teach “how to write.” The best way to learn to write is to 1) read only great books (which, of course, brings us back to the topic of Damaris’s essay: How do we know what is a great book?) and 2) write. Just write. A lot.

        But I do heartily recommend Gardner’s book. But if you want to be a writer and haven’t read Elements of Style, then I recommend you buy and read that immediately. You cannot be a great artist if you are not skilled in your art, and you are not a skilled writer if you don’t use language (your medium as a writer artist) properly. Strunk and White is the place to start.

        • And if you want a stretch in understanding and appreciating art, try Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism. ” This is a great book because he deals not only what is great art — literature, in this case — but how are we to approach it — i.e., perhaps even change ourselves in the process?

    • This quote is interesting to me, because the only thing I’ve read by John Gardner was “Grendel,” one of the most snide, hallucinogenic, and iconoclastic books I ever had the misfortune of being forced to read. I later read a quotation from him saying that he wrote “Grendel” to reinforce the “old values” of the Beowulf saga. But in that case, why not write a story which includes those values and makes them look good instead of plunge into the sordid muck of nihilism and Richard-II-esque “I hate myself so I’m going to destroy and profane everything else around me”-ness? Right there is a prime example: If Gardner thought he was reinforcing the values of the heroic saga, but large numbers of readers think he’s ridiculing it . . . hasn’t he failed as a writer?

  7. I’m a big fan of Madeline L’Engle’s “Walking on Water” when it comes to a view of faith and art. Her most famous quote from this is “If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion.”

    What is bad art? I’m going to reiterate that it’s art that obscures (or outright lies about) truth and beauty. Why does Thomas Kinkade draw such ire? I remember seeing a number of Kinkade pieces at a time, and it finally dawned on me that few of them rang true. The cottages seem to be painted to force feelings, and their backgrounds are sometimes so stuffed with sentimentality that it’s hard to take seriously. None of them seem real, and yet we’re to believe they represent something genuine. It’s a fantasy disguised as reality.

    That sentimentality is so easy to grab on to for Christians — “we have a message and we’re going to use any means to tell it” seems to be an evangelistic mantra. Unfortunately that utilitarian view of The Gospel doesn’t always leave room for good art.

    • Justin, in your last paragraph, you are touching on the issue of art versus propaganda. Here an example might be the movie “Fireproof” (or the old Billy Graham movies). The real issue is not that it was cheesy and embarrassing, but that it was attempting to do what maybe should be left to sermons, Preaching is a good thing to do, I do it every week. But using art to get people to ‘accept Jesus”, as you say, does not always leave room for good art.

  8. Here is another possible starting place. Quality art has both unity and disunity. If it has only unity, a piece of canvas painted all white, not quality. If it has only disunity, an old toilet all smashed up and dumped in a box, not quality. Doesn’t all great art have at least these two, unity and disunity? By no means does this exhaust the subject, but it is a worthwhile talking point.


    • Interesting take, DSY. I’ve thought something along the same lines, that great art combines perfectly the responses of “Oh, I’ve never thought of that before!” and “Yes, that’s very familiar.” Art that evokes only the first (in an educated viewer, which is another tricky point) can be too extreme or abusive; art that evokes only the second is sentimental.

  9. Actually, I’m now beginning to feel sorry for Kinkade. Nobody (including myself) seems to have a good word to say for him.

    I criticised him for turning out a line of commerical works, but when you come to think of it, that’s what all artists up to quite recently did: they worked for commissions by clients or earned their living by painting pieces that would appeal to the public and sell.

    Maybe we’re not humble enough to get the benefit from his works that the people who like them get. More Pharisees and publicans!


    • I used to think Kinkade was promoting a false reality – – until I visited the Cotswald area in England.
      Back to your point, a lot of Kinkade paintings show architectural design features that some theorists believe have a universal basis in culture and humanity. “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander tried to codify these features of (supposed) humanistic design that resonate with our desires for shelter, warmth, community, etc.
      So even if you think he’s a hack, perhaps in one sense the mass popularity of it all is a type “performance art” commentary about our dissatisfaction with our current environment.

      • Steve, I don’t think Kinkade is a hack, but I do think he’s promoting a false reality (I was being polite about him in an earlier post). His works appear empty, devoid of soul, creepy. I can’t really put my finger on it, and I have no training in art. And my sister-in-law, who has a degree in fine art, likes his stuff. So what do I know?

        Incidentally, the Kinkade painting that Damaris posted at the top is not one of his worst…but unfortunately it’s still a Kinkade.

        • Sorry, let me re-phrase: such places DO exist, I’ve seen them firsthand (except for the halo of light thing). But there does seem to be an artifice about Kinkade’s presentation as compared to say, Thoreau’s Walden.
          And people do have a visceral reaction: the web has all kind of photoshopped Kinkade paintings that try to give image to the creepiness (e.g. his winter ice skating scene has photoshopped baby seals being clubbed, etc.).

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            …the web has all kind of photoshopped Kinkade paintings that try to give image to the creepiness…

            This is an old fannish tradition called “EVIL-izing the picture”. Some guys I knew were into “EVIL Books”, where they’d take some children’s book and EVIL-ize it as a joke — The Berenstein Bears Visit Dr Mengele, Curious George Goes to Hell, etc. One guy even used to do it to the pictures on the wall when he stayed in a motel or con hotel — add glowing eyes in the shadows, silhouettes of some misshapen monster, turn background figures into rotting zombies, etc. All very subtle, and left for subsequent room guests to notice.

        • I would like to make it very clear that Jeff chose that picture, not me.

          • Please tell me that you would have picked a Picasso, or a Van Gogh or a Chagall, like Chaplain Mike.

          • With magnificent art from the Lascaux caves up till the present day, the choice would have been daunting.

  10. “Notice that many people who are resistant to judgments of their songs or books generally don’t claim that their favorite items are good. These people claim that whether they’re good or not doesn’t matter. That’s the most profoundly amoral stance of all. Art, the representation of God and his creation, doesn’t matter. What matters is my comfort or my sense of familiarity. Don’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. It doesn’t matter.”

    I’m guessing that Green Day was just plucked out as an example, but it also opens an opportunity to further the discussion.

    St. Matthew Passion, though I’ve never heard it, is I imagine a musical adaptation of the passion story from Matthew. I also imagine it to feature the best of what one may call a “high church” worship style: traditional, classic. This piece would be said by many to reveal that truth and beauty mentioned in the entry and by other commenters.

    Green Day has a song called “Jesus of Suburbia.” It’s 8-9 minutes long, parts of it satire, parts of it blatantly biting, all of it challenging the notion of acceptable religion that approves consumerism and addictions. Many people, because it’s Green Day, because it’s punk music, because it has a few swear words, because they simply find it offensive, will dismiss it and claim that it belongs on that trash heap of forgettable art lost in time. But others will say that it is good art due to its challenging nature (and, I and others would argue, good musicianship). It may or may not convey the “beauty” aspect that many use to judge art good or bad, but it very well may convey truth.

    I don’t know whether that ends up rendering the proposed definition too narrow. Maybe, if one insists that “good” art represent God’s creation somehow, something like “Jesus of Suburbia” represents the broken part; the part in need of redeeming.

    Or perhaps we need to discuss what constitutes “representing God’s creation.”

  11. Dan Allison says

    Difficult topic!

    I think we can all agree that a Shakespeare play is superior to an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. Yet they deal with many of the same subjects. Putting one’s finger on why Shakespeare is better — that’s tough.

    Honesty is key. The above comments about Thomas Kincade are right on point. John Lennon was a great artist because he was so often brutally honest. Yet “Imagine” is an awful song, sappy nihilism to quote N. T. Wright, because Lennon was “trying” to write a secular anthem, writing here with his head rather than his heart.

    Thank God for Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan! They are superior to virtually every “contemporary Christian” musical artist, because they write and sing from the heart and they honestly portray the desert we live in as well as the Promised Land we’re heading to. The CCM machine in Nashville and L.A. puts out (predominantly) canned, dishonest “praise” music that mostly ignores sin and suffering and often boils down to “Jesus is my boyfriend.”

    Great post. I could write a great deal on this topic, but I’ll just stop here.

  12. Great topic. I think its hard to establish what is and isn’t art, because like many people above have stated–its pretty subjective. I don’t think its a definite like say, murder. Murder either is, or it isn’t. Art, and specifically music, is not quite that simple. To me, one of the beautiful things in God’s creation is that He gave each of us unique receptors to perceive. In other words, when I look at a Gauguin, I might fancy the colors or the shapes, while someone else might view it and think the opposite. Art is also hard to nail down because so much plays off our personal experiences. As above, what evokes emotion is you, might not in me because of radically different views based on upbringing.

    A few years ago, I did a radio show that explored this concept in music. I would play way out music from free jazz, to literal “noise”. I was inspired by the late composer John Cage, who was known for his piece: 4′33″. Literally 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But what Cage figured was that silence could become music. A person coughing, or a creaking seat, these sounds would become beats. Or the musicians working in “room tones”, which delves into that concept further.

    Personally, I find that art is undefinable. That there isn’t a hard line in which one can say definitively, “this is art, and this isn’t”.

    • Wow. You actually believe that 4’33” of silence is art. I would say it literally demonstrates the bankruptcy of today’s “art”. When silence is all you got, you got nothing.

    • It might be useful to look at the original meaning of the word “art.” It meant something made by man, something “artificial,” as opposed to naturally occurring. As such I would not call silence art, although the use of silence within art might be, depending on the “artfulness” of the use. There’s no value judgment here: art and nature are both great things, and both partake of aspects of God’s nature. But let’s call them what they are. Recording silence or holding up an empty frame in front of a landscape could only very marginally be called “art,” although it might be an interesting experiment in perception.

    • WenatcheeTheHatchet says

      But murder isn’t always murder. Sometimes it’s aggravated murder, sometimes it’s homicide, sometimes it’s self-defense. Abortion is not legally considered murder now and once was while infanticide is certainly considered murder now. So to suggest that there is no way to define art while there are ways to define ethical actions that are considered evil or kind has some truth to it … but may be overstating the contrast a bit. Is someone who downloads music without paying for it a thief? Not if the content is made available for free. The person becomes a thief if he or she repurposes the content and present it as though it wwere something he or she came up with but then if we get into the exigencies of international copyright law there’s all that to consider, too. For those of us into Soviet composers GATT demonstrated that retroactively making up for ignoring Russian and Soviet copyrights for decades meant that music that was previously cheap and easy to get became unusually expensive and hard to find.

      Now I think I could agree with Matthew that one of the challenges inherent in Cage’s work (not that the 4:33 are ever really silence) is the proposal that since music is perceived and organized within the brain/mind that it is possible to retrain the mind so as to hear music in everything. This is what many would consider an over-realized development of the concept of the harmony of the world or the music of the natural world but it is not as utterly without precedent within Western thought as sometimes may be supposed. Just because I think Cage overdid the confliation of musica instrumentalis with musica mundana doesn’t mean I don’t get what he was trying to get at. I just would never part with my money for recordings of that! 🙂

  13. Here’s my suggestion for a standard to distinguish good art from bad: Is it a friendly guide, one that seeks my good and that leads me closer to God and his creation in some way;? 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?

    The problem I see with this is that it is still subjective. I’ve seen different people react very differently to the same movie, song, painting, etc. For example, take a rock band like the Smashing Pumpkins. I know people who would listen to that music and say it glorifies depression and sin, but I also know people who say it reveals the universal human condition – sort of like the book of Ecclesiastes. I do think, though, there is some music that has absolutely no redeeming value. I guess the thing is there is simply some stuff which people will disagree about.

    I do think that there is something of an absolute standard when it comes to skill and technique. There will always be some performers who want to simply ignore this standard, but in my experience, the people who can actually successfully do this are few and far between. Usually, it takes some mastery of a traditional skill set before moving beyond that skill set. I liken it to cooking. It’s pretty rare that someone with no experience in the kitchen is able to completely improvise a great tasting meal.

  14. Art is definitely subjective. As an artist myself I cannot say that everything I do is for the purpose of portraying something heavenly or earthly. Most of my subjects are earthly by default. I do have standards for how I wish for my work to turn out. I do realism, but I just love impressionism. I can’t do impressionism well, even though I wish I could. That is my struggle.

    The big question I always have is, why do I make art at all? What purpose does it serve? I always have to conclude that I make art because it is in my nature. I paint what I want to look at. It’s a lot like writing when we share what is in our minds with the minds of complete strangers and through that process of painting and viewing, writing and reading, we connect with our fellow humans. We are all basically alone in this world, locked within our own thoughts. Art is a way to express our inner selves and touch the souls of others. It’s a powerful thing.

    The tragedy comes when I find myself editing my work because of the anticipated perception it might evoke. “For Christian Viewing Only”?

    On a subjective note, I cannot bear to look at Thomas Kincade paintings or their ilk because it evokes a “BLEH” emotional response in me. Others obviously love him. He’s also has some extremely good marketing. But will he or I be looked upon through the years as a Michelangelo, John Singer Sergeant, or Rembrandt? I doubt it.

    Creativity is our nature. Expression of that creativity is up to us as is the appreciation of someone else’s expression.

    From the Christian perspective, if we spend our time seeking out clean safe art, then we are denying what was created by THE CREATOR in the first place.

  15. “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” –Picasso

  16. Annette DiMarco says

    While I certainly have likes and dislikes in various art forms, perhaps “good” art cannot be judged totally on the viewer’s perspective, regardless of the emotions it evokes. I think art needs a back-story to distinguish it as either “good” or “bad;” such as much of Rembrandts work. Or perhaps all art is good in that it allows the artist to express the emotion or idea that is uniquely his; whether or not it appeals to the masses may be irrelevant. I think of a child at an easel, expressing and conceptualizing his subject. Do we see what he sees? Usually not. Yet he sees his masterpiece exactly as he would have it. I love the tree outside my bedroom window, especially as its leaves change colors. Others may look at it and see only raking and more yard work., and would just as soon cut it down. Yet when God created and put His artistic stamp on it, He saw it as good.

  17. While I do not subscribe to all that Francis Schaeffer taught, I find his insights into the subject of art to be quite compelling. Here is just one excerpt from his excellent book, Art And The Bible. Enjoy.

    Christianity is not just “dogmatically” true or “doctrinally” true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life.
    The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment — the infinite, personal God who is really there — then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that is often does not seem to have at the present time.

    But there is another side to the Lordship of Christ, and this involves the total culture — including the area of creativity. Again, evangelical or biblical Christianity has been weak at this point. About all that we have produced is a very romantic Sunday school art.

    We do not seem to understand that the arts too are supposed to be under the Lordship of Christ.

    I have frequently quoted a statement from Francis Bacon, who was one of the first of the modern scientists and who believed in the uniformity of natural causes in an open system. He, along with other men like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that because the world had been created by a reasonable God, they could therefore pursue the truth concerning the universe by reason. There is much, of course, in Francis Bacon with which I would disagree, but one of the statements which I love to quote is this: “Man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over nature. Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences.” How I wish that evangelical Christians in the United States and Britain and across the world had had this vision for the last fifty years!

    The arts and the sciences do have a place in the Christian life — they are not peripheral. For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts. A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God — not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. And art work can be a doxology in itself.

  18. My experience with PhD-in-aesthetics professors makes it hard for me to take claims to objective standards for art seriously. Maybe i’m too influenced by postmodernism, but there is definite difficulty in both conceiving of a possible standard, and of judging things against it.

    Part of the problem is that most (modern) people don’t do art like there was an objective standard. Most artists i’ve known simply… do. Nick Drake was just a depressed guy in his room, he made music and people thought it was boring, and then he committed suicide and a couple years later everyone loved it. This isn’t a case of his music changing, its a case of public perception changing; at one time people thought it was further from their standard for good than they do now.

    A bigger problem is in the pragmatic application of any standard. We can say, philosophically, “Art is ‘Good’ because it matches G-d’s reality, and the closer it matches G-d’s reality the better it is.” But what now? Because I don’t know G-d’s reality, I can’t judge any art. I have art that I like, and I can assume it matches my standard, but I have no reason to think it does other than my opinion. I have no proof.

    I don’t believe in standards. I do, however, believe in taste. I’d like to think that understanding an art medium is an important step to developing a sense for “tasteful art” in that medium. I don’t believe it has anything to do with enjoyment though. I enjoy having seen “Greenberg” intensely, but I am willing to say it was a rather un-enjoyable to watch. And at the end of the day, yeah, Pop music is endlessly entertaining without being talented in the slightest 🙂

    • You’re too influenced by postmodernism. Most modern people don’t do art as if there were an objective standards…… because the PhD’s have demolished the standards, and because the curators actively seek out feces (literally and figuratively) for their galleries.
      Indeed, one could argue precisely that there is a new standard, and it is a standard of debasement and debauchery. This sort of approach, nihilistic to the core, gives us Andres Serrano and urinals as art. Which, OBJECTIVELY, require exactly zero talent or creativity, only some cash.

      • Interesting process at work here. When a person first begins to train himself to respond rightly to art, he often has to fight against habits. Junk food tastes better than fresh vegies to start with, for example; pulp fiction is easier to read than good literature. Well-intentioned people know that they have to fight against their impulses in order to grow in their appreciation of art.

        Then along come vileness and perversity in art. Our first natural reaction on seeing a crucifix in a jar of pee is disgust. But then we think, “Oh, but am I not supposed to conquer my natural reactions in order to expand my appreciation of art?” So we fight against our visceral revulsion and train ourselves to accept nastiness. The process is similar to true training in artistic sensitivity, but the result is far different. Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” deals with this well.

        One advantage to having a “canon” of great art is that it serves as a guide to train our tastes by. Modern artists and critics, in throwing out the accepted canons, have not done us any favors.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Several people have said to me that “Modern Art” is one big con job. Pretty much arrested-development cases having their little temper tantrums with art materials (including crucifixes and assorted bodily fluids), then presenting it as “ART (TM)” for incredible prices.

          And ART PATRONS (consulting ART EXPERTS who are into the same fad fashions) paying those big bucks because they’re pee-their-pants afraid of not Appreciating True ART. So both ARTISTE and PATRON can show How I Am So Much More ARTISTIC Than All Those Mouth-Breathing Common Rabble. A mutual masturbation society as well as a con job, while the ARTISTE and his managers laugh all the way to the bank.

          And it’s all fad-driven. Whatever the latest Artistic Fad is to Shock the Monkeys in a race to the bottom. And the fad has to change often so the suckers get stuck with all that “Oh-So-Day-Before-Yesterday” ART and have to keep spending.

  19. Damaris, as I was reading this I thought,” another exercise in mental gymnastics!” But the last 3 paragraphs really are the crux of your piece. I totally agree and am glad I read the whole post. What does art say in our relationship to God.

  20. All art must say something True about God: His Creation, His Apophatic Person in Trinity, Man, Relationship:

    “The Bible contains no criticism of culture as such. Solomon hired people from the pagan world to help build the Temple. Perhaps that could be done in those days. But God’s people are always reminded not to follow the pagans’ gods or fall into their religious practices. A culture becomes unchristian when the wrong gods are revered and served. Today, the gods are pleasure, sex, power and money: this is the Moloch which Allen Ginsberg denounced with power and accuracy in his poem “Howl.” These gods blind us to the true power of sin. The results are becoming plainer every day, as a non-Christian culture reaches maturity and works our the full consequences of its principles: ‘The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth…’ (Isaiah 24:5,6; see also Hosea 4).” (Hans Rookmaaker, _The Creative Gift: Essays on Art and the Christian Life_ pg 47)

    When Art begins to repeat what is not True about God, Art becomes a mouthpiece for the Evil One and begins to teach lies. For example, nihilistic art teaches that God is not there; that He is silent; that God is non-existent; that Man is without hope, or forgiveness; that God is without mercy or love. It teaches that Man is alone in the Universe…on his own, born of primordial soup, an accident, and that there is no past, no future for him; that life is a bleak, despairing reality. This is untrue…this is a lie…this art must be rejected regardless of the superior technique, the inherent attraction found within the art itself.

    Yet, at the same time, art which teaches Truth and is without form, only created for marketability (greed?), disdaining of those techniques that have “stood the test of time” and are known to be attractive and compelling, is also lacking. There has to be a balance. There has to be a willingness for the artist who is a Truth-Bearer to allow her/himself to be critiqued by those who know and understand the nuances of art in all it’s manifestations and who can guide and direct the use of innate talent to it’s highest call. Allowing a Christian sub-culture to exist that markets mediocrity is not honouring to God any more than art that teaches lies about Him is honouring to God.

    Joni Mitchell writes elegant music with elegant lyric. So, in his genre, does Bach. And both say something True about God. Covertly…overtly.

    So…what are we “worshipping” when we stick to a type of art? The God Who is there? or the greed behind the marketing engine? The God Who loves us and give us hope? or a god who is silent, assuming he exists at all? A Real God…or a false god, made in our own image?

    • Well, since you’ve mentioned Joni Mitchell… Here’s an example of art in the way she embellished the simple statement, “I get depressed around the holidays”:

      “It’s coming on Christmas; they’re cutting down trees.
      They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of Joy and Peace.
      Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”

  21. “But if all humankind’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?”

    I would say that any choice away from God is a choice toward self.

    Much of what is loosely defined as art today is actually consumer merchandising, IMO. I’m thinking about books and music. Much of it is designed toward comfort, familiarity or to affirm a viewpoint.

    Art creates a meaningful connection beyond self. Art elevates our soul and expands our horizon.

    Art, what challenges or inspires, may not necessarily be technically perfect. When art is crafted with technical excellence, something worthy of immortality has been achieved.

    Technical excellence was probably easier to measure when judged by a specific cultural standard. Today we have access to every cultural influence. So if you were to gather ten experts from around the world to comment on a particular piece of music, you would probably get a variety of views.

  22. It seems as though, in dissing Thomas Kincade, some people who believe in the objective good of art are actually making things much less objective.

    If Kincade’s inauthenticity is what makes his art substandard, we’re setting ourselves up for an interesting challenge: measuring the greatness of art by artists’ intent. So, what if Thomas Kincade were trying to say something deep about the human condition? What if “the sinister glow” (as a friend of mine who hates his work put it) coming from the picturesque cottage were supposed to be sinister, because Kincade finds sheltered-ness ominous (or something)? Would that make his art good?? That argues hard against objectivity in my mind.

    Or what if Bach were just pandering to the masses to make money?, etc., etc.

    Interesting questions raised here, btw. Really enjoying this discussion.

    • Sorry! Change all “Kincade”s to “Kinkade”s! Doh!

    • If that were so (the “sinister glow” was an intentional comment on how the search for security leads us into danger, the way the witch’s cottage in “Hansel and Gretel” was made out of gingerbread), then it would improve the art because there would be intentionality behind it and a meaning.

      As it is, I think that Mr. Kinkade has purposely restricted himself to a selection of subjects and has narrowed his palette to a particular style because ‘it’s what people want’. He shows no interest in moving beyond that, as Botticelli did (contrast his works such as “The Madonna of the Pomegranate” which is very definitely a ‘produced to order’ work with his trademark grace, elegance and beauty, and just as obviously nearly a production-line job, with his later “Mystic Nativity” or “Virgin adoring the Christ Child” where he’s regressed to the mediaeval viewpoint of making the most important characters larger than is proportionate, in an effort to explore and develop his style without falling into the trap of churning out beautiful pastiches).

      Besides, trademarking yourself as “The Painter of Light”? William Turner got there long before him and wins that title TKO, judges’ decision.


      • I see what you’re saying, Martha, and agree with your 2nd paragraph re: the actual Thomas Kinkade. But it seems that if all it takes to elevate his art from kitschy to significant is his intent, that’s a point against the idea that the work itself, independent from all else and taken on its own terms, is objectively good or bad.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I think that Mr. Kinkade has purposely restricted himself to a selection of subjects and has narrowed his palette to a particular style because ‘it’s what people want’.

        “It’s what people want.”
        You know what that brings to mind?
        I’ve heard that same sentiment from Furry artists to justify “Yiff art” (Furry pornography). With some, it even seems a lament — they’d like to do other things, but they’re also making an income and “That’s what people want.” With others, they “show no interest in moving beyond that.” (One of those flaked his way off my short list of illustrators that way — pity, because his clean line style and treatment of smoke and haze effects would have meshed well with my fiction.)

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Elaboration of the above:

          I have noticed a lot of similarity in the Zeitgeist of Furry Porn and Jesus Junk.
          * Both are “safe”, all according to formula, nothing unexpected. Any individual sample is pretty much typical of the entire collective whole.
          * Both are by-the-numbers formula works, requiring little-to-less effort to create.
          * Both are repetitive in their subject matter, always just restating the same thing.
          * More important, both are heavily into Fanboy Fanservice — whatever floats the boat of the target audience, whether fur, tails, and flying fluids or Bible Verses, Amish Bonnets, and Altar-Call Endings.
          * And the target audience Fanboys don’t care about quality, as long as they get and can indulge in what floats their boat. Period. And the artists, writers, and sellers count on it.

          “An addict is someone with little sales resistance.”
          — C.S.Lewis (?)

    • Ansel, your friend’s description of the “sinister glow” is exactly what I feel while looking at most Kinkades. Did the artist intend that? If so, is it supposed to glorify God?

      Just plain creepy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Lost somewhere on the Web is an analysis of Kincade that sort-of explains that. Here’s what I remember of it, using the picture at the top for an example.

        * No human figures, or sign of habitation or human life except the glow coming from within the cottage.
        * The cottage glowing from within, brighter than anything natural.
        * The jewel-tone background; Everything seems to glow like the cottage windows.
        * The subject matter — an archaic rural cottage, shining amid the jewel-tone snow, larger than life.
        * The general aura of idealized nostalgia.
        * The picture at top even includes a running stream amid the snow by which (literally) the deer panteth.

        I think the idea is Kincade’s stuff is TOO idealized, harking back to a Perfect Rural Winter Wonderland Paradise (by which the deer panteth), inviting the viewer to enter the glowing cottage and shut the door behind him, shutting out the Big Bad Real World forever.

        • The lack of human life has always bothered me about his paintings. Sort of like a still-life, arranged artificially. Or an On the Beach situation, with everybody in the northern hemisphere dead from radiation. And Australia next.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I think I can top that.

            A couple years ago, during the height of the real-estate bubble, JMJ/Christian Monist blogged about something he’d seen on TV (60 Minutes or something similar) — somewhere near San Francisco, there was this “Planned Community” (i.e. housing tract with delusions of grandeur) entirely patterned after Thomas Kincade paintings. And according to the TV coverage (through JMJ/Christian Monist), “Guess who was most interested in buying and living there? You guessed it — ‘Born-Again Christians’, by the fiberglass buggy-full.”

            “There will come a time when men will go mad. And they will lay hands on the sane among them, saying ‘You are not like us! You must be Mad!'”
            — one of the Desert Fathers

  23. This is a great question. Probably one of the best I have ever seen on iMonk.

    I believe, that there part of what makes art good or bad is how well it achieves the purpose the artist intended. For instance, when I make items on my zazzle store I my purpose is make a product that will sell and sell and lot. So if the product sells well, than the art is good. The webcomic I ran for several years was different. The purpose of the comic was to 1) make people laugh 2) communicate certain themes about “quarter-life Christianity.” If people laughed or understood what was said, than the art was good. Of course, there is no universal reaction When I work on the game I am designing the purpose is to attract players. If (whenever it is launched) it suceeds, than it is “good art.”

    So I think that there is a subjective evaluating of art based on what the artists intends to do.

    Scott McCloud, in “Understanding Comics” divides comics into four quadrants based on what the comic artists wants to do. There is a huge difference between “Watchmen” and “Peanuts” or between a comic like the “The Crow” and latest installments of the Firefly comics. They are all good or bad based on standards and measurements of their “camps” which depend on where they land in their quadrants.

    All that said, I actually do believe that there are some objective, transcendent, artistic standards. I *do* think that music built on a western, twelve note, scale paradigm is objectively better than music based on quarter-tones (and they would be called something different in the middle east anyway) or Asian pentatonic scales. I also believe that western, three-point perspective is objectively better than the isometric perspective of the middle east and India.

  24. There are twin concepts here: Objective and Subjective. For myself, I judge art/music/books using both of these:

    Objectively, I look for skill and talent. Picasso is good art because his art is the work of someone with skill and talent.

    Subjectivly, however, I do not like Picasso. I recognize it as “good art” but I it’s not “my kind” of art. That is why, insead of saying “Picasso sucks”, I say “I do not like Picasso”. I understand that other DO like Picasso, and recognize that this issue isn’t Picasso, but what I find asthetically pleasing and not. Does that make sense?

    The Blackstreet boys: Objectively, it is not good music – there is very little skill or talent there. Subjectivly, it depends on the audience. Some enjoy, other do not. ~ L

    • The Blackstreet boys: Objectively, it is not good music – there is very little skill or talent there. Subjectivly, it depends on the audience. Some enjoy, other do not. ~ L

      I assume you mean the Backstreet Boys. As much as it pains me to say this, I don’t think that these boy bands were generally untalented or unskilled. It takes a certain amount of competency to do those dance moves and sing those songs. It even takes a certain skill set to write a listenable 3-minute pop song.

      I guess that’s part the I would struggle with. I do agree that there is some sort of objective good and bad when it comes to music. I just have hard time define what that objective standard is.

    • Lauren, I like your distinction. I can objectively agree that opera is great art, and still hate to listen to it. And I have no illusions that the songs I listen to on the radio are timeless masterpieces.

  25. Do any of you young people remember Norman Rockwell? He was an illustrator who did many covers for The Saturday Evening Post in the 1940-50s. He was much loved, sort of like Charles Schulz and Peanuts. Were they “good” artists?

    • Yes! To both artists.

    • Yes. They’re both great Americana.

    • I think Rockwell will stand the test of time. Popular is not the same as bad.

    • I’ve always felt that Rockwell is just an earlier version of Kinkade.

      Either you are making art because something inside is pushing you to, or you are making it for money. Rockwell and Kinkade fall into the latter camp. We simply glorify Rockwell and hate on Kinkade because Rockwell comes from our childhood and those “leave it to beaver” memories, while we are experiencing Kinkade as jaded adults.

      • But if Rockwell exemplified the spirit of the times, his paintings may be of value precisely for that emotional reaction they inspire. I don’t think anyone would say Kinkade exemplifies the spirit of our times, except that there’s a market for escapism.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          One major difference between Rockwell and Kincaid is that Rockwell’s works that have shown staying power (mostly Saturday Evening Post covers) all have PEOPLE front-and-center. Realistic-looking people, everyday people, ordinary people, not Celebrity clones. In a classic Norman Rockwell piece, ordinary people — often caught mid-action in candid poses — are the subject.

          While in Thomas Kincade’s most prominent works, there are NO people in sight. None. Just the inexplicable glow from the windows of the Picturesque Winter Cottage. Even when he does include people (in some landscapes and cityscapes) they’re just background elements in the far distance. Like the joke about the Protestant Minister and the Rabbi comparing visions of each other’s Heaven — “People? What people?”

          • Again, a good call on the people, HUG. Rockwell’s paintings show life, and life abundantly. They also serve as well-developed cartoons. Remember the mom and girls dressed up in dresses and bonnets, heading for church with heads in the air? The dad is in his jammies with his paper and a sheepish look. And the little boy is looking toward his dad as a role model (OK, maybe it glorifies bad values, but it’s LIFE).

            Or the little boy pulling his pants up after getting vaccinated by the doc—and inspecting the doc’s diploma.

            Or the Four Freedoms? Particularly the one of the working man standing up at Town Meeting, and the others—including those in business suits—are listening to him as if he had something to say. The First Amendment is not just a spectator sport.

            Kinkade tells no stories.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Kincade’s landscapes and glowing cottages are still lifes. Still and static.

            In Rockwell’s magazine covers, there’s always somebody doing something. Active and Dynamic.

            The joke I alluded to above was one I heard on the Web (probably at Slacktivist’s) about a Protestant Minister and a Rabbi who dreamed of each others’ Heavens:

            The Minister had a dream which disturbed and exhausted him — a vision of the Jewish heaven. A great bustling city like New York, full of people eating and drinking and working and playing. And he told the Rabbi how much this troubled him, how secular and unspiritual it was.

            “Really?” asked the Rabbi. Last night I had a dream of your church’s Heaven.” He went on to describe a small town of farmhouses & cottages behind white picket fences amid lush gardens and prairies.

            “What were the people there like?” asked the Minister.

            “What people?” replied the Rabbi.

            Kincade paints the Minister’s Heaven.

            Rockwell paints the Rabbi’s.

        • Oh, I think Kinkade exemplifies the spirit of our times perfectly, as proven by his sales. If it did not resonate with the zeitgeist, it would not be so popular.

          The fact that people are missing…. so what? When Rockwell painted, people and the common good were a focus. Now, they’re not.

  26. Fascinating topic. I think the criteria of movement toward God takes us int he right direction. Really good and great art always echoes in some fashion the deepest truths of human nature, God’s nature, the nature of creation, and the complexities of the relationships among humans, creation and God. It touches us and challenges us at some deep level that is, however faint an echo, spiritual, helping us understand the world both as it is and as, somewhere in our God-given nature, we know it should be. Are these things an “absolute”? I’m not sure and I’ll leave that question for others.

    This kind of definition explains why saccharine “Christian” romance novels and Thomas Kinkade paintings, among others, ought not be considered good art: they don’t challenge or inform us in any deep way. And it moves us beyond mere “taste” or “”skill” as a criterion. It explains why the works of Graham Greene or Hemingway or Faulker or Shakespeare are still read and remembered decades and centuries later while those of Danielle Steele are pretty much forgotten. It also explains something of the revulsion of God-seeking people at works that are blasphemous or grossly profane, however skilled.

    I think it also gives us an understanding of the nature of the paucity in evangelical art and expression: it is not an isolated trend but is linked to other deficiences in the way we learn and engage (or not) with the world.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      This kind of definition explains why saccharine “Christian” romance novels and Thomas Kinkade paintings, among others, ought not be considered good art: they don’t challenge or inform us in any deep way.

      They’re cotton candy; at best, milk instead of meat. Christian Cotton Candy. And the worst part is the target audience wants it that way.

      • True, but I think maybe they want it that way because they don’t really know of anything better. I ‘d like to think that they’ve just been steeped all their lives in mere entertainments (even at church) for the most part, and thus don’t really know how rich the purposeful and contemplative nature of art and its appreciation can be.

        If I’m wrong and my brothers and sisters are actually choosing the cotton candy over the meat and milk, then I’m worried.

  27. textjunkie says

    I amused by this: This is the touchstone: God is truth. God is beauty. Any art that skillfully reveals an aspect of God or his creation or is faithful to his truth and beauty is good art. Any art that distorts God and his creation or is not faithful to his truth and beauty is bad art.

    That sounds all very well and good, but how is it a standard of any sort?

    Part of what drives the entries on this blog is that the experience of God is not regimented, not the same for all people, even within the strictly evangelical denominations and congregations. I can argue that a piece of art is skillfully done and reveals and aspect of God or God’s creation, but I can’t *prove* it. At best I might be able to round up a bunch of folks who agree with me.

    Which ends up back at what the piece evokes in the perceiver, which you didn’t like as a standard.

    But to back it up even more, standards such as “murder” are not as straightforward as you suggest, or there would be a lot less work for lawyers. 😉 “Thou shalt not commit murder” sounds really straightforward as a standard, doesn’t it? Until you start weighing the pros and cons for a given case and trying to decide, was it murder? Man slaughter? Accident? self-defense? Act of war? Etc.

    And I think that’s kind of the point–when you say 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, that is absolutely true insofar as any act in life can be viewed as reflecting upon our relationship with God. And just as we don’t agree even on the broad strokes of morality in our everyday, commercial work and life, we will not agree on the broad strokes of artistic work and life.

    Doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, though. 🙂 You should hear the Bach vs Mozart vs Philip Glass arguments around my family at times… 😉

    • “That sounds all very well and good, but how is it a standard of any sort?

      “Part of what drives the entries on this blog is that the experience of God is not regimented, not the same for all people, even within the strictly evangelical denominations and congregations. I can argue that a piece of art is skillfully done and reveals and aspect of God or God’s creation, but I can’t *prove* it. At best I might be able to round up a bunch of folks who agree with me.”

      The fact that we can’t agree on our assessment of art against the objective standard doesn’t mean the standard doesn’t exist. An comparable case would be the Bible. Most Christians would agree that it is true by objective and absolute standards. The widely varying interpretations of the Bible don’t disprove its objective truth, they only prove our subjective failings in judgment. So really, having an absolute standard doesn’t guarantee agreement of responses. If, however, people can accept that there is a standard, they can see the necessity of training themselves to respond rightly. Response to art isn’t democratic; some people are more trustworthy judges of art because they have trained themselves to be. Again I would recommend Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism” as a good reading in this topic.

      • “Most Christians would agree that [the Bible] is true by objective and absolute standards.”

        Worldwide? Perhaps. But according to George Barna, not in this country. As I recall, even in conservative/evangelical circles the majority do not accept the existance of an absolute standard of truth.

        And if we who call ourselves Christians can’t even agree on the Bible as a standard of “objective and absolute standards,” how are we going to agree on art?

        Of course, our refusal to accept the standard does not invalidate its existance, so your point stands. But that’s the culture we live in.

  28. Nope. Anything goes nowadays. The more ridiculous and debauched, the more people think it is wonderful.

    There is no shame, anymore.

  29. All those posters who deny objective standards have helped to give us today’s art world, in which a 4-year-old can win a prize in a modern art competition with his doodling. Can you look at me with a straight face and tell me that Jackson Pollock flinging paint at a canvas is equal to Michelangelo? That whoever made that urinal an “art installation” is the equal of Rodin? That’s insane, and you know it.

    • Has anybody seen the movie “Art School Confidential”? I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say it’s a variation on these themes, where the characters find themselves tempted to do / claim outrageous acts in their quest to be taken seriously as artists.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        There’s an underground comic strip — “Cud” by Terry Laban — that does the same thing with the NSFW!!! graphicness of underground comix. It’s about a Performance Artiste whose entire idea of AHRT is a can-you-top-this race for the bottom in depravity and shock value. And how he tries to use this ARTISTE as a job skill after he finally graduates college (with a degree in Performance Art) and Mommy & Daddy’s money isn’t there any more. It’s pretty sick and twisted. Especially since Laban was said to have based the character on a lot of ARTISTES he knew during his college days.

        (Terry Laban is also known for a classic of genre-mixing comix: Muktuk Wolfsbreath, Hardboiled Shaman. This is a classic Hardboiled Pulp Detective genre piece — set entirely among Siberian tribesmen, including their spirit world, told as a Hardboiled Detective piece and played completely straight. Muktuk is my type example of how to mix genres (or work a major variation within a genre) and do the job right.)

    • Kelby Carlson says

      As a (young) musician who is fascinated by questions like these, i’d like to respond, particularly to this. (I’ll refrain from commenting on any visual artistic pieces, byt to your general point.)

      I’m not a true postmodernist, though I do find much to appreciate there. I think the issue is that, from what I can tell, there *is* an objective standard of good/bad art. But how to determine if something is inherently good or bad is almost impossible. I’ve heard (on this blog and in discussions) dozens of different standards by which we might measure art; none of them succeeds under serious scrutiny. Art has inherent goodness, just as it has inherent meaning; but in arguing this, it’s often very difficult to truly explain either. (Just as it would be nearly impossible for me to communicate in a true sense the few “mystical’ experiences I’ve had–language just isn’t adequate.)

    • Pollock is producing an emotional reaction in you, just as Michelangelo does. On that basis alone, I’d say they’re both art.

      Look at how many people despise hard core rap music, or death metal, or any of the other genres that might be exceedingly unpleasant to listen to for the average person.

      I mean, people sold the Beatles down the river because they couldn’t compare to Perry Como or any of the other schlocky stuff being played at that time. And now they’re like saints. Artistes.

      The reaction from the crowd is meaningless when it comes to art. What you hate now may be loved in 3 or 4 decades.

      • I have an emotional reaction if someone vomits on me, too, but I wouldn’t call vomit art. I’ve tried to stay away from the reactions of the viewer because, like the intentions of the artist, they’re too idiosyncratic to serve as a standard.

  30. Buford Hollis says

    I like the idea of “art” as meaningful. Religious art has meaning. The Mona Lisa means *something,* though I’m not sure what. (Maybe beauty by itself qualifies–the “meaning” it points to is some natural symmetry or,,,something.) Piet Mondrian and 4 ‘ 33 ” of Silence have meaning in the context of the art world, though centuries from now this meaning may no longer be effectively transmitted. Kinkade is meaningless schlock. I don’t say it’s not art, but that it’s bad art. (Look up “Sturgeon’s Law.”)

  31. We can all have opinions about what is good art on a human level. Even to say we base it on whether it reveals God or his beauty is subjective to a point. We can also use consensus, or the “experts” evaluation of how well something is done.

    Perhaps, good art is what pleases God and gives him glory. Maybe it is the disposition of the artist’s heart rather than their brush or pen. Maybe it is the spirit of the artist and their art that reveals its goodness or beauty more than the piece itself, something God sees and we cannot.

  32. Many of the Psalms if depicted in canvas would be troubling if not disturbing. They are about God, but deeply personal struggles about God. Being drawn to God by art is not necessarily attractive. The cross is not a pretty picture.

    Albrecht Durer’s “Knight, Death, and Devil” does not depict God directly. It is dark, solemn, even a bit frightening. But it is the epitomy of the protestant doctrine of faith, the “trotz”, the “in spite of” of Christian courage found in a person-to-person relationship with God, in spite of ones fate, circumstances or even personal failure. There’s more to Luther’s words in “A Mighty Fortress” than a protest against the forces of Rome; the declaration, “take they our life, goods, fame, child and wife, Let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won; The Kingdom ours remaineth”, is a declaration of the sufficiency and constancy of God’s grace through Christ. This is an objective, God-centered truth, but it is intensely personal.

  33. I cannot answer for painting, etc. But good writing is ALWAYS good writing regardless of whether it’s Keats, Deford, Milton, Krugman, Wright,etc. Poetry, prose, blogging, etc is besides the point, either someone writes well or doesn’t.