Everybody warm up your proverbial right-brain.
I read J. Mark Bertrand’s “(Re)Thinking Worldview” recently (review pending). Among other useful elements, the book had me thinking again about the meaning and use of art in all mediums. Bertrand has much to say about employing one’s worldview as a filter to both create and appraise art. He further explains what it means to be an active evaluator of art, rather than a passive receptacle. All this combined with my own thoughts about art and the use of Christian liberty has helped me formulate a few points.
First we need a definition of the term, “art.”.
For the purpose of this discussion, I define “art” as any form of communication apart from the traditional use of language. “art” can include poetry, song, literature of every kind, painting, drawing, sculpture, music, photography and anything else you can think of. Yes, some of my agenda is layered into that definition but I think you’ll find it helps make better sense out of a controversial topic.
Working with that basic definition of “art”, let’s explore more. All art is grounded in truth. The purpose of art is to communicate. There is always a “point” or something to be understood. It may be straightforward, hidden, or obscure. The “point” may even be that there is no point at all. The message may be designed to be undetectable, or even nonsense. But in every piece of art there is a truth claim; art says something.
Part of the beauty of art is that it says something in so many different ways. In as many means as man can imagine, “the point” can be put across. As man is made in the image of God, he has proven to be endlessly creative.
What is the point of “saying something”?
Here’s another idea: Art is meant to create empathy. We enjoy art when we experience empathy. Empathy is understanding what someone else’s experience. It is easier to feel empathy when we have shared that experience. We have empathy if we see someone angry when we ourselves have been angry. But shared experience is not necessary to achieve empathy. We achieve empathy simply when we reach understanding. While I have never committed murder, a film may help me get inside the mind of one who has done so. I may abhor it, but I still understand what the murderer was thinking, what motivated them. Really, art accomplishes a direct line of understanding (not approval, mind you) between two people that have never met.
Out of this I build an important idea: good art must not be equated with moral art. In my opinion, art is good when it effectively communicates. It may communicate something immoral, but morality is not the issue. Communication, empathy is the issue.
In this sense, it’s better not to use the words “good” or “bad” in reference to art. I think that the better word is “effective.” this word carries the sense of function apart from morality.
It is at this point that we can draw some application. I listened to a song on a local alternative rock radio station. I like the station because they tend to play lesser known artists that are more engaging. One particular song they play a lot lately is a bleak, even violent imagination of the future. The language is not explicit or graphic, and yet the message is clear: the future is full of hopelessness and death. On one hand, I consider the song effective as art. The artist paints a picture of the future that is not true, and he actively rejects Biblical truth. Though I feel I have empathy for the artists outlook, I do not like the art. The message is immoral. I reject the “point” of the lyrics. I would not buy this music.
One important caveat: Just because art portrays immorality does not make it immoral. The thing to consider is how the consumer of art is asked to respond. For example, Steven’s Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” portrays all kinds of evil by the Nazis on the Jews. Oliver Stone’s film “Natural Born Killers” portrays two violent criminals in love and on the run from the law. “Schindler’s List” despises the evil and “Natural Born Killers” revels in it. Spielberg’s film is one that I can watch again and again. Isaw Stone’s film as an unbeliever and I wish I never had. Yes, I would say that “Killers” is effective as art, but I reject it and refuse to consume it.
When we are evaluating art, the quality of that art should be based not on its morality, but on how effectively it communicates. Your taste for consuming should be based on its morality. To sum up, lets restate my points:
- Art is a form of communication.
- All art has a point, rooted is the assumption of truth.
- Art is effective when it accomplishes empathy.
- Empathy is not agreement.
- The morality of art is a separate consideration from its effectiveness.
- The portrayal of immorality is not necessarily immoral, what is immoral is being asked to agree with immorality.
- The act of consuming art is not sinful. The theology of Colossians is key here (Col 2:20-23 for example). Physical elements of the world do not perpetrate sin on the consumer. As active consumers of information, Christians can view and evaluate art.
- Simply considering art can be enjoyable even if we reject it (Rom 12:9) as we seek to line our thoughts up with Scripture (Rom 12:2).
- Because all art has a “point” Christians CANNOT be passive receptacles. Un-Biblical ideas are accepted when Christians do not critically evaluate the truth-claims of artists (Rom 16:19).
- Christians can consume art as a function of Christian liberty (1 Cor 6:12).
- The orientation of the heart toward art is the key (Jer 17:9) and here is the caution:
- Just because you can doesn’t mean you should (1 Cor 10:23).
- What we consider the exercise of liberty can actually be sin (Gal 5:13). You must examine your motives for consuming art.
- Remember that your sinful hearts seek to use art as an occasion for sin. Guard against this. Even pornography is art. It is absolutely immoral. There is no provision for viewing this kind of art because it invites the heart to spiritual and literal adultery (Matt 5:28).
Ultimately, the critical evaluation and consumption of art can be used to glorify God. Evaluating the faulty truth claims of artists is an occasion for reflecting on Biblical truth. The beauty of empathizing with fellow human minds through art is a testament to man’s being made in the image of God (gen 1:26). The sheer creativity of man, even when he is being immoral, is a reflection of the mind of God. Even the act of creating art reflects God’s original creation, ex-nihilo (“out of nothing”, Genesis 1:1). Art , in all it’s forms, perverted and good alike, is an endless well that reveals the complexity of God in His creation, ultimately shedding light of His character, bringing Him glory.