A few days ago, I raised several questions about aesthetics and how easily absolute standards can be applied to beauty in art (visual, music, etc). Those questions present a serious challenge to the simplistic application of the view that there is an external standard of beauty by which every piece of art can be judged.
As is very frequently the case, there is a balance that needs to be maintained. I recently argued against the neglect of the role of personal taste in aesthetics; today, I’ll maintain that personal taste is just a part of the issue. In this article, I’ll use the word “individualism” to describe relying on subjective personal taste to judge beauty.
In my last post, I questioned the assertion that “God’s character is the absolute standard for beauty and all art must be judged thereby.” While there is truth in that assertion, it’s an oversimplification of the issue. While God is the ultimate source of beauty, there’s no easy art-related check-list based on his character. And there can’t be. Do you want to evaluate visual art based on God’s character? You can’t see God, so there is no one-to-one correlation. Shall we evaluate musical beauty? We can’t hear God sing; we can’t see a playlist of his favorite music. Again, there is no quick and easy comparison. But, the difficulty of evaluation does not excuse us from our obligation to glorify God in this area of life!
The Bible gives us a framework for evaluating beauty and art. It’s the framework of our world. God created the world and it was “very good” (Gen. 1.31). Then things changed (Gen. 3) and with man’s sin, “bad” entered the world. The world we occupy today is a mixture “creational” and “fallen” elements (to borrow some verbiage from Dr. Dan Forrest). I almost cringe to write this next statement, but very few things are purely black or white in our world. Take people, for example. The purest, holiest saint on earth is still not perfect. Though very “good,” there are still tints of sin’s corruption in every man on earth. On the other end, God’s common grace allows that very corrupt people can on occasion do good things. Some classical composers lived profligate lives and wrote music of enduring quality. (For a humorous take on common grace, I recommend a word from Gilbert and Sullivan.)
The Bible addresses individualism. Fallenness affects every one of us at the core of our being: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17.9).
Reliance on the community’s standard is not an adequate solution. After all, the community is flawed at its root because it is made up of fallen individuals. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way” (Isa. 53.6). There is little hope that a crowd of individualists can ultimately correct the problems inherent in individualism!
So how do we judge beauty in art? There is a factor that lies beyond the human race, I would submit. When God set himself to make something tangible, visual and audible, he made us and the universe around us. Art, then, is mankind’s limited, imperfect attempt to create. Paintings, requiems, sculptures, novels, choruses – these are our attempts to make something new and wonderful.
Bring in the tension: our noblest, finest and most skillful attempts to create are limited by our position as finite creatures and tainted by our fallen condition. The challenge for the creators among us is to strive for excellence in what they do. It is their job to pursue the limits of their abilities and to avoid snares like triteness, laziness and mimicry.
The challenge for those who do not create art but simply evaluate what others have created is to evaluate wisely. As neat and clean as a “this standard categorically determines beauty and ugliness” approach might be, we’re not in that position. Instead we’ve been given eyes, ears and a mind to use for God’s glory. Passivity, laziness and willful lack of discernment are unacceptable for Christians. We are given the mandate to consider carefully whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil. 4.8). That requires discernment.
Is there a place still for personal taste? Absolutely! Don’t forget that God’s creation is flooded with variety. We must not forget the distinction between “superior and inferior art” and “right and wrong morality” (but that’s a rabbit trail for a different post!). Looking down on others simply because they enjoy art that is (in our opinion) inferior, commercial or shoddy – that’s pride, not love. Lovingly helping them broaden their scope of art appreciation is one thing; blanket criticism of their preferences is quite another.
But how can we cultivate discernment in our own lives? When we look at a painting, let us consider what reflects the goodness of God’s creation and what reflects the corruption of the Fall. When we hear music, watch a movie, read a book or see a play, let us ask the same questions. Our answers will most likely be varied: we will see creational and fallen elements in all art. Good discernment compares those two elements and assesses art accordingly.
I cannot think of a better summary of the call to discernment than Phil. 1.9-11, Paul’s prayer for his beloved friends: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”