How can we determine what is truly worthwhile in the realm of literature, art, music, the theater?
ON EVERY SIDE we are exposed to what is rightly or wrongly called artistic creativity. It either serenades us or it blasts at us from radios and stereos. It soothes our eyes or it assaults them from the printed page. It entertains, transports or repulses us on stage, television or in the movies. Involved are music, literature, sculpture, dancing, painting, architecture — all forms of human artistic endeavor. Since ancient times discussions have raged as to what is good, beautiful and moral in the arts. Greek philosophers argued about it. Medieval thinkers pondered it. Modern critics have tried to define it. The only conclusion most people seem to agree on is that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. But is that all there is to the arts? Are there no standards by which one may judge artistic expression?
Who Is Right?
"It really turns me on!" raved the young art student of his latest effort. His "work of art" was among 200 selected out of more than a 1,000 entries for an exhibition. His entry was not a fine painting. Nor an intricate sculpture. Nor was it a delicate piece of pottery. It was 180 feet of black masking tape stretched across the exhibition hall floor in two 90-foot parallel lines. Explained the curator of the exhibit, "It preempts space, in a way. It outlines space." "And like, it doesn't get in the way," added the artist. "That's important." Just what did all that mean? Apparently the artist, the curator and a panel of judges considered the tape as having artistic value. Perhaps some of those who visited the gallery were also of that opinion. Others, one may be sure, would not agree. Who was right? Did you ever take children to a movie rated PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) only to be appalled at the language, the suggestive sex and the violence of the film? Somebody on some board obviously considered the film suitable art for children, with some parental guidance. You may have felt that the suitable "parental guidance" would be to firmly grab the children by the hand and guide them out of their seats and out of the theater! Which evaluation of the film's merits as art for children was correct? Yours? That of those responsible for officially rating films? That of the theater management? What about the neighbor who plays rock music so loudly it can be heard all over the block? He thinks it's exciting and can't understand why anybody else would disagree. You, however, may consider semi-classical music as the ultimate in artistic expression. Another difference of opinion. Some say art is good if it gives pleasure. On this basis pornography is art since it gives temporary pleasure to a certain small segment of society, though society as a whole disapproves of it. If it is left up to each individual to decide what is good in the field of the arts, there can be no agreement or standards, since each person views the matter from his own perspective. That's exactly why the term "art" is today applied to such a confusing assortment of endeavors, ranging from the sorry to the sublime.
What Is Art?
What is art anyway? Basically art is an impelling, even emotional, urge to express one's feelings through some workmanship or action that will in turn communicate those feelings to others or allow others to experience them. Tolstoy defined it this way: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them." Artistic creativity is one of the abilities that set human beings apart from animals. No animal can paint a landscape, compose a poem, read music or make an identifiable image of something in clay or marble. In an attempt to prove evolutionary relationships, paint brushes have been given to members of the monkey family. The amused apes have slopped paint on canvases, using brushes, fists and feet alike. The results have been pointed to as examples of primitive "art." They have been pointed to — that is, when they have been successfully snatched away before the quickly bored "artists" have begun to eat at or otherwise destroy their artwork! Let's be serious! Without qualities such as those found in the human mind, true art is not possible. But where did we as human beings obtain our ability to engage in artistic creativity? The answer is, we have been given the ability (to whatever degree we may have it) by God — the very first and greatest Artist of all! He is the origin of true art — art that is beautiful, pleasurable and good. All of creation reflects his genius. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). Color, shape, contrast, harmony, movement, sound, rhythm, proportion, composition, structure, feeling, and craftsmanship — God excels in it all. The universe and all the marvels in it constitute one gigantic art museum exhibiting God's skill. That's why King David of Israel stated, "I meditate on all thy works; I muse [that's what a museum is for!] on the work of thy hands" (Ps. 143:5). God is the Master Potter and we are his artistry. "We are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand," the prophet Isaiah declared to God (Isa. 64:8). In fact, human beings who yield themselves to their Maker are privileged to become God's greatest masterpiece of all — members of his immortal family, exhibiting that divine character that is his ultimate "workmanship" (Eph. 2:10). We get a glimpse of the Master Artist at work in a conversation he once had with the patriarch Job. Job was proud about some of his own accomplishments and needed to be humbled, so God asked him some very direct questions. He asked Job where he was when the earth was being molded and fashioned. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" God demanded. "Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone?" (Job 38:4-6, RSV). God planned, measured, designed and put it all together. And it was very good — so good the angels who watched God at work "sang together" and "shouted for joy" (verse 7). Yes, God's artwork was beautiful and it gave pleasure to others. Notice also that the angels engaged in the art of "singing together." This likewise was an artistic talent, one that came from God, for the angels themselves were some of God's handiwork. We get an idea of how splendid was the angelic host by looking at Ezekiel 28:12, where one of the highest ranking angels is described. He was "the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty" (RSV). His ornaments were precious stones of every kind (verse 13). Unfortunately, as surely as if someone slashed a Rembrandt with a knife, a portion of God's workmanship became ruined. This superior angelic being and others of the angels revolted against God. Once beautiful spirit beings became corrupt (verse 17). Artistic abilities in this created being now became satanic. His gifts had become perverted. Here is the real origin of corrupt art! This once glorious being, now called Satan, has chosen the way of disobedience and has palmed off his perverted ideas and ways onto humanity. What we see today is the expression of inherited artistic creativity, which is good, being the expression of God-given talents developed by humans, and a whole array of creative ideas that have been unknowingly influenced by invisible moods, beamed into human minds, from satanic forces. The world, of course, doesn't want to believe there is a Satan. But the whole world is deceived (Rev. 12:9). That brings us back to our original question: How are humans to tell what is good art and what is not?
In the world tomorrow the problem of the perversion of art will not exist. Art will be executed in accord with God's ways or it simply will be corrected. Today we are confronted with a mixture of human-devised values. As a result we must decide what is acceptable based on the standard of God's laws as revealed in his written Word — the Bible. God's laws, written in the Bible, were given to man to define what is good. Whatever in the arts blatantly infringes the Ten Commandments is not good art. One should never become engrossed in literature, movies, music or other art forms that openly revel in and promote lust, coveting, sexual perversions, violent behavior, and other evils forbidden in the Ten Commandments or other lesser laws. The basic all-inclusive principle is given in I Corinthians 10:31, "whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (See also Colossians 3:17) A more detailed guideline for judging life experiences — including artistic endeavor — is found in Philippians 4:8, "... whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (RSV). In light of instructions such as these, much that is wrong in the field of the arts becomes immediately obvious. But in this confused world the issue is not always so clear cut. There may be both good and bad in the same piece of art. To say one should reject all art produced by unconverted minds — minds of people cut off from the knowledge of God — would mean that most art on earth would have to be rejected, since humanity as a whole has been cut off from God. This is certainly not the criterion for making a judgment. Even the apostle Paul was familiar with and quoted from the poetic artistry of pagan Greek writers (Acts 17:28). We must learn to perceive what is the overall intent of a particular effort in the arts. We should appreciate that which is an expression of the spirit in man, that which reflects his incredible potential and God-like creative talents. At the same time we should reject that which reflects moral and doctrinal error. One can admire the artistry in a painting of Louis XIV, for example, without having to agree with the policies of the ill-fated king. Or one can listen to the beautiful music of the "Swan Lake" ballet or the "Peer Gynt" suite without having to think about or believe the stories behind them. Of course, when the objectionable predominates, or when it is not possible to segregate the good part from the objectionable in an artistic endeavor, it is safest to reject the whole. The ability to engage in artistic expression is a gift of God. We should be careful to use it and appreciate it as he intended.