Why Art Matters

First, it might be useful to provide a bit of context as to why this is such a foundational avenue of contemplation.  Raised effectively as an atheist, I was, by God’s grace, drawn to be a follower of Christ as an adult.  I was already pursuing my musical passions when I was effectively re-made in my thinking from the inside-out.  The introduction of faith in Christ to my previously secular passion for music became an interesting source of tension for me throughout the ensuing 15 years.   My love of music was an interesting blend of aesthetic obsession combined with pride and ambition.  As with many musicians, the lure of fame was strong.  However, I was also enamored of the highly refined and frequently intellectual charms of classical music which is not an avenue for those seeking fame in a rock-n-roll world.  Regardless, because I increasingly understood that a greed for fame was inconsistent with the teachings of my faith, I struggled to find a way to reconcile my unquenchable passion to create music with a proper understanding of the pursuit of art within the context of my newfound faith.

Kalos is the Greek word which appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew Tobe – “Good”.  Specifically, this is the word that God uses to describe his handiwork for each day after He beholds it.   Light, the Seas, the Fruit Tree and the Grass, the Sun, the Moon, the Sea Creatures and Birds, the Beast of the earth, for each of these wonders, the Bible records God’s assessment, ‘It was good’.  A revolution happened in my understanding of my love for creating music as I thought about this.  God Himself creates, beholds, and evaluates.  It is this last part that is so vital for me.  He responds to His own work and declares, ‘It is good’.  In this statement is a simple declaration of the excellence of His work.  And truly, the God of the Bible would find true satisfaction in nothing less than His own perfection and its expression through His creative work.  In this simple statement of satisfaction, God demonstrates both the perfection of His exercise of discernment inasmuch as that which He terms good is intrinsically so, as well as the excellence of that which He judges.  ‘It is good’ resounds to affirm the excellence of God’s handiwork, but also the excellence of His judgment.  The two are inseparably linked in the perfections of God.  However, it is this second aspect that I had not previously considered.  God is taking satisfaction in regarding His work because it is excellent, and because His judgment is perfect, He regards it with a sense of pleasure and satisfaction.  God beholds His beautiful work, and loves it for its beauty.  His statement of its goodness reveals a Creator reveling not simply in the practical, functional, usefulness of His work, but also very much in its sheer beauty.  It boggles the mind to contemplate the raptures God enjoys that stem from His work of beautiful and awesome power in the Creation.  This truth, that God loves beautiful things, is vital to my understanding of aesthetics because of what follows on Day 6.

The reality that God’s nature includes an appreciation of beauty is vital to the next consideration.  In verse 26 of the first chapter of Genesis, God declares that of all the things He has created, there are two creatures that will bear the most profound of gifts from their Creator, His very image…finitely, yes, but still complete in all the characteristics that He was able to communicate to any other being.  The image deo, as theologians have termed it, the image of God, is the only true distinguishing feature that Mankind bears relative to every other living being on earth.  All share DNA, RNA, proteins, fats and other sundries of biochemistry, the material stuff of life.  But Mankind uniquely bears God’s image, and it is not given to any other kind under Heaven.  Truly a royal gift!  And, for those who may not understand why, it is the reason that suicide is considered a form of murder by historical Christianity.  Although from a human perspective, it appears victimless, or least the only victim is the perpetrator himself, in truth the greater crime is any non-judicial termination of a human life is that it is an act of violence against the image of God, an act of treason against God Himself.

But the majesty of bearing God’s image that Mankind enjoys is secondary for the purposes of this discussion.  The connection of the imago deo to Mankind has immediately implications relative to a conversation of aesthetics.  Specifically, the bearer of God’s image will manifest some of the same traits He does.  Of interest here is God’s aesthetic nature: He takes satisfaction in beholding beautiful things.  It should be safe to assume that God’s manifest satisfaction in the goodness of His work must at least have been comprised of His consideration of their appearance, sound, smell, texture, or in the case of foods, taste in order that His judgment of goodness would be true and complete such that none of his creatures might come along after and find the judgment false on one of the dimensions of sensory input through which beauty is perceived.  This is critical because it ensures that the totality of the aesthetic experience that humans have is not different or original from that which the infinite God possess.  Thus, as His image bearers, every person shares in His love of beautiful things to some finite degree.  This is why humanity spends such a huge amount of discretionary time in the creation or appreciation of beauty.

For me this is one of the strongest evidences of Mankind’s transcendent (i.e. spiritual) nature.  Our pursuit of these experiences has absolutely nothing to do with our physical survival.  Painting, music, art offer no survival value.  This came home to me as I sat down to enjoy a gourmet meal.  The combination of ingredients offered a fixed amount of nutrition without respect to their manner of preparation.  I could eat the raw ingredients separately and still enjoy the benefits of the meal.  However, going way beyond simple survival, I sought out a preparation of the ingredients that maximized the aesthetic pleasure of the experience of eating.  In fact, the preparation of the ingredients delayed their availability as nutrition which could arguably reduce their survival utility.  Yet, given the choice, I am happy to wait for something that goes beyond nutrition for the reward of something that is also delicious.  Indeed, I may well favor a meal that is nutritionally deficient, but aesthetically superior.  Why?  The image deo gives each of us a delight in the experience of beauty, and leads us, like Him, to work to create beautiful experiences which serve as their own reward.

Another example of this uniqueness would be how many of us will pause to consider a beautiful sunset.  It offers us no survival benefit as we do not need to behold the sun sinking behind the horizon to understand that the world is about to go dark.  We stop, and our breath can be taken away, simply by the visual stimulus of watching a routine, daily, occurrence.  The power of the light and its proportion to the closing darkness, the distance to the horizon, the way that things familiar in the daylight become obscured in the purple light of dusk, all of these and more can cause us to pause our lives for a moment to reflect on our existence in an inconceivably huge universe.  I do not believe that animals will ever do the same.  We love beautiful things because we bear a finite shadow of the delight God has in beautiful things.

We have considered the manner in which the appreciation of beauty comes to us.  First, as with all things that exist, they flow from the existence of God.  He manifestly delights to behold beautiful things (and perhaps more profoundly, His satisfaction in the beholding of beauty is only made perfect in His contemplation of Himself).  Second, as His image-bearers, Mankind possesses an aesthetic nature: we receive pleasure from beholding the beautiful.  The extent to which we have aesthetic experiences is the extent to which we are expressing this particular inherited attribute.  Two thoughts follow from this: 1) God esteems the characteristic of beauty, and 2) by imparting this trait to Mankind, God intended that this appreciation be manifest in His creatures.

The first conclusion is really the heart of why, as a Christian, I believe that the work of artists is as important as any other work, including that of pastors and preachers.  A few thoughts on why the importance of this work is a relevant concern.   Christianity teaches that this World, and our lives in it, will eventually pass away.  With a cataclysm that will undo everything in the material universe, God will bring eternal realities to bear upon every human soul at some point in the future.  The Works and Deeds that we manifest in this creation, unless they have some eternal value, will be erased from existence never to be known again.  Thus, the creation of a song, or a painting, or a sculpture will be ultimately futile, even if it is celebrated for 1000 generations of Mankind.  It will be erased and forgotten in the light of an eternal state for immortal souls.  This short, brutish life is not worth comparing with the rewards of the eternally blessed (Ro 8:18).  In light of this, the work of sharing the truths of God for the benefit of our fellow Man is clearly eternally worthy.  In fact, by this measure, nearly everything else is pointless: an insignificant blip on the timeline of eternity.  This posed a profound problem for me as I considered the value of my efforts to pursue the creation of musical art.  It seemed so utterly pointless.  At least the farmer creates food to sustain life for a time; the carpenter gives us shelter from the threat of weather.  There are many practical works that help sustain life, or make it less difficult.  But art is so ephemeral.  It may change someone’s thoughts, or perhaps not.  It has no practical impact on a life.  So, upon initial consideration, it would seem that the time and energy spent by artists in the creation of objects of contemplation would be utterly wasted.  Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent in more practical benefits, or better, in the communication of the truths of God?  What possible value would there be in the pursuit of the creation of art?

The value of Beauty, in its transcendent sense, is established not by its essential nature.  It is more firmly established because of the value that God places upon it.  To be more precise, the value of Beauty is derivative of the value of the One who esteems it.  It is because of the incalculable worthiness of God, that those things He values are inestimably valuable.  Beauty is a worthy pursuit first because God values it, not because Mankind does.  If the appreciation of the beautiful were a characteristic only of Mankind, then it could be possible that it was not an inherently worthy characteristic.  In fact, it could be that it was the product of a fallen nature.

This brings us to the second consideration; God has communicated His aesthetic nature to His image-bearers.  Here is where many Christians can have serious reservations about artists and their work.  But, I want to carefully draw a distinction between the work of artists, and the beautiful.  They do not necessarily intersect.  Some artists may create objects of contemplation that exist to confound or shock the beholder.  Their goal is to divest the viewer of their expectation of experiencing beauty.  They may believe that beauty doesn’t exist in a cruel universe.  Or they may be taking a philosophical position that is expressed through their media.  Some artists, perhaps many, do not have a goal of engaging Beauty.  In these cases, I would not defend their efforts as intrinsically worthy.  In fact, I believe they may be destructive.  They may shock and scandalize and titillate, but these are not responses that stem from the image of God.  Instead, they are stimulatory of the fallen nature of Mankind.  Their work is evil to the extent that it provokes the twisted and distorted in Mankind.  The work of artists is eternally valuable inasmuch as it reflects true Beauty.   As they create objects that create an aesthetic response in those who behold it, then they are stimulating the noblest and worthiest parts of Mankind.  If the work of an artist causes a beholder to genuinely echo the words of God as He beheld His creation, then it can be regarded as inherently valuable.  It is made so because it is reflective of God’s character.   This becomes the principal motivation and validation of the artist’s life:  the creation of beautiful things with the goal of stimulating the expression of the image deo in the beholder of the created work.  This leads to a discussion on the nature of Beauty itself.

Having established a foundation upon which we can rest the existence of our aesthetic nature, it seems fitting to take upon ourselves a consideration of the object of that nature: Beauty.  There is a critical distinction between a discussion of Art and a discussion of Beauty.  The former is a term that blankets a large swath of human activity.  There are many ‘Artists’ and much ‘Art’.  Many have written about Art, and the Art World, and I do not have any particular interest in that effort.  ‘Art’ as it is practiced in the modern world often serves as one of many competing religions wherein the secret societies of the insular ‘Art-World’ can move in clique-ish self-affirmation even while they often move, herd-like, from revolutionary artist to revolutionary artist.  That is nothing more than an esoteric popularity contest amongst the extremely wealthy.  That is not to denigrate those with wealth, nor their choices in how they spend it.  I am, however, not terribly interested in the machinations, rites, rituals, and saints of that religious, and quasi-masonic house-of-cards where acolytes move into deeper and more hidden realms of the ’in-crowd’ whose real trick is convincing wealthy people that ugly and godless things can be worth exorbitant sums of money.  Rather, I would have us continue down the path that traces from the bedrock of our shared humanity as image-bearers of the One, the Supreme Beauty-lover.  If the works of Mankind, that are termed Art works, are to have any transcendental value, then they must reflect some characteristics of that property with which God is delighted.  So, what is Beauty?

Having considered this at some length, and having consumed a small portion of the vast collected wisdom of a long tradition of scholars from Western Civilization, I have come to the once uncontroversial conclusion that Beauty and Truth are inextricably interwoven.  The one cannot be without the other.  To say that this position is ‘once uncontroversial’ has two implications.  The first is that it may now be considered controversial.  The second is that was the prevailing view in a previous time.  I am not a historian, and would not be qualified to discourse on the full history of aesthetics.  However, as a student of the Bible, and of Western Civilization, I do not have to look far to find a window of our history wherein the notion that Beauty is a transcendental, and not subjective, property of reality was commonly understood.  From as early as Socrates (through Plato) and the Pythagorean’s, Beauty and Truth could be found, and affirmed objectively through the application of reason and artistic skill.  Things may be said to be beautiful on an objective basis in the same way that they may be said to be true on an objective basis.  The transcendental absoluteness of Truth has come on hard times in the last 150 years of Western history.  The notion that truth exists independently of the Subject (the perceiver) is not uniformly assumed across the ‘Art’ community.  However, every person lives as if Truth did exist.  Even the act of stating ‘There is no absolute Truth’ is itself a claim that in its very nature assumes that there is such a thing as Truth that is worth communicating.  The effort of articulating and delivering the statement presupposes that that particular Truth, a rejection of absolute Truth, is worth communicating.  Of course, the statement itself, being an absolute truth claim, is self-negating.  It cannot be a true statement.  If it is, then it is denying its own nature of being a true statement….but I digress.

So, returning to a consideration of Beauty as a transcendental peer of Truth, it must be an Absolute as surely as Truth.  Why?  Because just as surely as ultimate Truth is inextricably bound up with the thoughts and purposes of God, so must Beauty be inextricably bound up with the quality of His works (e.g. the ‘very good’ of Creation).  For Beauty to be deemed ‘very good’ is to presuppose that there are levels of Beauty that range from ‘very good’ to ‘not so good’ in the mind of God.  As He is the ultimate arbiter of all value judgments, we must assume that Beauty exists on an absolute scale in the same manner as propositional statements exist on a continuum of accuracy from true to untrue.  It is also very much in the Christian tradition of theology to consider that much of the great joy and hope of Heaven stems from the fact that God’s sentient creatures get to behold Him, His Beauty, directly without intermediation.  He occupies the central, illuminating, place in the eternal city, and every glory and wonder of that place (jeweled gates, gold streets) exists in an ornamental and secondary relationship to His Beauty.  Beholding the Lamb That Was Slain in heaven is more than the visual confirmation of the excellence of the work of Christ.  It is a mixture of the truths of His divine accomplishments, with the sheer Beauty that the ways of God yield.  His appearance itself is Beautiful as well as being True.  In a temporal sense, we can look upon a haggard, beaten, bloody stump of a broken carpenter on a rough cross of logs and realize that the Beauty and Truth bound in the crucifixion is not a product alone of the image of a crucified criminal.  That would be, at best, an unsettling, if not too graphic, reminder of the rightness of justice for the wrongdoer.  But, to consider a blameless man in such a state, the broken body is a stomach-turning horror.  It is only the Truth of purpose that turns the image of the Cross into one of the most powerful images of Beauty because in the blood and agony of Christ’s suffering is a picture of the victory of the Creator over the strident rebellion of His Creatures for His glory and for their great good.  Thus do beauty and truth intermingle.

Stepping down from the lofty heights of God’s perfect Beauty and Truth, what then does the artist who would follow the imago deo within his own soul?  If it is true that we love beauty because God does, and if it is true that there is an absolute standard of Beauty that only God is capable of creating, does this leave the artist as only a parrot who creates benign paintings of beautiful sunsets or still life paintings, or only unexceptional tonal music?  For me, the creation of works of art is not about creating something that simply tickles the senses.  Beauty is not a function only of outward form.  The simple reproduction of a beautiful thing reduces the beautiful thing inasmuch as its representation is always less than the thing itself as no human work of art is capable of capturing all of the sensory characteristics of a real-world item.  However, it is here where the work of the artist is again a shadow that follows the work of the Master Artist.  God creates and embodies Truth and Beauty, and both of these absolutely, not relatively or subjectively.  The artist, bearing his image, likewise creates works that reflect both Beauty and Truth.  Truly beautiful things are Beautiful because either in their composition or enjoyment they are aligned in some essential and fundamental way with something that is transcendentally true.  A painting of a flower becomes Beautiful in many possible ways.  Its beauty may derive from the fidelity of its representation to an actual flower.  The flower itself may have imperfections, but the beauty of its representation is in part derived from the degree to which the artist has represented it with a high-degree of accuracy (truth of depiction).  Part of the power of a hyper-realistic painting is the knowledge of the skill required by the painter to produce it: truth entwined with beauty.  Another case would be impressionism.  Some may wonder why these works are considered as such highly beautiful creations.  Striking colors and sweeping gestures, but they are often of very common scenes.  It is not for the perfection of their rendering of an image.  These works are filled with blurry inaccuracies.  The celebration of their beauty stems from the understanding of the artists’ purposes as much as from the specific placement of paint on their canvases.  The great impressionists were drawing attention to the act of perception…the motion, and haze…of real life.  They did not focus on truthfully depicting the subjects of their work.  Instead, they focused on truthfully depicting the nature of perception itself in all its imperfections.  For abstract works to manifest Beauty, they must have some partnership with Truth as well.  In this sense, abstract works can be exceedingly beautiful inasmuch as they are bound together by compelling Truth.  The medium is not the determinant of the value of the work.  Instead it is the Beauty which it expresses, and inseparably so, the Truth of it as well.  We can look even at our daily life and appreciate the partnership of truth in the beauty of human forms.   A beautiful face is made so because its structure and appearance are in some way more closely aligned to the functions and purpose of its elements….eyes are more beautiful because of their ‘eyeness’… open and ready to receive reflected light, as opposed to eyes that are swollen shut or obscured with cataracts or illnesses that impair their function.  Thus, the works of the theologian, the philosopher, and the scientist, each devoted to a pursuit of Truth, become beautiful in their representation.  But the artist joins their company as an expositor of Truth through the creation of Beauty.  Art matters.  Artists matter.  The active pursuit and perception of Beautiful things is a mandate that stems from our shared heritage as bearers of God’s image.