Freedom and Fellowship, Chapter 1: A Case for Theology (part 6)

Good Art, Bad Art

Inevitably, the question is raised: What makes some art good and some art bad? Or, rather: Is some art good and other art bad? And, again: Is it possible to judge the worth of a work of art?

All of us have encountered art that we did not care for. We have all seen the painting, photograph, or sculpture that was “art” and were convince that our children could do something “better.” We have all watched a film, play, or television show which we could only describe as “a waste of time.” There is surely a piece of music that we were told was the best song ever written, but was like listening to nails on a chalkboard or, worse, left us feeling quite indifferent. It is situations such as these that convince us that some art is good and some is bad.

In truth, there is no such thing as good or bad art. There is only “art” or “not art.”

Was form created that symbolizes human feeling? Yes? Then it is art. No? Then it is not. The line is simple and easily drawn. Not everything which uses the same form and structure can be called art. Likewise, art is not the only field to reference a system of symbolic logic. Something is either art or it is not.

What can be established, however, is the degree to which a piece of art succeeds. Here are four basic criteria (but not an exhaustive list) that can be used to determine the success of a piece of art.

  • Generally, did the artist fulfill her intention for the piece of art?
  • To what level of sophistication was form and structure utilized?
  • How clearly was a system of symbolic logic used?
  • Did the piece do anything “new”?

The first three criteria (while they are a bit subjective) primarily point to the aspects of the artist’s work involving skill and discipline. To render judgment on whether an artist was able to achieve concretely what she had conceived of abstractly, how well she manipulated the form and structure she chose, and in what ways she used a symbolic “vocabulary” is to say something about the level of understanding and mastery she has over the established elements of her field. Can she achieve what she set out to achieve?

The fourth criteria, however, offers us an even more subjective reality to face. If an artist were only to explore themes that had been explored many times over, and in ways that had already been utilized, we would certainly say that she had created art, but it would not be interesting because it would be boring. It would be art that had already been tried. It might be art, but it was tired art. There would be nothing interesting about it, it would add nothing new to our understanding of its theme because we had already visited the same theme in the same form several times over.

In the beginning, when an artist is learning his craft, this is acceptable. When an artist is beginning his work, it is good and appropriate for him to copy the masters. In fact, this is the way that successful artists used to learn their discipline – they were made to copy the works of the masters. These exercises provided the young artist a way to study first hand how the elements of a piece were in relationship. By trying to achieve a particular physical effect with paint, the apprentice learned about brush strokes and the consistency of the oils. By recreating the composition of works that have endured over time, the apprentice begins to internalize the relationship between the different elements, as well as opinions and understandings of why certain compositions are well received and why others are not.

Yet, all this is but a staging ground and a training program. The copying, mimicking, or memorizing all serves as a way for the artist to become familiar with the discipline. If the artists spends his entire career producing simple recreations, he can still be called an artist, but he will never be called a successful one. To be a successful artist, one must do more than reproduce and recreate. To be a successful artist is to push boundaries. One must acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, yes, but we must also be committed to describing the landscape that we can see which the giant cannot. A successful artist adds, if even only a fraction, to the whole of human history.

One thought on “Freedom and Fellowship, Chapter 1: A Case for Theology (part 6)”

  1. Art is the expession of the human soul and the discovery of something new about that expression.

    As a “creative,” I think I see where you are going with this as it relates to theology. Theology as art is the expression of some new understanding we have about God and our relationship with God in our own time and place.

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