A Christian Perspective On Art In General
By Francis Schaeffer (Summarized by Albert Strong)
There are, I believe, at least eleven distinct perspectives from which a Christian can consider and evaluate works of art. These perspectives do not exhaust the various aspects of art. The field of aesthetics is too rich for that. But they do cover a significant portion of what should be a Christian’s understanding in this area.
1. A work of art has a value in itself. Why? First, because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator. Second, an art work has value as a creation because man is made in the image of God, and therefore man not only can love and think and feel emotion but also has the capacity to create.
But we must be careful not to reverse this. Not every creation is great art. Nor is all that man makes good either intellectually or morally.
Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art.
I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect.
The third basic notion [The first view is the relatively recent theory of art for art’s sake. The second, is that art is only an embodiment of a message, a vehicle for the propagation of a particular message about the world or the artist or man or whatever] of the nature of art-the one I think is right, the one that really produces great art and the possibility of great art-is that the artist makes a body of work and this body of work shows his world view.
…artists began by making works of art, and then their world views showed through the body of their work. I emphasize the body of an artist’s work because it is impossible for any
2. Art forms add strength to the world view which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false.
3. In all forms of writing, both poetry and prose, it makes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of words in normal syntax. If there is no continuity with the way in which language is normally used, then there is no way for a reader or an audience to know what the author is saying. Totally abstract art stands in an undefined relationship with the viewer, for the viewer is completely alienated from the painter.
ART AND THE SACRED
4. The fact that something is a work of art does not make it sacred. As Christians, we must see that just because an artist-even a great artist-portrays a world view in writing or on canvas, it does not mean that we should automatically accept that world view. Art may heighten the impact of the world view, in fact we can count on this, but it does not make something true. The truth of a world view presented by an artist must be judged on separate grounds than artistic greatness.
FOUR STANDARDS OF JUDGMENT
5. There are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle.
(1) Technical Excellence… if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man. Technical excellence is, therefore, an important criterion.
(2) Validity… By validity I mean whether an artist is honest to himself and to his world view or whether he makes his art only for money or for the sake of being accepted. As far as a Christian is concerned, the world view that is shown through a body of art must be seen ultimately in terms of the Scripture. The artist’s world view is not to be free from the judgment of the Word of God.
(3) Intellectual Content, the World View
There are, therefore, four kinds of people in the realm of art. The first is the born-again man who writes or paints within the Christian total world view. The second is the non-Christian who expresses his own non-Christian world view. The third is the man who is personally a non-Christian but nevertheless writes or paints on the basis of the Christian consensus by which he has been influenced. The fourth person is the born-again Christian who does not understand what the total Christian world view should be and therefore produces art which embodies a non-Christian world view.
(4) Integration of Content and Vehicle
The fourth criterion for judging a work of art involves how well the artist has suited the vehicle to the message. For those art works which are truly great, there is a correlation between the style and the content. The greatest art fits the vehicle that is being used to the world view that is being presented.
6. Any form of art can be used for any type of message from pure fantasy to detailed history.
That a work of art is in the form of fantasy or epic or painting does not mean that there is no propositional content. Just as one can have propositional statements in prose, there can be propositional statements in poetry, in painting, in virtually any art form.
MODERN ART FORMS AND THE CHRISTIAN MESSAGE
7. Styles of art form change and there is nothing wrong with this. Many Christians, especially those unused to viewing the arts and thinking about them, reject contemporary painting and contemporary poetry not because of their world view but simply because they feel threatened by a new art form. It is perfectly legitimate for a Christian to reject a particular work of art intellectually, that is, because he knows what is being said by it. But it is another thing to reject the work of art simply because the style is different from that which we are used to. Not only will there be a change in art forms and language as time progresses, but there will be a difference in art forms coming from various geographical locations and from different cultures.
8. There is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style. The more one tries to make such a distinction, the more confusing it becomes. Christian art must speak in the language of its era. Yet, while there is no such thing as a godly or ungodly style, we must not be misled or naive in thinking that various styles have no relation whatsoever to the content or the message of the work of art. Styles themselves are developed as symbol systems or vehicles for certain world views or messages. [Note: This topic is developed much further in the book, and I cannot do it justice by summarizing.]
THE SUBJECT MATTER OF CHRISTIAN ART
9. The Christian world view can be divided into what can be called a major and a minor theme. First, the minor theme is the abnormality of the revolting world. This falls into two parts: (1) Men who have revolted from God and not come back to Christ are eternally lost; (2) There is a defeated and sinful side to the Christian’s life. If we are at all honest, we must admit that in this life there is no such thing as totally victorious living. In every one of us there are those things which are sinful and deceiving and, while we may see substantial healing, in this life we do not come to perfection.
The major theme is the opposite of the minor; it is the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life. From the Christian viewpoint, this falls into two headings, metaphysics and morals. In the area of metaphysics (of being, of existence, including the existence of every man) God is there, God exists. Therefore, all is not absurd. Furthermore, man is made in God’s image and so man has significance. With this comes the fact that love, not just sex, exists. True morals, as opposed to only conditioning, exist. And creativity, as opposed to mechanical construction, exists. So therefore the major theme is an optimism in the area of being; everything is not absurd, there is meaning. But most important, this optimism has a sufficient base. [Note: Again, this receives much fuller treatment in the book]
10. Christian art is by no means always religious art, that is, art which deals with religious themes.
It is worth man’s while to create works upon the basis of the great works God has already created. This whole notion is rooted in the realization that Christianity is not just involved with “salvation” but with the total man in the total world. Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person who is a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism. For some artists there is a place for religious themes, but an artist does not need to be conscience stricken if he does not paint in this area. Some Christian artists will never use religious themes.
AN INDIVIDUAL ART WORK AND THE BODY OF AN ARTIST’S WORK.
11. Every artist has the problem of making an individual work of art and, as well, building up a total body of work.
If you are a Christian artist, therefore, you must not freeze up just because you can’t do everything at once. Don’t be afraid to write a love poem simply because you cannot put into it everything of the Christian message. Yet, if a man is to be an artist, his goal should be in a lifetime to produce a wide and deep body of work.