What is Good Art?

I am a struggling writer with an English degree and philosophy minor from a run-of-the-mill university and, as of now, one self-published novel. I didn’t study art history. I didn’t go to a fancy art school. And I’m not some prodigy with a paintbrush or guitar. Everything you read from this point on is going to be colored by this perspective—the perspective of an average guy with a passion for writing who has crafted a theory on what (good) art is so that he can try to better his own craft. Prepare yourselves.

From what I understand about art history, there have been numerous movements among artistically minded people that dealt with how to define what the heck it is they were doing with their lives. And most of us—even as laypeople—have presuppositions about art. A friend of mine is of the persuasion that anything with a use outside of the context of the art itself loses its artistic quality—and so things like a finely crafted chair or table are not art. They have a non-artistic purpose. A function. And though they can be done very artfully, they are not actually examples of art. A painting or a piece of music has no real application outside of its own existence, and so therefore (to my friend) these retain their artistic validity. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, though. Just look at last week’s blog post and see the billboards. Then again, I guess those art billboards also don’t really have a use outside of their own context. So maybe this theory works.

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Marcel Duchamp “L.H.O.O.Q.”

There was a movement toward the start of the 20th century called Dadaism that kind of took my friend’s idea to its extreme. To the Dadaists, art could not have a ‘meaning.’ It couldn’t have a purpose or point. There was no message to be displayed, no idea to get across. Just art. This is vaguely reminiscent—especially to someone with an English degree—of the “morte d’author” notion of authorship which said that the meaning of a story was not the result of the author’s intent but rather the readers’ perceptions. When reading a story, you make your own meaning, find your own moral, etc. But, as with all extremist positions, the Dadaist movement’s downfall was its inherent contradiction. In order to get their ideas across, they made art with no “idea” behind it. Let me repeat that just to make sure you get the contradiction here. In order to show that art was meaningless, they made art in which the meaning of the artwork was that there was no meaning. We can argue about semantics all day, but basically what these folks did was say “art is not a form of communication, and so we’re going to use art to communicate that to you.” Absurd.

Now, that second-to-last sentence really hints at my answer to the “what is art” question—and you can tell it’s painted heavily by my experience with and passion for writing. Art, I would say, is primarily communication. The content of the communication doesn’t matter. That’s the prerogative of the artist in question. But think about it. Whether you read a moving poem, stare at a haunting painting, or listen to a composer’s best waltz, you’re receiving something from the artist. An idea, an emotion, a philosophy. Something is being communicated across the gulf. That is the purpose of art.

Good art, then, is effective communication. Let me go back to that “morte d’author” idea I discussed earlier. I don’t totally disagree with it—when I read a novel, I do the imagining in my head. I create at least part of the meaning myself. But I don’t think it’s that simple. An expert author guides the reader into imagining things the way the author wants. It’s why we can usually congregate around stories we’ve read—we’ve all been guided to imagine the world in similar ways, and so it feels like all of us readers are stuck in the same story together. We have a connection with the intent of the author. I have heard something similar about modern art. Someone once told me that the “point” of modern abstract art—you know, those paintings that are just blocks of seemingly random colors and lines that don’t coalesce into any recognizable picture—the “purpose” of those paintings is to guide your eyes from color to color in a set way. The artist tries to dictate the order of things that catch your eye and create movement in that sense. A good artist uses this ability to evoke emotions. They use their technique to communicate something to you that they want you to receive. It’s why we talk about “getting” art. We’re literally getting something from the artist—provided that the artist is of a high enough caliber.

This all sounds good, you might say, but what does it mean for me as a Christian artist? Quite a lot, in my opinion. To me, a Christian artist is simply an artist who happens to be a Christian. Recently, the lead singer for Switchfoot made the comment that Jesus died for him—not for his songs. His point? That he is a Christian, not his music. This is a profound thing that many people in evangelistic America don’t understand—“Christian music” or “Christian art” shouldn’t be a genre. There should just be people who are Christians making (good) art. And what does that mean? That means that we communicate things about ourselves to others in the medium in which we specialize. Can that be a literal, in-your-face depiction of the gospel? Sure. But see last week’s post on implicit art usually being better than explicit. It doesn’t have to be that. All it has to be, in my opinion, is the expression of some emotion/struggle/idea/etc. within the artist. For instance, my first novel is a science fiction story about the search for missing children and a young drug addict who gets caught in the chaos. It’s me dealing with the idea of a determined universe—of a sovereign deity. Are there messianic themes and gospel overtones to the story? Of course—because they’re part of who I am. And if Christianity is true, these themes connect all of us as humans because they’re part of who we all are. Or perhaps I could use another example. In college, I wrote a short story about a depraved sex addict who takes advantage of an underage girl and gets her pregnant. The story has no happy ending. It was in college, so I don’t know that I’d call it “good” art, but my intent was to show the emptiness inherent in sin. That’s all. So for artists, the message doesn’t always have to be a positive one—it can be a message about the negativity of looking at the world a certain way. Indeed, some artists use a sort of shock value to engage their audiences with tough questions or to make their audiences look at an issue differently.

So what’s all this about? I don’t know. I guess you could call it a manifesto or something. Is that what clever people call these types of short treatises? The main idea was for me to start some kind of discussion—maybe even one that occurs outside the confines of this blog collective—about what it means to make art, what it means to make it well, and what it means to do all of that within the context of being a Christian. I hope that, however small, this thing can be called at least decent art. I hope.

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