Recently, I got to substitute teach in an art class. The assignment left by the teacher was very interesting and discussed 4 different pieces of “art” and what makes them “art.”
The first painting was called “The Chimpanzee Painter.” It was a piece of art painted by a chimpanzee named Congo. The second piece was a picture of a piece of driftwood. The third was a picture of a man sitting in a street with a sign around his neck saying “I am art.” The fourth was a pile of bricks that was displayed in a museum. It was contrasted with a similar pile of bricks being used for construction at a different location.
The purpose of the exercise was to discuss what constitutes art. Is it art if it is created by a monkey? Is something art just because someone says so? Can anything be art, like driftwood on a beach or a pile of bricks in a museum? How is it that some people can find these things to be art while others do not? Is there an objective sense of what “art” is or is it completely subjective?
I assert that there’s both a subjective and objective sense to what we call art.
Taste in Food is Both Subjective and Objective
Food is a helpful analogy in describing how both subjective and objective elements can coexist simultaneously.
People’s taste in food can vary from person to person. It’s not an issue of who’s right or wrong. Some people like spicy food. Others don’t. Some people like pineapple on pizza (like me). Some people don’t and will have very strong opinions about it (believe me, I’ve heard them). In the end, whether you like spicy food or not or whether you like pineapple on pizza or not won’t have much of an effect on your health. It’s all food that serves to nourish and sustain your body. People’s tastes can vary while still accomplishing this goal.
However, there are other things in life that you could eat but would also be toxic to you. Let’s take industrial waste as an example. One could eat something like that. I’ll even grant the possibility that something such as that might taste good to someone. Yet, industrial waste could never be called “food” simply because someone enjoys eating it. Why? Because food is meant to accomplish a certain purpose in our bodies by providing nourishment and energy. Industrial waste would do no such thing.
Of course, I also believe that God created food for the purpose of enjoyment. But when we divorce the enjoyment of food from its intended purpose to nourish and sustain the body, that’s when harm will inevitably result. No matter how much someone might enjoy eating industrial waste, it could never be called food.
Taste in Art is Both Subjective and Objective
Art can be thought of in a similar way. Just as there exist subjective and objective elements in food, there are both subjective and objective elements in art.
Subjectively, as we know and see around us, people can have divergent opinions about what is art or not. When looking at the photo of the pile of bricks, I had students say that this was art because “everything an artist makes is art.” Others said that it wasn’t because “it is just a pile of bricks. How could that be art?” So, we understand the subjective element of art.
What, then, is art’s objective purpose? In my opinion, it is to display beauty. If art fails to accomplish this purpose, then it can no longer be called art. Just as something which can be eaten is not necessarily “food,” everything which is created is not necessarily “art.”
What is Beauty?
Now, you might be wondering, “Isn’t ‘beauty’ just as subjective as the term ‘art?'” In the colloquial usage, yes. As the saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” However, theologically, beauty is also an attribute of God, which means that there is an objective sense to what beauty means.
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.Psalms 27:4, ESV
O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.Psalms 96:9, KJV
Beauty exists because God exists. God is beautiful because he, in his character and nature, is attractive in every sense. His holiness, goodness, love, judgment, wrath—all these things contribute to his beauty and are aspects of his beauty. That beauty pervades every facet of his creation.
The difficult thing is that since we are sinful, our conception and perception of beauty can be warped. Therefore, the creative product of humans is often a mixed bag, containing aspects of beauty while also containing aspects of sin, which is antithetical to beauty. I’m sure anyone can think of a song that is beautiful musically but has lyrics that are ugly (or vice versa).
The good news is that although the perception of God’s beauty is often obscured by our sin, God’s grace allows us to see much of it, serving as an indicator that points back to himself (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20).
Art, therefore, should purpose to capture and display aspects of this beauty.
A Test Case: Is Pornography Art?
One area of public life in which these ideas come into play is the pornography industry. Some will claim pornography is art and should not be censored in any way. I won’t delve into the censorship question here, but I do want to briefly discuss the idea of whether pornography should be considered art.
First, let us remember that God created sex and the human body with immense beauty. But, just as with all things, the beauty of sex and the human body is most clearly seen when they accord with their created purpose (Song of Solomon, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
Pornography distorts the beauty of what God has created for the purpose of arousing lust and the objectification of the people in the video/picture. It tries to extract the pleasure and joy which God intended to be present in sex and the human body and divorce them from their proper context and purpose of marriage. This always results in harm, whether it’s spiritual, physical, or emotional.
If we accept that the purpose of art is to display beauty, then pornography cannot be art because it presents a grossly distorted form of beauty, an ugliness that results from separating sex and the human body from their divinely intended purposes.
Art has both subjective and objective elements to it. Subjectivity results from people’s various tastes and preferences. The objective element of art comes from its purpose to display beauty, a divine quality. When art fails in its purpose, it ceases to be art, just as something eaten that fails to bring nourishment to the body can no longer be food. When we seek to divorce the purpose of something from the pleasure we derive from it, the result will be harm to those involved.