Re: The Christian and the Aesthetics
And this one...
Gordon H. Clark
In the last few years the ostensibly evangelical community in this
country has developed a rather lively interest in art. Christianity
Today, Christian Scholar's Review, the Association for the
Advancement of Christian Scholarship, and others give evidence of
such an interest by having published several books and articles on
the subject. The present piece aims to survey these views and point
to a few conclusions.
First of all, some of the problems secular authors on aesthetics must
face require identification. Evangelical authors face additional
difficulties when they try to relate art to Christianity. The first
group of problems includes the elusive definition of beauty.
Unfortunately this is so elusive that modern writers usually make no
attempt to define it. In any case, a work of art need not be
beautiful. The ugly can also be artistic. Discarding the concept of
beauty, however, only increases the need of a definition of art. What
is the common element in all works of art, beautiful or ugly, that
causes us so to classify them? Presumably the definition is to be
found in the purpose of art. If a chronometer is defined by the
purpose of measuring time, art must be that which fulfills a
particular function. Would anyone hold that art has no purpose,
fulfills no function at all?
If this purpose can be stated, a step will have been taken toward the
solution of another problem. Nearly everybody acknowledges a
hierarchy of arts. They are not all on a dead level. People ask, and
often answer quickly, whether or not the ballet is a better, a
higher, a more perfect form of art than sculpture or architecture.
Musicians are almost universally convinced that music outranks
painting. But poets vote for poetry. An author on aesthetics must not
only judge who is right, but must state the criteria for his
hierarchy. No doubt many writers only dimly recognize their criteria;
they may even inconsistently use incompatible criteria; but nearly
everyone ranks the arts in some order or other. Presumably this has
to be done by first determining the purpose of art and then
determining which art best fulfills this purpose. In fact, within a
single art, such as painting, one work, the Sistine Madonna, can be
judged better or worse than another, Rembrandt's Night Watch, for
example, on this same basis of fulfilling the purpose of painting.
If the purpose of art in general and of painting or poetry in
particular is not merely a display of technique, if the content plays
some role in the judgment, the ground is laid for
distinguishing "great" art from trivial or even evil art. If a
painting has the new moon in the east when day is dying in the west,
does not this astronomical monstrosity, no matter how perfect the
composition and technique, detract from its value? Can a poem talk
nonsense and be a great poem, or, at least, can it be as great as a
poem equal in other respects and which also speaks sensibly?
These are some of the problems that secular aesthetics cannot avoid.
Nor can Christian authors avoid them. But in addition the latter must
ask other questions, all of which can be condensed in the question
whether the Scriptures imply a theory of aesthetics. Certainly an
evangelical, whose formal princip1e is Sola Scriptura, cannot study
any part of philosophy without considering Scriptural teaching.
It is not necessary here to discuss secular and Biblical aesthetics
separately. The latter faces all the problems of the former. Hence
the present procedure can well begin with criticism of the sort of
article that has been appearing in recent ostensibly evangelical
These articles, so it seems to me, are usually defective in one or
more of three points: First, they exhibit the pervasive ambiguity and
meaninglessness of almost all literature on aesthetics; second, even
when the first objection is not so obviously the case they either
depend on or suggest invalid arguments; and third, they are with
virtual unanimity deficient in supporting their contentions by
First, in the last few years a gadfly has been lampooning the
pedantic nonsense that emanates from New York's Metropolitan Museum.
Theodore L, Shaw and Stuart Publications have produced Hypocrisy
About Art, Precious Rubbish, and other titles which are not all
hypocrisy and rubbish. The Met comes out as pontifically stupid.
If anyone thinks that this gadfly should be ignored, do not more
serious volumes on aesthetics testify to the unintelligibility of the
subject? For example, can anyone deny that there is confusion and
meaninglessness in The Art of Painting (chapter four and Appendix I)
where Albert Barnes discusses the subject of form? Can the work of
Elie Faure, Venturi, or John Dewey be adjudged more intelligible? Or,
on music, note the pitiful attempts to define classical and romantic
in Grove's five volume Dictionary of Music. There are, to be sure,
better attempts than Grove's. The Oxford Companion to Music (revised
edition, 1963) says that the term classical distinguishes music
largely the music written between 1600 and 1800 which is
characterized by a more or less consciously accepted formalism in
which elements of proportion and of beauty as such [!] are emphasized
from "romantic" music in which the main purpose is the expression of
emotions, or even the representation in tone of ideas that usually
receive, not a musical, but rather a literary or pictorial expression.
Although this is a relatively good statement for books on aesthetics,
one notices not only that its term beauty as such remains
unexplained, but also the meaning or mode of emotional expression is
left vague. Then too, if proportion can be so defined as to exclude
it from romanticism, form presents worse difficulties. Does not
Beethoven show form? Nor, and this is surely important, is there any
explanation of how or whether literary ideas can be expressed in
tone. Inasmuch as one or two professors of philosophy claim for art a
cognitive function not duplicated elsewhere, the point needs serious
Hardly any book on aesthetics defines its terms carefully. Even
Plato, when he tried to define Beauty in Greater Hippias, failed.
Historical information, e.g., the formulation of the laws of
perspective or the development from plainsong to counterpoint, has a
proper share of interest and importance it is also intelligible;
but there is a dearth of definition. It seems that even the better
books do not know the meaning of the words they use, while the
sentimental gushings of "art appreciation" are utterly vacuous.
Now, if Plato himself, who so stressed definition and
intelligibility, could do so little on beauty, one cannot be
surprised that writers of lesser genius do worse. Yet the failures
may be instructive. If most of the books on aesthetics are largely
unintelligible, it may not be because the authors are otherwise
stupid, but because art itself is defective in intelligibility.
For example, there is no good objection against classifying art as a
form of expression. So far as it goes, this is a good statement of
the purpose of art. But it does not go very far at all. One should
not go so far as to define art as the expression of emotion, for by
the previous remarks this would imply that classical art is not art.
The trouble here is to make precise what content art can express. Few
writers do so. On one occasion when the present writer had been
examining Rembrandt's pen sketches in Amsterdam, an art connoisseur
remarked that they "said so much." What they said, he did not say.
Similarly music is called expressive. True, it can, like an
ejaculation, express joy or sorrow, but not much else. It certainly
cannot express Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or the Lord's Prayer. A
choir director, a very good one too, exemplified the emptiness of
musical jargon when he scolded his tenors and told them that the
color of their tone should be more round. Apparently they had been
singing red, rectangular notes and he wanted them to sing circular,
When the Oxford Companion to Music defines romantic music as that
which expresses literary or pictorial ideas, as if notes could
express the cadmium vermilion flowers of an ocotilla and their
difference from the light raw sienna sand out of which they grow, it
says something so paradoxical that it ought to defend and explain its
incredible suggestion by clear and extended argument.
How can anyone decide whether Mozart's Sonata K 545 expresses the
chugging of a locomotive up the east slope of the Rockies or the
eruption of Old Faithful? If some aesthetic soul finds this example
too facetious, would he in all seriousness explain why L'Apres Midi
d'un Faune could not have been called La Soiree d'un Lapin? In a
painting this distinction would be immediately obvious. But even a
painting cannot express Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and this
Address is indeed a work of art.
No claim is made here that music expresses nothing. The music favored
by hairy left-wing hippies expresses the animistic savagery of the
jungle. Rock cannot appropriately express worship of the God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Bach and Handel can. But even in these
cases what music expresses, by itself without words, is very little.
So much for the first point concerning the unintelligibility of most
articles and books on aesthetics. Now, second, there is the matter of
time invalidity of their arguments. A recent article bewailed the
narrow evangelicalism of George Eliot's parents, and without much
disguise suggested that this was the cause of her rebellious atheism.
The conclusion is of course fallaciously drawn. Evangelicalism is
indeed narrow it prohibits adultery. But her desire for freedom
from such morality is a more probable cause of her rejection of
Christianity than a hard childhood and the death of her mother.
Other articles have made other unfounded charges. The Puritans are
constantly described as sour and dour. Ernest Boyd (Portraits Real
and Imaginary, 109) was surely indulging in irresponsible imagination
when he wrote, "Pleasure is the enemy, not evil, and so the joys of
mind and body are under suspicion."
As for pleasures of the mind Boyd must have been ignorant of the
Puritan concern for education; while J. Truslow Adams and Harlan
Updegraff unconscionably misrepresent the literacy index in
Massachusetts. As for sensory pleasures, particularly the pleasures
of art, those who condemn the Puritans not only fail to make
allowances for the difficulties of mere survival in an untamed
wilderness, but also ignore the exquisite proportions and design of
their doorways and everyday domestic tools.
Less reprehensible than these prejudicial fallacies are instances of
trivialities, tautologies, and generalities that fail of constructive
contribution. For example, H.H. Rookmaaker's article on "Art" in the
Encyclopedia of Christianity does not say anything that can be
branded false, but he achieves this desirable result by saying hardly
anything pertinent. He states that aesthetic theory "concerns the
nature of a Christian way of life." So does counting calories. It is
wrong, he says, "to pose an antithesis between one's professional
life and the enjoyment of art." Also the enjoyment of golf. Then
again, he states that "There are many types of art" as there are of
engineering "each fulfilling its own function." But what the
function of music, or of all art is, he does not explain; except that
it is all for the glory of God. But this no more explains art than it
explains investing in the stock market. The article contains little
if anything that distinguishes art from other facets of human
This second criticism has thus given examples of prejudice,
falsehood, fallacy, and triviality.
The third criticism was the widespread, though not universal, neglect
of Scripture by allegedly evangelical writers. Here an attempt will
be made to shift from adverse criticism to something of a more
An evangelical theory of art, so far as art is amenable to meaningful
statement, must be based on the teaching of the Bible. What is not
based on Scripture, even if it should miraculously escape
unintelligibility, could hardly be called an evangelical view. The
fact that the Bible says so little about art, whereas its
intellectually conceptual theology is voluminous, indicates that
there is really very little to say. However, a Biblical student
should try to collect that little. Such a summarization can be
divided into materia1 on utensils and architecture (combining useful
and fine art), painting and sculpture, then music, and finally
literature. Naturally the following is not exhaustive.
The construction of utensils and musical instruments seems to have
originated among the rebellious and ungodly (Genesis 4:21-22). Later
these forms of art were used in the worship of God (Exodus 25-28).
Still later great artistic skill was expended on Solomon's Temple and
palaces (I Kings, 5-7). From what is said, Solomon's Temple must have
been an artistic triumph, surpassing even Hagia Sophia. Thus there is
no Biblical prohibition against imposing architecture. That
evangelicals today should build such expensive structures does not
logically follow, but it would seem that some groups ought to pay
more attention and avoid crudities in building.
The Bible has virtually nothing to say about painting, and its
references to sculpture link it to idolatry. Therefore the Reformed
churches do not exhibit a statue of Peter for the faithful to kiss
its big toe. Painting must also be included, for the wording of the
commandment includes every sort of likeness. Outside the church
property, however, Rodin's Thinker seems to be unobjectionable, and
his repulsive shriveled old woman can teach a moral lesson to
majorettes and homecoming queens.
The Bible explicitly commands music, vocal and instrumental.
Therefore some people must take time to learn composition, other
people must achieve the skill to manufacture instruments, and all
people no doubt should improve their voices circular green notes
instead of rectangular red. The requirement of vocal music emphasizes
the fact that music is an accompaniment for words. By itself music is
not very expressive. Note that hymnbooks sometimes use the same music
for two or three hymns. If music had a definite meaning, one tune
could not fit two hymns, nor even two stanzas of one hymn. But
defective as music is in this respect, the Bible commands
Music is the lowest form of art; literature is the highest. Musicians
will raise their eyebrows and no doubt their voices against this
proposition. But there is a reason for such a hierarchical
arrangement. It depends on a presupposition relative to the nature of
man and on an assumption concerning the purpose of art.
The purpose of art is expression. Of course this short sentence
raises many questions. By itself it is uninformative. One should
specify what art can and cannot express. One should specify what art
should and should not express. These questions cannot be answered
without having some notion of the nature of man. Here it is
presupposed that God created man as essentially a rational being. *
This implies that man's most valuable expressions are rational and
intellectual. Therefore, although man can express emotion, by
screaming "Ouch," art becomes more human and valuable in proportion
to its intellectual content. This does not deny that excellent
technique may express triviality, evil, and insanity. It asserts,
however, that what should be expressed is rational and intelligent.
Therefore the highest form of art is literature because only words
have the full and clearest range of expression. The cliche, "one
picture is worth a thousand words," is basically false, though it may
be true enough in a blueprint. But, as suggested above, how many
pictures would be required to express the Lord's Prayer or the
doctrine of justification by faith? In comparison with these the
importance of painting and music pales.
Of course art has a certain measure of importance. Embellishments of
prose, and sometimes poetry, help to enforce the literary message.
I say sometimes poetry because, although prose can also be nonsense,
nonsense seems to be an occupational disease of poets. It was with
pleasure that I read a letter to the editor in the Eutychus section
of Christianity Today, which complained of the poems recently
published. But what could be greater nonsense than the esteemed John
Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn? Consider:
" `Beauty is truth and truth beauty,' that is all ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know."
Now, Keats' lines are not nonsense in the sense of being meaningless.
They are nonsense in the sense of being ridiculously false. As a
corrective to Keats and to the poetry of Christianity Today, permit
me to offer a Kantian Ode on a Quartz Crystal.
Electrified, vibrating crystal stone
Thou foster child of science and slow time
Thou geologic witness with a tone
That tells a tale more rhythmic than our rhyme:
When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt remain and oscillating go;
Thy message e'er repeating without haste
"Space is time and time is space" that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
It is unfortunate that literary embellishment is in these two Odes
used to inculcate falsehood. It should enforce truth. Crabbed
language can express thought quite accurately, and even by its
ugliness can sometimes jolt a person into understanding. Further, it
is better to have unembellished truth than embellished falsehood.
Nevertheless, artistic literature aids one's memory to make the
comprehension of a doctrine a permanent acquisition.
The designer of the Delaware River Bridge at Vine Street, Paul Cret,
told his students, "Ornament construction, do not construct
ornament." This is a good view of art, not only for a great
architect, but particularly for a Christian. The principle of art for
art's sake is pagan, suitable to its depraved exponent, Oscar Wilde.
For a Christian, art is subordinate to a higher purpose, and only
insofar as it serves that purpose is it justified.
*For a long argument supporting this position, see my article in the
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. XII, Part
IV), "The Image of God in Man," and my book, The Biblical Doctrine of
Man (The Trinity Foundation, 1984). A more materialistic or
physicalistic view is found in "The Imago Dei and Christian
Aesthetics" (J. E. T. S. Vol. XV, Part III), by William A. Dyrness,
but it has precious little to do with aesthetics.
-- In email@example.com, Benjamin Hart
> Please forgive me if this is off-topic, but I am looking for somegood resources on aesthetics, particularly from a Reformed
perspective if possible. I've found Wolterstorff's book, Art in
Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic interesting so far, but if there
are any more out there, please let me know. Thanks.
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