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On Viewing Art: Thoughts from Francis Schaeffer

As summer draws to an end in West Michigan each year, the city of Grand Rapids hosts an annual art show called ArtPrize.  Touted as the world’s largest art competition, the prizes are awarded in a unique fashion, by the vote of the public.  With over 1500 entries, there is a lot of art to view and plenty to think about.  The show lasts almost three weeks in September and October and hosts thousands of visitors.

Although this event is unique in the art world, it brings up many questions for the Christian observer.  How should the Christian view art?  What makes art good and/or bad?  Is it even proper to think about art in those categories?  Is it enough to like it or not like it, regardless of its quality?  What would quality in visual art include?  Does beauty matter?  As Christians, should we view art in a special way?

Francis Schaeffer, certainly one of the early leaders of Christian Worldview thinking, spent considerable time viewing art, thinking about it, and putting it into a Christian perspective.  Thankfully, he left a short treatise on how to view art and can help each Christian view art in a more intelligent and educated way.  Schaeffer’s little book is simply titled, “Art and the Bible.”

Of course, the Christian Worldview speaks to all areas of life and the arts are no exception.  Schaeffer begins his thinking by recognizing that Christ is the Lord of all of life.  Since Christ is Lord over the whole man, then He is Lord over man’s creativity.  Artistic expression is the very essence of expressing the very image of God found in each human being.  As God is the Creator, so are we – made in His image – naturally drawn to be creative.  And Christ is Lord over the creative endeavor.

After beginning with the basis of the Lordship of Christ, Schaeffer very succinctly shows the respect that God has for artistic creativity, even when something is simply created for beauty.  Schaeffer is careful to point out that all art does not need to be a “tract,” but that art can exist to express beauty and truth.  In fact, he carefully demonstrates this by reviewing the biblical references to art from the creation story, to the building of the tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and even how Christ Himself used art as an illustration for teaching.

The second half of Schaeffer’s book is what he calls, “Some perspectives on art.”  In this section he lists eleven separate ideas on why art is important in our culture, as well as why it is important for Christians to interact with art and artists.  There are many insightful elements to Schaeffer’s thoughts, and I highly recommend a careful reading of his book to glean all you can from it.  Some of his ideas you will agree with, and others will stretch you, but all will help you think about art more clearly.

For now, I would like to highlight only one point that is broken down into four sub points.  Schaeffer calls this, “Four Standards of Judgment.”  In other words, when viewing a piece of art, how should one judge its quality and character?  Upon what basis can we make a judgment so we might be clear about what might be good art (well done, high quality) and other art (low quality)?  The four criteria he lists are:

  1. Technical excellence
  2. Validity
  3. Intellectual content (the worldview that comes through)
  4. Integration of content and vehicle

First, Schaeffer dwells on technical excellence.  He says,

“Here one considers the use of color, form, balance, the texture of the paint, the handling of lines, the unity of the canvas and so forth.  In each of these there can be varying degrees of technical excellence.  By recognizing technical excellence as an aspect of an art work, we are often able to say that while we do not agree with such and such an artist’s world view, he is nonetheless a great artist.”[i]

It is clear that these aspects of technical excellence are accessible by the average person, though some understanding of each is important.

Second, by validity Schaeffer means “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.”[ii] In this statement he does not mean that the artist does not have a right to earn a living with the art work that he or she produces.  His interest here lies in the artist avoiding the attitude of simply playing to the audience to produce a certain affect.  Art, if it is to be valid, should not be manipulative in this way.

Third is the criterion of intellectual content, by which he means how the art reflects the world view of the artist.  Schaeffer is concerned with viewing the art through the whole body of his or her artwork.  In other words, we can’t judge the entirety of a person’s view of the world based upon only one of their creative expressions.  However, when we understand a particular piece within the fuller comprehension of the artist’s body of works, then we can and should be able to determine the reality of the content.  We will also be able to say, “This artist may have technical excellence, and he may be true to himself (validity), but his worldview is wrong and it does not reflect reality as we understand it to be according to the Bible.”  In this assessment, Schaeffer is unashamed to note that an artist (non-Christian or Christian) is expressing content contrary to Scripture.  There are certainly great artists making great art that contains a skewed worldview.

Finally, Schaeffer speaks to the integration of content and vehicle.  This 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.”[iii] Schaeffer cites examples that are not necessarily promoting a Christian Worldview, and in so doing shows how we might be able to view art of all types fairly and with understanding.

With these four criteria Francis Schaeffer gives an excellent way for us to view the entries in ArtPrize, or in your local gallery.  The best way to learn how to do this is to practice.  Schaeffer has much more to say, but these ideas are a good start.  So print this article, or order a copy of “Art and the Bible” and go to it.  You’ll be glad you did!

[i] Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Books, 2006), 62.

[ii] Schaeffer, Art, 63.

[iii] Schaeffer, Art, 69.

(Original Post on August 22, 2012 at the Worldview Church:


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