An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, Or, Aesthetics

My favorite painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, a classic from the Romantic era (1818)

Where I’m from, most people associate art with either rich people, or hipsters and the quote/unquote misunderstood, and while, truly, modern art has made quite a mess of things, True Art a gift of God that makes life so much better. Just like (good) food gives us pleasure, so (good) art pleases us, just in a different way. Art has fallen on hard times recently both in the church and the culture, and so it’s my hope to give a little introduction in defense of the discipline that I think has produced some of humanity’s highest achievements.

“Art” refers to the skill, the product, and the study of imaginative creation. You can do art, you can look at it, and you can study it to see how it works. Studying art is called Aesthetics, which is a sub-discipline of the humanities and can be subdivided into two more subdivisions: the performing arts (music, film, dance, drama, etc.) and the fine arts (architecture, literature, sculpting, photography, etc.). Art (and the humanities in general) is typically pitted against science because art utilizes the right-brain whereas science utilizes the left-brain.

The products of art are usually an image of creation, a concrete and real expression of some part of life. And each artist has his own interpretive lens so that no two pieces are the same, even if they are both, say, paintings of a man. One man may be hunched over against a backdrop of darkness while the other may be standing on the top of a cliff looking out over a beautiful valley. Both images communicate something to us about the truth of life, about the way things are, and it is up to us to determine if it is really true or not. If it is, it moves us and engages our souls to cope with life in that particular scenario.

Art as a skill is typically subdivided into the various skill-sets such as piano performance, painting, sculpting, architecture, etc. so that going around saying you are a skilled artist is about like saying you are good at math. It’s just very broad.

Art and the Culture

In America, a secular rationalism dominates our ideals so that anything right-brained is typically chalked up as emotive and weak while everything left-brained (the sciences, like psychology and economics and physics) get the highest regard. The only forms of art we tolerate as a culture are movies and music and some pop-fiction (which are increasingly depressing and dystopian), but we champion the art that is cheap and more thrilling than moving.

Those artists who move beyond this pop-culture level and who take themselves and their craft very seriously indeed are the hipsters and quote/unquote misunderstood. The ones who get together and throw paint on canvases and weep uncontrollably. Who talk about “negative capability” and “limit-experience.” Who create images of their own chaotic lack of being and pawn it off on poor ignorant creatures who feel that since they can’t understand it, it means something even deeper than if they could.[1]

For a more popular example, take Taylor Swift’s new album “1989.” I think it’s a wonderful piece of pop music, but it says nothing about the “eternal verities” of the human spirit. It doesn’t create a world in which we make sense of life; it doesn’t help us be more human. Like all pop art, it’s a fad; it’s a cheap thrill with cheap rewards.[2]

The truest forms of art are lost to us because they require absolutes, vulnerability, and a desire to become more human (which presupposes a knowledge of what it actually means to be human). We think everything is relative, so no one person’s take on reality is no better than anyone else’s. We think we are God and so weakness is an illusion we must do without. And we think we have arrived as the final products of an evolutionary progression. In short: we don’t need art, so we’ve defanged it and lost it’s power and function.

Us regular folks who don’t go for all that I just wrote are one of two people: we think either art is for a) high-class people who genuinely outrank us in cultural acumen, or b) posers who want to appear high-class and sophisticated in order to cover up some lacking they have in their self-esteem. To be a regular guy, well-versed in the arts because he loves it is rare.[3]

Art and the Church

The church has a different set of baggage. We church people are even more confused. We don’t know what art is, we have bad taste, and we don’t understand how to interpret it or make any sense of it. The main art Christians are producing these days is absolutely terrible—simply cheesy and truly pathetic: [pathetic (n.): Arousing or capable of arousing sympathetic sadness and compassion]—because we’ve subverted the value of art below the impulse to evangelize through it. Lecrae has spoken clearly on this impulse and stands for telling the truth in art, as God made art, redeeming the discipline itself, not just using it as a vehicle for evangelism. Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic quotes Lecrae:

“We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification,” he said. “Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from.” This means writing about things other than heaven and the glory of God. While that kind of music is necessary, he said, “Christians need to embrace that there need to be believers talking about love and social issues and all other aspects of life.”

We’ve lost our ability to appreciate art because we have placed God in a box and limited Truth and Beauty and Goodness in the world to only what is morally acceptable, to only include the bit of our faith which deals with going to heaven when you die, and we have lost our ability to critique and enjoy art because we have reduced all criticism to moral and theological. If the song or painting or book is immoral, to us it is bad across the board. But that ruins our artistic (read: human) spirit. While most art these days is truly immoral and perverted, if we piously judge it and label it as “evil,” without distinguishing the good in it from the bad, we lose.

Let’s go back to Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It’s well-written, well-performed, and well-produced. If you judge it as art in its genre (pop music), it comes out near the top. So musically and artistically it is excellent, but her message 90% of the time is just plain wrong. Not necessarily evil but just short-sighted and logically wrong to the way the world works (e.g. boys aren’t all bad; love isn’t always torture. etc.). But she is creating an image of the world in her art, and to her, the world is that way (boys are always bad; love is always torture). So is her art wrong? In an ultimate sense, absolutely. But she isn’t backstage patting herself on the back as she prepares to indoctrinate us with evil. She’s telling the truth as she sees it, and that’s a propositional endeavor. We can see what she is saying about the world, discerning the good from the bad, keeping the good and throwing out the bad, without ever destroying her great work as an artist by simply labeling it “evil” and moving on.

Is it evil? Well, maybe sometimes, but to judge the entire work by that word would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and surrender our humanity to the exact influence art is supposed to rescue us from—namely, the I’m better than her because she’s evil and I’m not impulse (that’s called pride), and the I’m so glad I’m not like her impulse (that’s called a lack of empathy: also related to pride); both of which destroy you as a human and thus end up having the exact opposite effect of true Art.

Art is a Good Gift from God

So what is Art then? I’ve already written about the artistic power of music, and I plan to communicate my passion for fiction, but both tie into this essential element of art so I’m talking about it first. Fundamentally, Art is creativity. And since we Christians believe in a Creator-God, what more flattering and glorious thing could we do than take the materials he has given us and create things as He created us?

Art is the expression of what it means to be human, an exercise of the very attributes in our souls that separate us from the animals. Tolkien and Lewis said that when we create Art we act like God, we mimic Him like children mimic their parents. God created everything ex nihilo, out of nothing, so then we turn and create other things with what He gave us. God grows the flowers; we put them in arrangements that are meaningful, beautiful, and comforting. That’s an example of Art.

Art requires us to take the raw materials of life and make sense of them. We take ideas and put them to music to meditate on them. We take a deeply interesting or troubling human emotion and capture it in a scene on canvas which causes the same emotions to arise in the viewer. We share our experiences by creatively producing some work in time and space which communicates—speaks—to other people.

So Art, as with all the humanities, is a servant of the Truth. Taylor Swift must tell the Truth about life as she sees it, otherwise it’s bad art. And we must truthfully admit what we think about the world as she opens up to us, so that the entire process is one of Truth-finding. Now, for her, there’s very little Truth things communicated, but 1) there is some there and 2) she too submits to the process of communicating truth, whether the content is True or not.

The point: Art moves us, mind, soul, and body, to engage with the Truth. If the Art isn’t Truly True, we should see that and know right off the bat and not be affronted by it. It’s error and error is everywhere. But if the Art is Truly True, it creates a moment in time for us to realign our entire beings with the way things are, the True Reality in the Universe, the way the chips have fallen in God’s great drama of Redemption.

The best way to explain how art works is through the way quotes work. Quotes package up a wealth of information into one epigram: a rhythmic, catchy string of words. It is true and it’s memorable. And as you live your life, when you experience something like it, it surfaces in your mind, making sense of your experience. You make a creative connection between that quote and your experience and it helps direct your path. And as this happens more and more it takes on life of its own, pulling in prior experiences to make sense of the new one. The same thing happens with paintings, music, and words—fiction and nonfiction.

The purpose of art in a Christian’s life is far too massive to continue into in this post, but you can read more in this great article by Geoff Stevens on

  1. Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation parodies this absolutely perfectly.  ↩

  2. Reward being it getting stuck in your head and eating up valuable brain waves, vs. the deeper Art which would cause you to think deeper, reflect, seek connections and the meaning in life.  ↩

  3. To be genuinely in love with anything these days is rare as people give themselves more and more to creating their “social identity” over and above their own identity. My generation listens to music they like, but they tell themselves they like it because the people they think are cool like it, so we end up doing very little for the sheer joy of doing it, only for what it will give us in return in creating our social identity.  ↩