Good vs Bad Art

These days, I don’t really get caught up in any bad art discussions. there is just too much good art out there to be bothered. Who has the time? Sometimes, I do like to pontificate a bit on what things I think good art does and bad art doesn’t. This is one of those times.

This is a thought that has cropped up in a couple conversations that sort of converged with other ideas running in my head—Christians and mystery, commands vs invitations, and why bad art is bad, be it Christian or otherwise. 

Maybe all those things are just analogous and don’t share as much as I think they do. Anyway, if you have a chance to read, please do. I would love to hear your own thoughts. Hopefully that will help me sharpen mine. 

“We say:
‘The knot was a pattern integrity.’
It wasn’t manila,
it wasn’t cotton,
it wasn’t nylon.
Nylon, cotton, and manila —
Any one of them is good to let us know the knot’s shape —
its pattern —
but the knot wasn’t any one of them:
it had an integrity of its own.
A human life is like that knot moving along the rope.”

Bucky in R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.

This post was inspired by two people a few years back. Glenn Kaiser at his blog wrote an article on Love Commands?!!, to which a brief (for us, anyway) conversation ensued in the comments section. And Jill Carattini who edits and contributes to a cooperative blog at Ravi Zacharias Ministries’ website, A Slice of Infinity. Both got me thinking about faith, art, and mystery and how vital mystery is to art in particular, even the most realistic representational art, not just abstract art, and faith. Mystery does not need to be irrational.

There is a lot of “bad” art out there, esecially Christian art. Some of it is even excellently executed. So what makes a work bad? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I think a lot of bad art has a lot in common with pornography. Bad art, like pornography, comes already laden with meaning. It is there to present one thing and one thing only. To do otherwise would probably undermine its entire reason for existing.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”— Albert Einstein.

Bad art doesn’t lack skillful excellence. The very heart of Academic art was excellence for excellence’s sake. Of that Rothko says “There is no such thing good painting about nothing”. Bad art lacks that extra layer. It means only what is presented, a command to dare not make this mean something other than what it was created to mean. It doesn’t inspire, it doesn’t invite, it doesn’t evoke.

The Mona Lisa is great, not because it is an excellent portrait of a woman. It is great because it makes us wonder at the mystery of who she is with that smile and eyes that pierce right to the heart. Picasso’s portraits of women were his own attempts to present us with that ineffable quality of a woman.

Van Gogh’s paintings of flowers aren’t great because they look like real flowers, though we do not question that they are flowers. Yet that print being passed off as a painting of a flower over the hotel bed, which may even look realistically like flowers, even more so than a van Gogh painting, does not cause us to ponder what is being presented. It is that and only that.

Good art searches for and tries to understand the pattern integrity of the subject. The painting is not the knot, it is only the rope that let’s us see the knot. The rope may be manilla, cotton, or nylon, but it is not the knot.

Better yet, good art invites us to ponder, even question, the pattern integrity on our own. Or inspire us to explore our own pattern integrities and other pattern integrities all around us.

I am actually not all that caught up in bad art. I’ve said and I believe, we have to go through a lot of bad art to get to the good, much less the great. We have to put in our 10,000 hours. There is no short cut. The artist has to find their voice and one can only do that by doing, making art, as much and as often as is possible. Bad art gives me hope that there are people trying. They may be young (in experience, not just age) but as long as they don’t give up, they will get there. Do not despise small beginnings. There is no learning if there is no doing.

But also, do not settle. Don’t ever be satisfied. What I mean by that is don’t become complacent, believing that things are as good as they can or need to be. That really is another form of giving up. Living in a universe of the imperfect and not the perfect means we can and should always do better.

None of this even gets into what the viewer brings to the table! That can be, and often is, more important than the artist and the artist’s intent.

“This is not a pipe” — Rene Magritte

Dictates or invitations? #

So, as Christians we are confronted with scripture and the commandments therein. A commandment does not allow for pondering or wonder. Jesus did not always speak in parables. By definition there is no mystery in a commandment. Or is there? Are we too caught up in our own post-enlightenment definitions, the notion of being certain, to revel and reveal the mystery in the command? Where is there risk and vulnerability if there is no mystery in love, if the command is a dictate, an item on a list to check off as having fulfilled?

Love is the pattern integrity, the knot. Obeying his commands is the rope showing the knot. That’s why there is no such thing as loving God but hating our neighbor. That has no integrity.

But love is not the rope. God’s commandments are invitations. They invite us. Loving God is an invitation to wonder and wander in the mystery of God’s love, a promise of things greater than ourselves when we obey, when we love our neighbor as ourselves, the things that are possible, but still not fully realized, the things greater than we know or have ever known.

The bible is not the gospel. Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers are not the sunflowers. The most realistic of paintings, even a photograph, is not that which it represents. But they all harken to something other than themselves. It always represents that which is unseen and hoped for, but it is not that which is unseen and hoped for.

I do believe much of this applies to art in general, not just Christian art. But right now I seem to mostly be in the intersection of faith and art, so that is the perspective from which I write today.

“Nobody is born a specialist.
Children are naturally designed to be comprehensive
information gatherers and local problem solvers.”

(Bucky in R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.)

On the other hand, I believe we are at the beginnings of at least attempting to reconcile our humanity. We have to. The Modern philosophy of utilitarianism taking precedence, people see other people only through the lens of utility and other people feeling useless is resulting in a loss or lack of purpose being acted out in atrocities both here and abroad, presented almost daily in our news programs and publications. That has to stop.

Thanks for reading here and there! Shoot me a note with your thoughts.

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