How to Judge Art-Pt. 1

How does one judge art? In his Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer—one of the relatively few 20th century evangelicals to do much thinking on the subject—suggested four general criteria to consider. And while his treatment by no means addressed every aspect of the subject, I’ve personally found it to be a significant help in learning to evaluate and enjoy art. For that reason, I thought I’d pass his criteria on to you, along with a few brief comments.

According to Schaeffer, the first facet of judging art has to do with the work’s technical excellence. This refers to how well the artist or artists involved employ the elements of their specific medium. For example, with regard to film this would include things like quality of lighting, cinematography, setting, color, editing techniques, sound, special effects, plot, dialogue, acting performances, etc.

The following quotation from Schaeffer regarding technical excellence is worthy of careful consideration:

By recognizing technical excellence as an aspect of 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.

We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, pastors and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected by scorn or ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man. Technical excellence, is therefore, an important criterion (42).

In other words, while an artwork’s content is extremely important (a point which we will discuss in due course), it is not the sole lens through which we evaluate its overall quality. Such a perspective leads me to acknowledge that a film like No Country for Old Men, our most recent Talking Pictures selection, is a noteworthy artistic achievement—despite the fact that I almost completely disagree with the perspective on life the film advances. Alternatively, I might pick up a work of contemporary “Christian fiction” (a problematic term in and of itself, but that’s a subject best left to another post) that scores high marks for its worldview but suffers when its technical execution is considered: it may be filled with flat characterization and clichéd plot development, for example.

Stayed tuned for a discussion of Schaeffer’s second criteria: validity.

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