Toward a Christian Aesthetic

Leo Tolstoy was nothing if not an idealist. The Russian author, aristocrat, and philosopher believed that good art in any discipline has two fundamental characteristics. The first is that good art is emotionally expressive, or communicative. The second is that the art should be ethically oriented; they should express the good, the holy, that which is of God.[1] This is a very difficult set of criteria to satisfy, and Tolstoy acknowledged this, considering his own monumental literary masterpieces to be less than great art. Such a restrictive description of good art is hardly workable in a world in which artistic objects and events are constantly being produced and are readily accessible in staggering quantity, but Tolstoy’s twofold criteria suggest a useful approach for evaluating art from a Christian perspective. Art can be evaluated both in terms of its expressive or communicative content and in terms of its ethical or moral content.

Ascertaining what art communicates, and how this is to be sought out, is itself an avenue of inquiry fraught with disputes and unworkable ideas. Tolstoy, a product of the Romantic period in, understood artistic communication as being primarily emotional, and then more specifically concerned with expressing the emotions of the artist. A good deal of art, particularly since the Enlightenment, might well be understood in this manner. However, while Tolstoy was by no means unusual in his day for his notion of the subject, tying artistic expression to the artist’s personal emotional life cannot account for a great deal of art. In particular, this understanding of artistic communication excludes teleological art from the realm of true art, as it communicates something other than the emotion of the artist. As such, this understanding excludes Dante’s The Divine Comedy from the realm of art, for example, because it serves both religious and political functions in addition to being an expression of Dante himself.

However, an opposite view of art is also quite limited. As an example, Aristotle’s Poetics suggest that art is valuable inasmuch as it imitates something recognizable. In other words, if Tolstoy’s Romantic view values art as it springs from the inner life of the artist, Aristotle’s Classical view values art as it springs from the world surrounding the artist. This account of art offers a good account of the many works of art that play on our expectations of the world around us, whether by fulfilling or subverting these expectations. It also acknowledges a good deal of the powerful symbolism present in much art. However, it does not account for works such as the abstract art of Jackson Pollock, for instance, or a good deal of instrumental music that bears little or no literal resemblance to non-musical objects, but instead relies on allusion and association.

A more comprehensive understanding of the communicative power of art can be found in what is sometimes called the Instrumentalist view of art.[2] According to this viewpoint, the communicative power of art is considered not in terms of the source of the artistic content, but in terms of the artwork’s capacity to engage the attention of an audience on specifically aesthetic terms. This understanding of artistic expression allows for art addressing subjects from any vantage point, and allows for subjective differences among the members of the audience of an artwork. It is also adaptable to the changes in artistic tastes that occur constantly with the passage of time. It is also a clearly demonstrable definition; the extent to which an artwork is able to captivate members of an audience on the basis of its aesthetic qualities is a measure of its effective artistic expression.

However, even if this is a satisfactory understanding of the first part of a Tolstoy-derived understanding of artistic value by offering a clear and experientially verifiable account of artistic expression, it does not address the ethical or moral content of art. The set of ideas known as Beauty theory has often been used to address this by claiming that only that which is beautiful can command the sort of aesthetic attention described above. Moreover, if Beauty is then understood to be a quality of God, this means that whatever is aesthetically engaging is also a participant in the very nature of God, and as such is certainly of good moral and ethical quality and is therefore commendable to the Christian.

Certainly, there is some merit to Beauty theory. Its identification of Beauty as a quality of God is theologically sound. Consequently, Beauty theory has within itself the capacity to recognize that what is of God in many diverse places, including those that are not explicitly Christian. It is therefore an important corrective to the notion that only Christians can produce good things, and reinforces the Christian doctrine that all people, regardless of their creed, bear the image of God.

Still, there are several problems that are insurmountable for Beauty theory as a comprehensive way of understanding art. These can be amply demonstrated by Picasso’s painting Guernica. This painting depicts the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish civil war, and specifically portrays the suffering of innocent civilians in the bombing. The painting certainly does not glorify its subject, but portrays it in grotesque and distorted ways in order to convey the horror and tragedy of the pictured events.

Beauty theory can approach this work in three untenable ways. If it claims that Guernica is beautiful, and claims that Beauty is a characteristic of God, it must render positive ethical judgment on the subject of the painting, the killing of civilians in war. This is incompatible with the God of Christianity, who is described in the Bible as viewing deaths in war as tragic and unfortunate, and something to be done away with when the world is renewed at the eschaton.  Alternatively, Beauty theory could deny that Guernica is beautiful, and therefore also claim that its content is unethical or immoral. While it is easy enough to say that the bombing of Guernica was unethical and immoral, there is no Christian justification to extend that judgment to the depiction of the events there. The Judeo-Christian scriptures are marked by graphic descriptions of horrific tragedy and responses of agonized lament, sometimes uttered by the voice of God himself. This is a tradition into which Guernica fits well. Finally, Beauty theory could avoid Guernica by denying that it is an aesthetically interesting work; the piece’s monumental status, sustained for over seventy years, makes this approach quite obviously ridiculous.

It is more reasonable, then, to establish the moral and ethical content of artworks by considering whether an artwork views its subject in a way that is congruent with the view of God. Guernica, because it portrays its subject as tragic and horrific, views its subject in the same way as God, and is thus a morally and ethically commendable piece. It is in this respect no less commendable than a work like Michelangelo’s Pieta, which has an equally tragic subject but is both readily described as beautiful and as explicitly Christian. Pieta might be more useful as a Christian devotional piece than Guernica on account of its subject, but this alone does not make it a better artwork than Guernica.

It is worth noting that this way of considering morality and ethics in art need not be done in binary fashion. It might well be possible for different artwork to have viewpoints that coincide with the perspective of God more or less fully. There may be distortions that obscure an artwork’s capacity to help us see something as God does. Nevertheless, Christians engaging with art can be mindful of both an artwork’s aesthetic engagingness and its moral and ethical content as they consider its impact, its merits, and its value.

[1] Earl Davey, class lecture, January 19, 2010, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

[2] Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981): 525-9.


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