4 Standards for Evaluating Art from Francis Schaeffer
How to think about art and evaluate it rightly
Often we are guilty of judging art with a flattened view. We might simply say, “I like it. It looks good.” Or negatively, “I don’t like how it looks.”
In his pithy essays on art (published as Art and the Bible by IVP Classics), Francis Schaeffer provides us with a rich criteria for evaluating art.
Schaeffer’s Perspective on Art
Before looking into Schaeffer’s evaluative criteria, it is first helpful to understand Schaeffer’s perspective on art. My hope is that the below snapshots will help instill in you (as they did in me), (1) a bigger view of Christ’s supremacy and (2) a deeper sense of what makes creativity valuable.
The truth of Christianity is universal and pervasive—not compartmentalized. Sacred truth is not detached from secular truth and then exiled into the “upper story.”
“If Christianity is really true, then it involves the whole man, including his intellect and creativeness. Christianity is not just ‘dogmatically’ true or ‘doctrinally’ true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life.” (Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible, p. 16)
2. Christ is Lord of all. His redemption is of the whole man. This, of course, includes the ability to create and enjoy art.
“His soul is saved, yes, but so are his mind and body.” (Ibid., p. 16.)
“Christ is the Lord of our whole life and the Christian life should produce not only truth — flaming truth — but also beauty.” (Ibid., p. 48)
3. Creativity in the Bible is not always a “photographic” representation nor is it merely utilitarian.
“In nature, pomegranates are red, but these pomegranates [represented in the tabernacle] were to be blue, purple and scarlet. Purple and scarlet could be natural changes in the growth of a pomegranate. But blue isn’t. The implication is that there is freedom to make something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from it and it too can be brought into the presence of God. In other words, art does not need to be ‘photographic’ in the poor sense of photographic!” (Ibid., pp. 23–24.)
“The temple was covered with precious stones for beauty. There was no pragmatic reason for the precious stones. They had no utilitarian purpose.” (Ibid., pp. 23–24.)
4. Creative work has value because through it we image God, the Creator.
“Being in the image of the Creator, we are called upon to have creativity. In fact, it is part of the image of God to be creative, or to have creativity.” (Ibid., p. 51.)
5. Art is a means of communication.
“Art is only an embodiment of a message, a vehicle for the propagation of a particular message about the world or the artist or man or whatever.” (Ibid., p. 55.)
In summary, all things are under the lordship of Christ; this includes art inherently and the Bible includes it explicitly. Art is not simply decorative nor utilitarian. It can be used to communicate truth. And while not immune to the pervasiveness of our sin, creative work in itself is derivative of God. When we create, we reflect the image of God.
Schaeffer’s Four Standards of Judgement
Schaeffer provides us with four standards of judgement to use when evaluating art. These help us both enjoy the artwork more fully and discuss it beyond a flattened “good” or “bad.”
“I will discuss technical excellence in relationship to painting because it is easy to point out through this medium what I mean. 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.” (Ibid., p. 62.)
Something can be technically excellent even while lacking in other areas. This category gives us, the viewer, an opportunity to affirm something about the dignity of this artist (and her work) as an image-bearer of God. Even if a beautiful piece communicates something false in its content, it can still communicate something true in the skill of its creation.
“By validity I mean 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.” (Ibid., p. 63.)
This is not to say that an artist should go without pay or recognition. Rather, if an artist is primarily motivated by financial success or fame instead of the message he or she is communicating, it will only be surface-level or diluted at best. In short, the work lacks integrity.
3. Intellectual Content (Worldview)
“The third criterion for the judgment of a work of art is its content, that which reflects the world view of the artist. As far as a Christian is concerned, the world view that is shown through a body of art must be seen ultimately in terms of the Scripture. The artist’s world view is not to be free from the judgment of the Word of God.” (Ibid., p. 64.)
This is the most important criterion. What is the artist saying about the world? Is it true? While not rejecting all of the other categories, if we disagree with the work’s message, we disagree at the very core aim for which it was created.
What about the non-Christian artist? This criterion does not mean that every artist must be a Christian in order to be evaluated highly on this mark (ibid., p. 67). Just as Christians should affirm objective truths in nature alongside non-Christian scientists, we should affirm a message from art that is true. For example, the beauty of creation or the experience of man’s depravity. Truth can be communicated even if the artist doesn’t attribute their message to God’s objective reality in the world.
4. Integration of Content and Vehicle
“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.” (Ibid., p. 69.)
While various art forms and mediums can be suited for different messages, not all communicate equally well. For example, if one is communicating a complex message, a meme on social media is generally not suitable. Conversely, one can walk away from Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son with a richer understanding of the doctrine of soteriology.
The lordship of Christ is supreme throughout the seen and unseen—all of life. This includes creativity, which is displayed by God and man, who is made in the image of God. The Bible is filled with examples of creative and artistic expression. Man images God when he creates. This is good. And while man’s imaging of God is distorted by sin, the redemption of Christ is for the whole of man.
All artwork communicates content, but not all artwork is created equally. We seek knowledge and understanding of the content being conveyed so it can be accepted or rejected. That said, when evaluating art, we should refrain from a flattened evaluation. In addition to intellectual content, we consider the artist’s technical excellence, validity, and integration of content and vehicle. The artist has dignity. Each should be thoughtfully affirmed for his or her God-given abilities as they are displayed.