How Do We Judge the Arts?

Have you ever stared at a painting and asked yourself, “Why is this thing in a museum? Am I supposed to appreciate this? Am I stupid for not liking this?” I have. Same thing with certain books and music. Knowing how to respond to poetry, music, literature, and art, and how to discern its quality can be difficult.

EoEJerram Barrs’ recent book Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts is a really helpful book for developing a Christian understanding of the arts. In the book’s fourth chapter, he offers 11 criteria for judging art.

1. The presence of a gift – is a God-given gift evident in the word of this composer, performer, poet, novelist, painter, sculptor, or filmmaker?

2. Development of the gift – is the artist dedicated to develop their gift through learning, practice, and application? Some respond to their own giftedness with laziness, some with hard work. It should be the latter.

3. Service of others in addition to self-expression – is the artist using his gifts for the benefit of others as well as his own fulfillment?

4. Respect for the traditions in the discipline – does the artist recognize and respect the traditions and forms common in the discipline?

5. The presence of truth – is this work in accord with reality?

6. Is there moral goodness? – is the purpose of the work deprave or corrupt? What is the moral impact of reading, viewing, or listening to this piece of work?

7. Continuity of form and content – does the chosen form of art work with or against the message of the work?

8. Technical excellence – is this work done well?

9. Integrity of the artist – is the work true of who the artist is? Is he selling out?

10. Integrity of the work – does the artist seek to manipulate our emotional response by cheap tricks, or does the artist seek to generate genuine emotional response by the power of the work?

11.Simply entertainment – human art need not always have a “higher” purpose than enjoyment.

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3 Responses to How Do We Judge the Arts?

  1. When I look at art, I don’t think about whether or not it’s “good” or “worthy”…I go with my gut and think about how it makes me feel. I evaluate it on a completely personal level. I’ve taken many college level Art History courses, where I’ve had to analyze art based on different criteria, but even then it’s usually about the Historical context more than whether or not the art is good.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Karen! I think intuition is important when looking at/listening to/responding to art, and some people (me!) need their intuition trained to discern quality and better appreciate art. At some point in my life, I realized that some foods – even ones I really liked – weren’t of the same quality as others. I think the same learning can happen with the arts. Something tells me that your art history classes trained your intuition/response to art. I’m just playing catch-up here!

      • Yes, I’ve definitely had a lot of training in the arts- not just with college classes, but I attended a theater arts school and my grandfather was a conductor and composer. I’ve had the exposure. That said, although it may be in the back of my mind, I’m not at all analytical when I approach art. I go with my gut. (with food too) 🙂

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