What is Art, Anyway?

When we don’t know what something’s purpose is, it confuses and frustrates us. Or, if it isn’t obvious what something is, it gets passed off as art.


Let’s look at Stonehenge. What is it?

A monument? A meeting hall? A pagan sun worship temple? Art? All of the above? None of these? What is it for?

You can ask a lot of the same questions even about something that is obviously art: you want to know why it is there.

Every piece of art has a purpose.

We can deduce the evolving purpose of art by looking at the many roles artists have played over the centuries.

Remember, what we call “art” hasn’t always been called art.

It used to be called “craft.” A long time ago, there was no separation between the two.

Now art and craft are so divorced that there is in the art world a deliberate lack of skill. The less classically skillful a piece of art is, the more technically (and likely morally) crude a work is, the more praise it gets.

(At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence in “artisinal” everything. Artisinal light bulbs, anyone?)

The Renaissance ushered in a new wealthy elite. Along with it came a brand new patronage system where art became a status symbol and the artists became rock stars. Their art was beautiful, and it might be about Biblical themes, but beauty was the hero, not God.

Sure, beautiful art is made to elevate people’s feelings, to move them to an awed, inspired, uplifted state.

There is nothing wrong with that. Beauty is good. Ugliness serves a purpose, too.

By the end of the 19th century the “moving upward” purpose of art was discarded in favor of simply moving people.

Art might make you happy, sad, angry, confused. If it moved you at all, it had done its job.

The Greeks understood this.

Ancient Greek dramatic theatre consists of comedies or tragedies. In comedies, the boy gets the girl, with some laughs along the way. In tragedies, everyone dies, often heroically, and it is very sad. In either case, the audience is moved to laugh or cry.

Our movies today aren’t much different.

The point of art is to move people.

The stories we tell and listen to still move us.

Let’s take it further: the goal of art is to change people. To transform them.

Does that sound familiar?

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.– Romans 12:2

I take this command to heart. I want my to art be a transforming agent in the world.I believe in this so much that in a few weeks I will be teaching a Sunday School class called Christianity and the Arts. We will discuss how art relates to the Bible and how Christians can and should relate to the art world.

If you’d like to be there, join me on Sunday, January 18 at Donelson Church of Christ right after the worship service. It’ll be fun!