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The Problem with "Art"

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough has been taking some heat of late for his decision to remove a four-minute video from an exhibition.

The video, which featured ants crawling over a crucified Christ, was deemed offensive by Catholic and other groups, as well as several members of Congress. It's doubtful the religious groups would have had much influence with Mr. Clough, but the Congress persons provided all the impetus he needed to yank the bit.

As he acknowledged to the Associate Press, some "very difficult budget situations" with Congress - which provides 65% of the Smithsonian's budget - led him to take the course of least resistance on the Hill.

However, Mr. Clough continued, he still believes the video is a "work of art." But what does that mean? Is a "work of art" to be valued and exhibited merely because of its stature as such, rather than because of its quality, theme, or truthfulness? And what makes something a "work of art" anyway?

These are not questions asked of the arts any more, as Arthur Danto pointed out a decade ago in his book, Art After the End of Art. These days the only standards determining whether an object is a work of art are the declaration of its maker and the willingness of someone else - anyone else - to regard it as such.

So simply to say that something is a "work of art" might seem to invest it with significance, and, thus, make the situation of one piece of art's removal from an exhibition a deplorable act of censorship.

But surely there is more to art than just the fact that someone creates something and offers it as a work of art, and that others are willing to receive it as such, even if only for political ends? There was a time when it was not necessary to announce something as a work of art, and when nearly everyone could recognize good works of art when they saw them; but questions about standards in the arts have become so relativized and politicized that it's impossible for anyone to say with finality which objects are and which are not "art."

Art has become like ethics, another hyper-relativized field of study. Art and ethics are what anyone says they are, and no one can deny you or me or anyone else our own opinions about such matters. It's art - or ethics - if I say it is, and any attempt on your part to say it ain't so is a form of censorship, if not oppression.

But Christians must not allow themselves to be bullied by relativists into denying the objectivity of truth and the necessity of tested standards in all fields of endeavor. Indeed, Christians ought to be taking the lead to establish such standards and to demonstrate their power to make things beautiful, good, and true. This is true not only in the areas of art and ethics, but in every other aspect of life as well.

The Christian worldview requires that we judge things - our own thoughts and actions as well as those of others - according to the righteous standards of God's Word. If we aren't willing to do that, and to extend the reach of such righteous judgment, then we can only expect that what has happened in the areas of art and ethics will, soon enough, become established in every other area of life as well.

Additional related texts: 2 Timothy 2.15-17; Psalm 36.9; John 17.17

A conversation starter: "Are there any standards of beauty, goodness, and truth by which we can judge which works of art are truly 'art'?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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