Art and Good

I figured out pretty much at birth that, being the only grandchild, I could basically scribble on a piece of paper, set a price on it, and it would be sold–to my grandparents.

But was my art really good?

The question is at the heart of everything we do, unless we’re doing it just for pleasure:

What is good?

If you’ve ever been around kids doing work of any kind, they like to ask “good” questions–over and over.  Is this good?  Am I doing good?  Did I do a good job? 

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I stood coloring a Rainbow Bright picture from the coloring book of a neighborhood friend, Carly.  I didn’t do much of anything sitting–I was too antsy.  Carly colored a picture, too, but she was sitting.  There must be something to that, because her picture turned out like something Crayola would use to advertise their product.  My picture turned out like something the washing machine would do with a load of markers and a coloring book.

Carly had spent minutes and minutes on her picture, filling it in with crayons.  I spent seconds and seconds on mine, filling it in with markers.  Hers was lovely.  Mine . . wasn’t.  And I knew it.

This was turning out to be very different than drawing a picture at my grandparents’ house.  At my grandparents’ house, my grandparents thought my pictures were on the class of Renoirs and Matisses.  At my grandparents’ house, I could write prices on my pictures and my grandmother would give me whatever coins I asked for (and my mother allowed).  But here, here this all seemed very different.  My talent seemed rather . . talentless.  Carly seemed rather . . . better.

We got the idea we would find out who had the best picture.

We tried to decide by a Congressional move.  I proposed my picture; she proposed hers.  The result was expectable.  She voted for her picture.  I (dishonestly) voted for my picture.  We reached a real stalemate.

Carly wasn’t changing her vote (and rightly so).  I wasn’t changing my vote, either.  After all, my grandparents didn’t pay for Carly’s pictures.  I’d never seen them give a dime to her.  Then again, I’d never seen her try to sell them a picture, either.

Maybe they would buy her pictures if they saw them.

Maybe I would go out of business.

After the tied vote, we wondered how to find out who had the best picture.  I think it was Carly who suggested brightly we ask her mom.

This cheered us both up.  A decision would surely be made and we could move on.

We excitedly brought our pictures to her mother.  Delusionally, I thought I still had a chance.  Not to make any quarters off the deal, but maybe, just maybe, to win.

I remember us running up to Carly’s mother, both of us shoving our pictures very near her eyeballs and shouting, “Who do you like better, who do you like better?”

Carly said slyly, “You have to pick one!”

Carly’s mother looked very much like she wished her reading in the sun had not been interrupted by a dreadful question.  There is no doubt she saw, instantly, which was better.  A walrus could have seen which one was better, and walruses are not so much into art.  And there is no doubt she had a secret happy thought like, “Thank goodness my daughter colored that one.”

But Carly’s mother said she could not decide.  She said they were both wonderful.  (I wonder if she told her daughter more later after I was gone.)

Carly and I both felt good about ourselves (though Carly should have felt cheated) and we went on to the next game, like figuring out what her sparkle toothpaste tasted like.

But now I’d seen what Carly could do.  And what with Carly’s idea of coloring inside the lines, and her patience, and her beautiful palette choices, I was not so sure I measured up.  Maybe my drawings should go on sale for half-price.

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Art is subjective.

I prefer a cute scribbledly dog to a haunted-looking room with artichokes.

There’s a kind of thinking out there, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, that morality is a lot like art.

What one person likes, another person might not.  What’s good for one person, might not be good for another.  Lots of people are handing out moral advice like Carly’s mom: it’s all equal (or most of it’s equal, without any definition of what “most of it” is) or, as a popular expression goes, It’s all good.

Art is subjective; there’s no doubt about it.  One of my favorite pieces of art–really legendary–is a hippo that my mother drew that looks extremely unlike a hippo.  Unfortunately, although I begged my mother to always keep that drawing and laughed raucously every time I saw it, something mysterious happened to it.  It is no more.  I would pay good money to have that hippo back.

Art is subjective, but art is also objective.

Not everyone agrees on what level of quality a piece of artwork is on, but if I drew this on a canvas–

A new version of “San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight”. My rendition is totally my own intellectual property. Unauthorized copies are strictly prohibited. To request a signed canvas of this work or to inquire about pricing, do not hesitate to contact me.

–very few would say it was of equal quality with Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight.  People certainly don’t always agree on the quality of a piece, but there is agreement that my canvas is not worth millions.  (That’s really kinda too bad.)  We don’t easily agree on what is good quality, but it’s very easy to pick out inferior quality.  This is true with morality, too.  Not everybody agrees it is good not to steal, to give forgiveness to others, or to stay celibate until marriage.  But nearly everybody agrees it is not a good idea to set houses on fire, blow up buildings, and kill their family.

Even though we don’t always agree on the quality of an art piece, this doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective amount of quality to it.  If there were no objective quality, then there really would be no difference between my napkin and San Giorgio Twilight.  But everybody seems to know differently, because I haven’t gotten any offers on it so far.

For things to have more or less quality means there is such a thing as quality, and there can only be quality if there is a standard for quality.  If quality has no standard–can change at the whim of the viewer–then it is totally meaningless to have any art museum, because anybody could draw just as well as anybody else.  All art becomes equal without a standard.  And in that case, either I should be offered all the millions for my napkin that a Monet receives, or the Monet is as worthless as my napkin.

But it isn’t just the quality with which a piece of art is drawn.  Art itself carries an inescapable morality with it!  It is not the same to draw a picture of a little girl petting her cat as to draw a skeleton standing on top of a heap of bones.

Trying to compare morality to art would be something like trying to compare a pen to the letter ‘q’.  The letter ‘q’ is drawn by the pen.  Art, like everything else we do, is drawn by morality. There is nothing we can do that is on neutral ground, because by the very act of doing it we are drawing with the pen of good or evil.

The truth always wins out.  I know Carly’s picture was better than mine.  My jerky scrawls could not compare to her fulfilling of the space inside the lines.  Art, it turns out, isn’t any more subjective than anything else we do.  The quality always reflects the goodness or badness of the artist.

Our lives always reflect the goodness or badness of us.  One day, we will all hold up the blank canvas we were given–our lives–and show what we have done with it.  God won’t be like Carly’s mom.  He won’t tells us we have all done a good job and we should be proud of ourselves, because God cannot lie.

Imagine the paintings you hate most in the world.  Would you hang them in your house?  Neither would God let us into Heaven with our ruined and ugly lives to ruin and uglify His home.  God will not live with evil in Heaven.  Evil drags with it sickness, suffering, and death.  Nobody wants to go to Heaven to be sick, suffer, or die.

Morality is subjective, in the sense that art is subjective.  Different people have different opinions about morality. But morality is also objective.  We will all, one day, answer to God by His standard.  As an artist is responsible to whoever commissions him, how much more so are we responsible to our Creator?  God has given us the breath in our lungs, the sun that warms us, the heart that keeps us alive.  God has the right to tell us how to live our lives.  God gave us the lives that we live.

Right now, Pablo Picassos sell for tens of millions and a M.S. Wakefields for tens of dollars.  But that doesn’t mean Wakefield’s paintings are less valuable than Picassos.  It simply means they are less popular.  (Although I would rather have a Wakefield to look at.)

One day, it won’t matter what morality was popular.  It will only matter what morality was right.  The true value of everything will be seen.

He reveals deep and mysterious things and knows what lies hidden in darkness, though he is surrounded by light. (Daniel 2:22, NLT)

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12, NIV)

“For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. (Jesus, quoted in Mark 4:22, NASB)

 

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