Recently I met a new artist that said he was only interested in producing “good” music. I shared with him that I thought the term “good” was very relative. How many times have we heard people say that the old music is objectively better than the new music. Remember that there is nothing objective about musical quality. We judge musical quality by our own personal contexts — we invest it with the meaning of our life and our present and past emotional needs.
I referred him to short treatise written by a philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, that I met years ago from Huémoz, Switzerland, who had a tremendous influence on my thinking as a musician.
How should we view art and music? What makes it good and/or bad? Is it even proper to think about art in those categories? Is it enough to like it or not like it, regardless of its quality? Francis Schaeffer, certainly one of the early leaders of the Christian worldview thinking, spent considerable time viewing art, thinking about it, and putting it into perspective. Thankfully, he left a short treatise (Art and the Bible) that can help us view art in a more intelligent and educated way.
Schaeffer very succinctly shows the respect that God has for artistic creativity, “art exists to express beauty and truth”. Schaeffer calls this, “Four Standards of Judgment.” In other words, when viewing a piece of art, how should one judge its quality and character? Upon what basis can we make a judgment so we might be clear about what might be good art or music (well done, high quality) and other art and music (low quality)? The four criteria he lists are:
Technical excellence: 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 music we consider timing, pitch, composition, lyrics 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. It is clear that these aspects of technical excellence are accessible by the average person, though some understanding of each is important.
Validity: 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.” In this statement he does not mean that the artist does not have a right to earn a living with the art work that he or she produces. His interest here lies in the artist avoiding the attitude of simply playing to the audience to produce a certain affect. Art, if it is to be valid, should not be manipulative in this way. The reasons which the artist had for creating. Is it a work honest to the artists’ interests, purposes, and World View or is it done only to be a commercial success. Does the work express what the artist believes or is it pandering to the audience for personal gain (sell-out).
Intellectual content: By which art reflects the world view of the artist. Schaeffer is concerned with viewing the art through the whole body of his or her artwork. In other words, we can’t judge the entirety of a person’s view of the world based upon only one of their creative expressions. However, when we understand a particular piece within the fuller comprehension of the artist’s body of works, then we can and should be able to determine the reality of the content. We will also be able to say, “This artist may have technical excellence, and he may be true to himself (validity), but his worldview is wrong and it does not reflect reality as we understand it. There are certainly great artists making great art that contains a skewed worldview.
Integration of content and vehicle. This involves “how well the artist has suited the vehicle to the message. 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. Suitability of Form to Content (does the vehicle convey the message?): The only concern is whether the language or style used expresses accurately the message intended.
One of my favorite bands, “Yes”, have always been a great example to me of living up to Schaeffer’s standards for judging art, whether in the studio or live on stage.