What We Study and Why: Fine Arts

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

This week we will be discussing fine arts, by which I mean why and how we study what other people have produced. Hands-on art, what we ourselves might produce, will be discussed in another post.

Why We Study the Arts

Most recently we looked at literature; many of the same arguments will apply to the arts. As one of the main goals in studying literature is to explore ideas, so with art and music. These ideas are often more subtly expressed when we use images, colors, and sounds instead of words, but they are ideas nonetheless. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, and there are some ideas which are better communicated in an instant with an image than with those many words.

An artist (or musician) is like an author. Human words on not on the same level as the Word of God, and human art is but an echo of the artistry of God in creation. But we can learn from it nonetheless. Art and music allow us to reflect on what God has done, to take some small portion or idea and to meditate on it for a time.

The arts often follow the philosophy of the time. As such, they tell us as much about ourselves as about God, but this is still useful and good. We learn of the evil in our own hearts and, by God’s grace, our potential for good as well. We learn about our own need and that of our neighbor. Francis Schaeffer’s books do a wonderful job of demonstrating the philosophical trends that underlie art and of reflecting on what is good and bad in human art (see bibliography).

God not only made the world good, He also made it beautiful. Another reason we study the arts is simply to experience beauty. When Paul in Philippians tells us what to fill our minds with, he includes “whatever is lovely” (Phil. 4:8; ESV). Some perhaps tend towards a utilitarianism that sees no place for beauty, but when God in the Old Testament gave instructions for His tabernacle, it was a thing of beauty with much ornamentation and artistry. I remember a professor telling me that more than anything else the Hebrews were known for the beauty and ornamentation of the high priest’s robes.

Ultimately, the reason we study anything is that it points us to God. Beauty itself — which cannot be explained by evolutionary science (see Ferris Jabr, “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution”) — points is to the Creator (see Rick Stedman, 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God). Hannah Anderson, in her exposition of the Philippians 4 passage, tells us that the Greek word used for “lovely” describes “both the thing itself and the response it produces in us” (All That’s Good, Kindle loc. 1642).  There is an irony here — beauty, by the very virtue of its being anti-utilitarian serves a purpose, to show us that there is more than what we see, something worth sacrificing for.

How We Study the Arts

If there are things which are lovely, then there are also things with are un-lovely. As God embodies an absolute standard of Truth, so He embodies a standard of Beauty. We live in a very subjective age which allows all things and says that whatever is good in your eyes is good for you. That is not what we believe when it comes to Truth, so we need not believe it about Beauty.

I am not the person to say what that absolute standard of beauty entails. Volumes could be written on the subject I am sure. Nonetheless, as I often do, I will give a few thoughts–

The arts have form and meaning. Ideas are expressed in a particular medium and within that medium in a certain genre or style. I find the ideas, once we are able to discern them, are much easier to evaluate. Which is not to say that we should only study pieces with good ideas; it is often just as valuable to look at the despair of our fellow man. We see his need and we see our own. We follow bad ideas to their conclusions and see their futility. The test of art is often in the result — does it ultimately point us to God? Sometimes it is the things that make us run the opposite direction which get us there quickest.

The intent of the artist is not necessarily the most important thing. He may not get beyond his own despair. He may not see the futile end of his ideas, or even if he does he may never reach for something more, but his work can still drive others to God. Just as the prophets did not always understand the full meaning of their message, so the artist may not fully understand his own work.

Education, I have argued, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Just as one person may look at an impending storm and think about nothing more than a ruined day while another sees the power and glory of God, so our reactions to art or music will depend upon the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts. These moments of inspiration sometimes come upon us suddenly, but more often they come to us because we have developed that elusive thing called discernment.  When we steep ourselves in truth and in all those good things that Paul lists in Philippians, we become more adept at recognizing them when we meet them again.  This is another reason it is good to expose our children to good art and music — they will develop a taste for it and be better able to recognize what it good and true and beautiful.

The above remarks largely concern the content of art, but we can also consider its form. While there are certainly forms of art and music that I do not like, I am not a snob about it. There is always a new style that appalls an older generation. Many of the things that we now consider classic were once themselves shocking.

I am not arguing that we all need to study grunge rock because it could embody truth.  I think it is fine to follow one’s own tastes up to a point at least. On a practical level, I find it very helpful to study the arts alongside history. Schaeffer’s book, again, provides a good guide for how the art and music of a time reflect its ideas. Older children would even read this for themselves (there is a video as well which is even easier to digest).  I will include in the bibliography a list of resources we have used on in studying art and music,

Nebby

Bibliography

Books on the theory behind the arts and beauty —

how they express ideas and how they point us to God

Anderson, Hannah. All That’s Good. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018.

Horner, Grant. Meaning at the Movies. Crossway, 2010.

Jabr, Ferris. “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,The New York Times Magazine (Jan. 9, 2019).

Ryken, Leland. The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts.  Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2005.

Schaeffer, Francis A. How Should We Then Live? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005 (originally published 1976).

Stedman, Rick. 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God.  Harvest House, 2017.

Resources for studying the arts

Adventures in Art. (Cornerstone Curriculum)

Anholt, Laurence. Camille and the Sunflowers, et.al. Picture books on artists.

Beethoven’s Wig. (CD collection)

De Rynck, Patrick. How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters.

Glubok, Shirley. The Art of . . . (series). Books on art in various cultures and ages, eg. the Art of the Etruscans, The Art of China.

Henry, Marguerite. Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin. From the author of many well-known horse books.

Hillyer, V.M. A Child’s History of Art. Also published separately as A Child’s History of Painting, Architecture, etc.

Janson, Horst W. and Dora Jane. The Story of Painting from Cave Painting to Modern Times.

Kohl, MaryAnn. Discovering Great Artists.

Konigsburg, E.L. Second Mrs. Gioconda. From a wonderful author, a book on the Mona Lisa.

Lacey, Sue. Start with Art (series).

Le Tord, Bijou. Blue Butterfly: A Story about Claude Monet. Picture book.

Macaulay, David. Cathedral. Macaulay has wonderful illustrate books on architectural constructions.

MacLachlan, Patricia. Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse. From the author of Sarah, Plain and Tall

Maltbie, P.I. Claude Monet: The Painter who Stopped the Trains and Picasso and Minou. Picture books.

McCully, Emily Arnold. The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux. Re cave paintings.

Merrill, Ridley. The Princess and the Peacocks. Re Whistler.

Noble, Iris. Leonardo Da Vinci. I love Noble’s book. Middle school level.

Persons, Marjorie Kiel. Themes to Remember. (books and CDs)

Plain, Nancy. The Man who Painted Indians: George Catlin.

Raboff, Ernest. Books on various artists, eg. Raphael, Klee.

Ringgold, Faith. Henry Ossawa Tanner. One artist writes about another.

Roalf, Peggy. Looking at Paintings (series).

Shafer, Anders. The Fantastic Journey of Pieter Bruegel.

Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection  (video series)

Smart about Art (series). Books on various famous paintings, eg. Degas’ dancers and Monet’s waterlilies. Various authors.

Stanley, Diane. Biographies of various artists.

 Usborne Children’s History of Art.

Van Loon, Hendrik. The Arts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1937.

Venezia, Mike. Comic biographies of various artists.

Warhola, James. Uncle Andy’s Cats. Re Andy Warhol.

Zadrunska, Ewa. The Peaceable Kingdom.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] which is “like religion; it does not want to be vindicated by its usefulness” (p. 91). As we saw when we looked at the study of the fine arts, the very impractically of art serves to push us towards God. It shows us the value of something […]

    Reply

  2. […] tell us something about God.  (Frank Gaebelein; In Defense of Truth and Beauty; A Broad Education; Fine Arts; Bavinck on […]

    Reply

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