“What is Art?” the offended one asks

July 16, 2010

The question of the nature of art, the validity of certain pieces of art and acceptable reactions to art, all depend upon who is offended by it. I am not an Art Historian, or an Art Philosopher (are there such things?), but I have read many who are and have friends who place themselves in those categories. As far as I can tell, there are four primary sub-sections to artistic expression:

1. Art as Decoration: In the past 200 years, this is the art we have come to buy because it matches the drapes or  our mood. Musically, Muzak or elevator music fits into this category.

2. Art as Ability: The dutch masters (Rembrandt, etc.) in painting, the orchestra members in music, the Method Actors in drama, all elevate art by their precision and focus. They produce art for its own sake…because it can be produced at such a high skill level.

3. Art as Emotional Expression: The emergence of Impressionism and all its children and grandchildren showed us the naked truth about art: It is a language of the soul which bypasses logic and reason. When one reads “Ulysses” by James Joyce, it is the force of the emotion and not the logic of the words that strikes the reader. When Kenny G waxes timeless on the sax, it stirs feelings of far-off places in the same way that Notorious B.I.G. can evoke anger with his rap lyrics.

4. Art as Philosophical Discussion: Whereas these other genres of art can provoke discussion ad nauseum, it is the art of the Philosopher that prompts the question, “is this Art?” For instance, this week at the Sacramento County Law Library, an artist has posted this painting:

Sacramento County Law Library painting

Though it is hard to see from this angle, the painting has a Bible with the caption below “Warning: May Impair Judgment”. This is a philosophical statement musing that the opinions of the Bible may have a detrimental effect on one’s sense of right and wrong. It is a mild anti-Bible, anti-Christian statement. Fortunately, only one group has protested the inclusion of this painting in the latest exhibit. But in the Sacbee page devoted to this controversy, many ask whether this is art.

How are we to respond to art which offends us? If it fits into the category of philosophical art, our response should be the same as how we respond to any philosophy which offends us. We should get to the heart of the message and address its validity. Does the Bible impair someone’s judgment? Does the reader of the Bible come away impaired? Can a society be better off without the Bible? These are the concepts to interact with. Unfortunately, some will respond to the legality of the message. Others will be offended and negate the art. For instance, when Andres Serrano put a plastic crucifix into a jar of urine and called it “Art”, the outcry was deafening. It was attacked from every angle. But few people took issue with the art’s main theme at all. Because of this, Serrano’s work took on mythic status. He entered that arena with banned books and music: Status based upon reaction and not the merits of the work.

Taken at face value, Serrano’s work is pedantic and juvenile. The same can be said of the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”, which was poorly edited, lacked a cohesive plot and whose research was shoddy. If those offended had approached the art critically, instead of from a place of offense, these pieces of philosophical art might have been jettisoned onto the slag heap of history. When we respond from offense, we see stupid books like “The Tropic of Cancer”, movies like “The Last Temptation” and art works such as those produced by Serrano become elevated in importance.



  1. When looking at certain “art” I often wonder, “Was it the artist’s intent to offend/ stir up trouble.” In some of the art referenced above I would say YES! When I see something that someone has put together that offends me I choose to not call it art but walk away as I would from an offensive conversation or piece of literature. Andrew Pudewa has an interesting seminar on The Effects of Music and the Brain. In it he address the truth in nature (God’s creation) and how that can be portrayed in art and music. Harmony, colors, shapes, etc. all follow a universal truth and when used according to that truth they will glorify God whether the artist intends to or not. In analyzing the statement of the artist of the Bible painting I would say there is some truth to the warning. Many use the bible as an excuse for a lack of critical thinking. Many don’t understand the bible that they claim to follow. Perhaps people shouldn’t be so quick to find offense and, as you said, address the validity of the arguement. If there is no truth in what is said then walk away. I also take it as a personal challenge to counter the cultural relativism that is rampant in our society when teaching my children so that they can evaluate what they see and hear and find God’s truth and hold firmly to that. Great post!

  2. Great comments about Pudewa especially. When we consider that art has the effect of changing our brains and altering our view of reality, then we have touched the language of the soul.

    Do some produce art with the purpose of offense? Of course they do. And is this valid? Even from a biblical point of view it is. There were things that Jesus said with the intention of causing an emotional offense. When he told the Pharisees they were a “brood of vipers” he was deliberately offending them. When he told parables (artistic allegories) he often intended on offending them.

    Art as philosophy shows up all the time in political cartoons. Dickens and Lewis Carroll constantly wrote books with politically offensive themes. Madonna and Prince (or the Artist Formerly Known as etc.) make music at times to offend.

    But the value of potentially offensive art is that we get discussions going which may have stalled for lack of emotion.

  3. The nature of art and the artist is to inspire response. The worst possible response to art is indifference. If art can inspire discussion, it’s successful. I believe in the freedom of expression, as long as no living thing is harmed in the process. On the current reality show “Work of Art”, one woman just created a cartoon of The Last Supper, with characters throughout doing inappropriate things…all a commentary on how difficult it is to be a Christian today (as well as noting hypocrisy in the church).
    Some artists try to add shock value to make others think, but (in my opinion) the majority of artists create via emotional expression. Every detail in a work usually has a lot of introspection behind it. In my experience anyway

    • Well, certainly all art desires a response. Barb, truly some art is designed to provoke negative response or even violent response. Graffiti comes to mind.

      • I actually like a lot of grafitti. A lot of grafitti is mural art. Those who deface things are destructive, and not artists…they’re just saying “I was here”. But shock art, yes, is to stimulate response. Artists figure poor response is better than no response.

  4. Point #1…. art bought in last 200 years is like MUZAK… no way, there is a lot of killer art out there that matches drapes! I listen to great music while I ponder my mood matching art!

    I love nudes, but when they are homosexual, I turn away, gagging on bile. Does this count as no response? I do not discuss it…. I prefer to contemplate the beauty of God’s creation thru art, not ponder political decisions.

    I would walk away from the Bible art…. not responding, preferring to forget it and find something that took a lot of talent and reflects beauty.

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