Should Christians Separate the Art from the Artist?￼
Can Christians enjoy good art made by unbelievers or people of depraved moral character?
The question of separating the art from the artist is not unique to the Church. Mainstream culture is grappling with this issue, as demonstrated by the upcoming We Need to Talk About Cosby documentary, the messy fall from grace of pop-culture cult hero Joss Whedon, and the many fans now trying to divorce their beloved Harry Potter franchise from J. K. Rowling. The predicament is amplified with social media providing greater access to artists. For better or worse, people today know more about the daily thoughts and actions of creators than ever before.
The question is relevant across the cultural spectrum but is perhaps thornier for Christians. As a people set apart and called to a higher moral standard, Christians can feel uneasy or even guilty about enjoying art and entertainment created by people who do not share, or are even antagonistic toward, their religious faith.
Despite these valid concerns, Christians can—and should—separate the art from the artist.
Good Art by Bad People
The reluctance to separate the art from the artists has prevented many Christians from enjoying excellent works of art. To limit permissible art to only that made by Christians, or only to creators who pass a certain threshold of virtue, is to erase many of the greatest books, musical compositions, paintings, and films ever created.
Scripture clearly establishes that the ability to create works of artistic excellence and beauty is not restricted to only the faithful. All people are created in the image of God, so it is unsurprising that unbelievers stumble upon truth and goodness through the arts, just as they have in the sciences and every other arena of human experience.
When describing what Christians should fix their minds upon, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
Christians should affirm the good, the true, and the beautiful whenever and wherever they find it—even when it is produced by the hands of disagreeable people.
If an opinion about the artistic quality of a work drastically changes due to a new insight about the artist’s character or worldview, then the opinion was never based on artistic quality. A moral judgment of the artist and an aesthetic judgment of their art should remain distinct from each other. In fact, even a moral judgment of the art should be kept separate from any aesthetic considerations. For example, Christians can affirm the technical excellence of a song, even while strongly condemning the vulgarity or distorted worldview expressed by the lyrics.
Bad Art by Good People
Separating the art from the artist is typically considered in the context of good art made by “bad” people. But the reverse is also true. If “bad” people can make good art, then “good” people can make bad art. Are Christians duty-bound to affirm and praise shabby art if the artist is a lovely, God-fearing believer?
Unfortunately, the Church can often be poor or shallow judges of art. Many Christians celebrate the agreeable rather than the excellent. They lavish praise on a faith-based film about the power of prayer or the sanctity of life, not because the film is artistically commendable, but simply because they agree with the theology or morality being espoused.
A simple test is to swap the artist’s Christian faith for any alternative religion. If their art mentions God, imagine that it is referring to a deity other than the Biblical God. Now evaluate the work of art. Is that popular song on Christian radio still artistically excellent? Can we acknowledge that despite not agreeing with message or the worldview and lifestyle of the musician, the lyrics are still poetically written and the music is technically superb?
It might be asked, “Why does it matter?” What harm is done by celebrating the art made by fellow believers, even if such art is of poor quality?
Christians should support Christian artists. At the same time, praising art based on the artist’s character alone sets a low artistic bar and provides little incentive to surpass it. Thoughtlessly affirming any bad work of art created by good people fosters a culture of good people making bad art.
In the Bible, whenever artistry is described, there is always an overt emphasis on the work being “skillfully done” (Ex. 31; 1 Chron. 28; 2 Chron. 2:13). God is glorified through artistic excellence, and art made for His glory ought to represent Him well. There is a reason why praise bands spend time practicing key changes and vocal harmonies rather than devote the entire practice to Bible study and developing their characters. Character matters, but so does artistic excellence. Separating the art from the artist allows the Church to affirm godly character, while also cultivating a standard of artistic excellence.
A Universal Language
Artistic excellence should be a universal language, a common ground for people of all religious faiths and worldviews. There are plenty of valid reasons for a Christian to avoid art created by non-believers or “bad” people. The fact that the artist adheres to a different worldview should not, on its own, be one of them. The Church should be first in line and the most vocal to praise the good, true, and beautiful wherever it appears, for all goodness, truth, and beauty ultimately reflects and points toward God.