The philosophy of art is called aesthetics, and like most philosophy in general people don’t think about it too much. When contemplating art, people either like it or they don’t. For most, art is, like porn, something where “I’ll know it when I see it.”
There’s lots of art in church. The buildings are usually very thoughtfully architected, sometimes in very traditional styles and sometimes in very daring avant-garde looks. There is lots of visual art in most churches, from icons to mosaics or sculpture and tapestry. Of course, music has always played a huge role in religious ceremony, and liturgical dance is highlighted in many traditions. There are often religious plays and writing and storytelling is a large part of the oral tradition. Even the gems crusting a chalice or the ornamentation on a gold cross are artistic.
Is that stuff good? Does being rooted in an epic, enduring mythological tradition make it more weighty? And most important of all, does it make it bad art if the theology in which its creation was based is totally false?
To answer the question, we first have to have a general idea of what makes good art in the first place. Instead of delving into generations of philosophers, we should probably just consider the everyday metrics by which most people judge art: do I like this? People generally think art is good when they enjoy it. Of course “like” can mean lots of things: maybe it delights you or makes you laugh, maybe it entertains you, or maybe you like it because it is challenging or thought-provoking. Maybe you like it because it causes an emotional response in you, even if that emotional response is sadness or anger. Most importantly, we must recognize that personal enjoyment is subjective by nature and probably based a great deal on cultural trends and personal history; we may not like art from other cultures simply because it is foreign, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad art.
Of course, it is possible to recognize art and even beauty in things you don’t particularly like. For instance, I really do not enjoy the artfully crafted still-life paintings of the 17th century Dutch. Vermeer is not fer mee! But that doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize the technical skill involved with creating them and with the possibility that others may find them enjoyable.
So then art is not just about enjoyment and not just about technical facility, but about some combination. Then of course, there is a lot of art that I generally enjoy and in which I can sense great technical ability, but which fails somehow to elevate to “great Art,” whatever that means. For instance, there are a lot of Broadway musicals which I very much enjoy and see great technical skill involved, but which aren’t really transcendent in the way of, say, a classic play. Or I can recognize the mass produced art from Pier One Imports as something that, while well made and enjoyable enough to put on my wall, fails to arise to the level of a great artist.
One thing that philosophers seem to agree on in the field of aesthetics is that there really isn’t one good answer to what art ‘is’ and what makes it ‘good.’ But there seems to be some combination of these three things at play: it is something created by a craftsperson which we experience through our senses, it may evoke some emotional response in us, and it may cause an intellectual response of reflective contemplation about the piece itself or something larger. In the best cases, these three elements combine to create a truly transcendent or sublime experience, but even just one of these elements could be enough to appreciate a piece of art as “good.”
An important benchmark that I use when I think about art is how the piece of art enriches my understanding of the universe in its representation or abstraction of it. For me, art is truly elevated beyond simply entertaining or enjoyable when it tells me something insightful about the world it depicts. Perhaps that’s why I don’t much care for still-life, because the technical goal in that style of painting is a practically photo-realistic portrayal of the most banal, which I find neither delightful nor insightful. Its also perhaps why I like a lot of abstract and non-representational art which others find confusing or stupid: in keeping with the Dutch theme, I love the work of Piet Mondrian, known for his famous squares of primary colors bounded by black lines on white canvas. His work allowed me to consider the basic tools of all painting, distilled down to their most basic constituent parts, and in turn influenced how I view all other painting. Some might see his compositions as stupid or simple, but I find them truly transcendent.
Art with religious themes or created in religious contexts can be judged in the same way as secular art. Sometimes we have a full experience with it or sometimes it doesn’t appeal to us, even if we recognize it as being otherwise “good.” But what does a piece of art tell us if the intention of the artist is to point us towards a belief about the world that we know is theologically bankrupt? Even if the technical craft is good and are moved by the piece, if it is meant to make us contemplate a God we know doesn’t exist then how can we judge it as good? Are the Pieta and The Messiah and The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris all bad art?
It has always seemed to me that great artists’ contributions to religious life betray their true beliefs. This isn’t to say that Michaelangelo or Handel didn’t believe in God, in fact their conception was probably as literal as we expect most people from their eras to be. But the god their work points to isn’t just the literal white-haired guy on the cloud. There’s a grandness, a sense of universality, an all-encompassing vision of the breadth of the universe that makes this type of religious art say much more than just the literal, old-fashioned qualities of God. It’s why that God is such a small part of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel- that definition of God is too small to encompass Michaelangelo’s huge concept of the divine.
Not all art presented in the religious space shares the same theological conclusions as the institution presenting it. In fact, I think most of the best religious artists create art that far outpaces our churches’ limited theological teachings about the divine. That’s the best part about religious art: the subject is by definition the most sacred, most closely held, most magnificent concept of the world by the artist. We may at times be let down by what the artist reveals to us, but I find that most of that type of art falls by the wayside eventually anyway. The enduring classics all seem to have a kernel of the universal in their concept of God, and that’s what makes them good both in or out of church.