Measuring Art’s Value?


Good, beautiful and true. Those are the three words the interview subject told me, the interviewer, were the standards for meaningful art. Those are the words that he used to measure art and its value. Of course, his explanation flowed with eloquence and brilliance and I found the entire discussion stimulating. And those terms are obviously subjective, but they give us some sort of guidelines for measurement, which is needed, right?

Erik ended up saying this in the interview: “The good, the true, and beautiful, properly defined and practiced, contain everything that I want in art and creativity. What other words could be added? Excellence? Maybe. Substance? Possibly. But those words, to me, are already woven deep into the richness of goodness, truth, and beauty. Nothing else is needed. My prayer is that artists study those words, brood over them, wrestle with them like Jacob.”

I think I agree. At least with the idea of starting with a few words. Perhaps I would choose excellence. But there are other questions than this:

  • Is it even necessary to have words for measuring art’s value/meaning?
  • If so, what words are proper to use?
  • How does one determine what is good, beautiful or true?

Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.


  1. Andrew C

    As was given as a sort of definition at the start of this online community, whether intentioned or not, all art will reflect the Creator, and in some way or another, draw it’s observers/participants to Him. Art gives us wafts of what our hearts ache for – knowledge and relationship with Him in more beautiful depth.

  2. Nate

    I think its necessary to have words for art because they express cognitive thought. It can even be argued that they are intrinsic to cognitive thought. Consider: God spoke the universe into existence. The universe is God’s words. Its his art. And its his words. An idea cannot be an idea without words. They are the form of the idea. God gave us scripture in words. He cares a lot about words. It is obvious. Take that to art and I think you must have words also. Art is a representation of ideas and ideas are expressed primarily with words. The power of words cannot be overstated. I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately and when you ask about words – are they necessary? I think they are.

    I think truth is probably the most important word there. I think goodness may be an element of truth. And truth is most certainly beautiful. I think truth is the most important factor. To me it certainly is. If art expresses truth, I like it. I think thats why I’m drawn to artists like Bob Dylan. I think he was constantly chipping away at truth, trying to get at it from different angles. And even if some of the songs are drug induced or totally wrong, they are still an effort to find that truth, a striving for it.

    I also think truth is the difference between art and entertainment. If you turn on the tv you get lots of entertainment, but its all made up – a false reality which we unwittingly allow to shape our view of reality. So we end up thinking that a teenager finding him/herself sexually is beautiful or drugs arent really that bad. Or maybe sometimes its OK to murder. Entertainment makes up truth where art calls out to our Imago Dei (created in God’s image) and connects. Truth makes us grow.

    True beauty, I think, is an intrinsic part of truth. That is: truth IS beautiful. But I think our recognition of beauty is twisted by our sinful nature. Our sin allows beauty to be deceptive. When we see beauty we think – it must be true. But that is not the case because of the deceptiveness of beauty. Beauty does not always correlate to goodness or truth because our perception of it is skewed. Things look beautiful when they are really hideous, wearing a mask, confusing us, drawing us to something other than truth.

    I think the key is in the truth. If we can keep truth in our mind – truth as revealed by God through the scripture and the Holy Spirit, then beautiful things will look beautiful and ugly will look ugly. Truth will be beautiful. And true beauty will be connected to truth. But false beauty will be easily recognized as a facade of the tempter.

    Excellence is an interesting idea too. Also messed up a little by the fall. We, as Christians, arent called to excellence, but to faithfulness. But faithfulness is excellent. And our glorification wont miss excellence by a lot, though we will still be a far cry from the excellence of Christ. I think if excellence is defined as absolutely free of error, then it is wrong. For Christ hasn’t called perfect people. Not that sin is OK. We are called to strive against it. To fight it. But the purpose of that fight is to draw us closer to God, not to make us perfectly clean. We already have that in Christ – his cleanness, his righteousness is given to us. So if we define excellence as being what it is meant to be, then maybe excellence has a place. Because then it will reveal truth.

  3. Pete Peterson

    I have to disagree with the importance you’re putting on words, Nate. It sounds to me like you are saying that for a work to be considered art, it must have a verbal or written element. Does that mean photography, sculpture, painting, and dance are not art? Were Beethoven and Mozart not artists? I feel like I’ve misunderstood what you are trying to say in that first paragraph. I think that in some ways the purest forms of artwork are those that do not require words at all and can communicate on the basis of form and alone.

    I’ve thought a lot about what defines art in the past few years (I’d better have, I teach it) and while I’m not ready to claim I’ve got it figured out, I’ve narrowed my thinking down to the idea that it is the juxtaposition of truth, beauty, and form. Of those three, I’m tempted even to remove beauty because I’ve seen a lot of things that I would consider art that are not beautiful, although they are true and masterfully formed. The reason I hesitate to remove beauty from that equation altogether is that I think it’s accurate to see beauty in the forming of something even when it portrays an ugly thing, or an ugly truth.

    An example:

    This is Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”. It’s not beautiful, it’s monstrous. Yet it’s true in what it depicts of the way humanity has treated its heirs. It’s masterfully formed. The beauty of it is in the conception and execution, not the final form itself.

    Anyway, enough of my piffle and blather!

  4. Nate

    “It sounds to me like you are saying that for a work to be consider art”

    No, but to think about it, you have to use words. If you get so open-minded that you say you can meditate on it or whatever without words, then you move to the realm of nonsense. Art wouldn’t have to use words, but if its about something, then its about something. It expresses something. It describes or reveals something rather than nothing. And if its about something rather than nothing then it can be described or speculated on, pointed at with words. I may be talking more about cognition than art. To understand art you have to use words. The art doesn’t have to be words – although I do prefer Handel to the examples you gave (especially Mozart) – maybe its semantics.


  5. Pete Peterson


    Ok, so another example (not to be argumentative, just trying to understand): the Sigur Ros video that was posted last week. I don’t understand a word of it and can’t really even articulate why, but certain parts evoke incredibly strong emotions in me and I get choked up and and misty-eyed. I think that’s a pretty incredible piece of art, but the most effective parts of it are the parts that I can’t even describe with words.

  6. whipple

    To wander in a totally different direction –

    I was at a seminar at school a few years back, when Carson Newman had its sesquicentennial year. They use the words “beauty, truth, and goodness” on the school seal, and in the school hymn. A fellow speaking at the seminar called this little trio of words the “Calgothcadon” or something like that.

    I haven’t seen the term since, but I’m wondering if anyone else has ever heard it.

  7. Tony Heringer

    Wow, good thread. I read through it yesterday evening and ruminated on it overnight. Here’s my two cents…

    Pete, you did describe the Sigur Ros video and you did apply the standards set out at the start. You said it “[evoked] incredibly strong emotions in me and I get choked up and misty-eyed.” That is either pointing to something good, true, and/or beautiful. Kind of like when a child is born. Can any parent really describe that moment adequately? Yet, that too often evokes “incredibly strong emotions….[gets us] choked up and misty-eyed.”

    Where I think this discussion may be getting hung up is trying to apply all three at once. Art can be truthful but quite ugly — as in the link you posted. Art can be beautiful and yet quite untruthful — a Playboy centerfold is beautiful, but contains hideous lies about sex and sexuality. Art can be good – like a blues song – conveying some ugly truth brought about by lies (e.g. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – okay, technically not blues, but hopefully makes the point).

    It comes back to the standards by which we define goodness, beauty or truth. Are they God’s, ours or some blend thereof? I loved Erik’s prayer (“My prayer is that artists study those words, brood over them, wrestle with them like Jacob.”). It reminded me of his biblical reference point. Jacob wrestling with the angel (Christ?) and not letting go without receiving a blessing. This results in the giving of the name Israel which means “wrestles with or struggles with God.”

    There is a whole lot more to this discussion, but I feel inadequate to add any more here. Even the above feels like my own “piffle and blather!” – great phrase Pete. But, I’ll take Andrew at his word that this is “a place to work this stuff out.”

    See y’all next week!

  8. Susan

    I think to try to limit art to words is a narrow-minded idea (no offense meant to any who disagree). How can we define that which could not be said in the first place, but had to be presented through movement, sound, or pigment?

    I love art, and one of my favorite pieces is The Scream by Edvard Munch.
    When I look at this piece I wonder just what could’ve struck such terror into a person, making this the only way to express themselves. I have never found words to describe the feeling I get when I look at the piece. Even in the modern and post-modern movements there are feelings to be uncovered. You look at those artists who paint blocks of color and think “I could’ve done that in preschool!!” Yet when you look at it, a feeling comes over you. Vibrant colors like oranges and yellows mixed with free flowing and loose brush strokes give a sense of a carefree summer day when there weren’t things to argue about like whether or not art can be described in words.

    More than anything I think it is the feeling that can not be described. And whether or not you think a song, a dance, or a piece of art is “pretty,” you can still appreciate it and understand it. I don’t particularly care for the aforementioned post-modern era, but I can still appreciate it as ART.

    So there’s my contribution to the “piffle and blather” 🙂

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