Fine Arts Column: On the necessity of “good art”


Of all mankind’s shared experiences, one of the simplest joys I have had the pleasure of knowing is that of receiving mail. The extraordinary return one can achieve, in the form of a friend’s happiness, on the effort of a brief missive makes it a miraculously fruitful endeavor. The suspense of the time it spends in transit, the surprise of not knowing the precise hour of the postman’s arrival – these only serve to heighten the impact and significance of that sacred art of letter writing.

Of course, at times what we await is not a letter but the spoils of online shopping. I am inclined to believe that, in their proper place, these too can be rightly received with a similar enthusiasm. Shortly after I arrived on campus this semester, for example, I received a parcel I had been expecting from a vendor across the country: an old vinyl recording of violinist Jascha Heifetz playing Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy.” I had sought out this performance after my mother came across it on YouTube several weeks ago.

The rise and fall of the melody, the vivid dialogue between the violin and orchestra, rang out from the living room like a prophet summoning the attention of Israel. The energy of the performance one might describe, in a platitude, as magical. In Christian terms, one might just as readily call it an echo of the divine.

The piercing effect of such transcendent instances of art is double-edged. On one hand, to have the heights of art depicted in such clarity can serve as a metaphorical shot in the arm for the amateur artist, a reminder of the eventual effects of practice and improvement. On the other, it is at times disheartening, as though we are convinced through some misplaced humility that we can never be “good” at our art, or reach whatever level of achievement we choose to define as “mastery.” It is an unfruitful comparison. The point is not that all art has a potential to be good, although this could be said. Rather, all art is good, merely because all art is real and unique and necessary.

We see this quite easily when we look at persons. Not everyone we meet will have the same sort of personality or the same list of accomplishments, the same hopes and fears or the same perspective on the world.

Yet we affirm each one of them as necessary and created in the image of God. One need not play like Jascha Heifetz for one’s habit of playing the violin to be a good thing; one need not paint like Caravaggio to bring joy to one’s friends and associates and image some aspect of the divine through art. Art does not exist on a spectrum of perfect skill to failure, and in some sense this spectrum is a mere construction. The art critic may require such a scale to evaluate the myriad examples of art they encounter. But our human experience of art is much deeper, much more natural and much less definable. To make art well and to practice good technique, that is something in which all artists should desire to grow. But to make art unlike any other, art which is as necessary and individual as they are, that is something which every artist already does.

The great C. S. Lewis describes friendship as the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’” We should never underestimate the ability we have through art to touch those around us in a similar fashion. Yours may be precisely the voice someone in the same corner of the world as you has been waiting to hear.