Have you ever considered the adulterated world around you and asked: What happened to art? Since when did it become so ugly?

If so, you are not alone.

Many have bemoaned the collapse of art, wondering how we, as a human race, have strayed so far from the artistic sagacity that produced wonders such as the Sistine Chapel, La Sagrada Familia, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, Mozart’s 41st, genuinely great films, brilliant works of literature, and other awe-inspiring sensations.

To answer these questions, we must first define art and its purpose. Why does art exist? And can art be objectively good? Or is it entirely relative?

I am reminded of The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis’ philosophical defense of objective value, in which the Oxford Don recounts a story of two tourists who observe a waterfall. One remarks that the waterfall is “sublime.” The other says it is merely “pretty.” The story’s original teller (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) agrees with the first appraisal, but wholeheartedly rejects the second one (and Lewis seems to agree with him).

Lewis took serious issue with a schoolbook of his day, which he dubbed The Green Book (the book was actually called The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing), for interpreting this account to mean that both Coleridge and the tourist called the waterfall sublime because it made them feel sublime.

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Lewis was shocked at the implications of such a statement. It would lead, he said, to the assumption that value is predicated on one’s emotional state.

But what if the waterfall possessed certain qualities that
demanded being called sublime? Would not that supersede its beholder’s feelings?

“Until quite modern times,” Lewis notes in Abolition, “all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it–believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”

The waterfall was, Lewis concluded, objectively sublime.

So what does this have to do with art?

Ask anyone who is seriously interested in art why they endeavor to create it. I am quite certain very few – if any – will answer that it is merely to entertain.

Most have an implicit understanding that art is meant to be a reflection of something… something beautiful.

Especially in religious circles, you will hear that art should be a reflection of God’s goodness, glory, and majesty. It is about giving our utmost for His highest. In this case, art was perhaps best understood by Bach, Handel, and Graupner who used the phrase “soli Deo Gloria” (Glory to God alone) to indicate that their enchanting compositions were produced for the sole purpose of worshiping the Creator.

The problem is, while everyone today seems to know that art is aimed at some beauty, no one seems to believe in objective value anymore, which leaves us incapable of distinguishing objective beauty from merely subjective human tastes. This leads us to the crux of modern art: it lacks majesty.

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Art can put us in awe of something greater than ourselves. Or, it can celebrate our basest proclivities. Today, it does the latter.

One may like Bach and another may like Cardi B’s sex-positive “WAP” or Lil Nas X’s satanic “Montero,” and all were well respected (in fact, Cardi B and Lil Nas X are arguably more popular with their contemporaries than Bach was with his); this does not mean that they are equal in value. Appreciation from the masses does not confer beauty.

Unfortunately, this degradation of art has infiltrated even the religious world. Our churches look like office complexes. The insides look like rock concerts or hippie hideouts. Parishioners might as well be dressed for Woodstock. And pastors look like they borrowed from Justin Bieber’s closet. Indecent? Not necessarily. Lacking in appreciation for beauty? Absolutely.

Is this really all we deem God worthy of?

Architecture, literature, music, movies, and fashions can tell you a lot about a people and what they value. They tell us that past generations took life seriously and at the bare minimum had an appreciation for decency. A far cry from wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts on a Sunday morning, they wore suits and ties, and dresses to ball games. Far from pretending that filth like “WAP” is an artistic achievement – and that social conservatives who disagree are anti-women killjoys – they would have been appropriately shocked.

So, to answer the question “what happened to art”, we must first resurrect a belief in objective value, an appreciation for beauty, and a sense that art is best when it is created for soli Deo Gloria.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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