What Makes Art Valuable?

What makes a work of art valuable? I don’t just mean the price that is paid for a work of art but what makes a work of art good and how good a work of art is. In order to answer the question, Christians often appeal to God’s artistic works in nature. Francis Schaeffer writes:

“A work of art has value…because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the creator.”

This sounds good, but what is the argument here? If it is something like this:

  1. All God’s works are works that have value
  2. Some of God’s works are creative works 
  3. Therefore, all creative works are works that have value

…then it is invalid. Just because all God’s works have value, it does not follow that everyone’s creative works have value. Schaeffer goes on to say the following: “an art work has value…because man is made in the image of God…and…man…has the capacity to create.” So maybe he means to say that the value of what we create is because we are like God. The argument is something of an argument from analogy:

  1. God’s creative works are valuable. 
  2. Human beings are made in the likeness of God. 
  3. Therefore, when human beings create like God creates, what they create has value. 

Schaeffer is keen to point out that not all works of creativity are “great works” What he says next seems to contradict what we have got so far:

“Not every creation is great art. Nor is all that man makes good either intellectually or morally. So, while creativity is a good thing in itself, it does not mean that everything that comes our of man’s creativity is good. For while man was made in the image of God, he is fallen… However, the main point is that creativity as creativity is a good thing as such.”

So, what Schaeffer seems to be saying is that the human ability to create is a good thing (has value) but that what they make does not necessarily have value. A work of art is not necessarily good just because it is made by someone with the capacity for creativity. The power to create must be acted on in some right way. God always acts in this way (since he is omnibenevolent), but sinful human beings, though they have a capacity that is like God’s, are nonetheless fallen beings. Consequently, human beings are prone to use a good capacity to make works that are of little or no value.

So, what is it that makes a human work of art of some value? Schaeffer says value in art is determined by the avoidance of two reductionisms: First, art is reduced to the object itself. In other words, the work is not intended to communicate anything over and above the object itself. In this case the artist does not want to say anything over and above the completion of the work. Second, the work is reduced to a means to communicating a message. What the object is does not matter as long as it says something. Schaeffer calls this: reduction to a tract. In this case, the artist is only interested in what might get her message across.

Schaeffer suggest that for a work of art to have any value, an artist must (i) intend to create a work of art. The work he intends is not merely a communicative act but must be intended to be art. (ii) The artist must intend to communicate something through the work. It cannot be a random selection of lines/shapes/sounds, but should intend to speak.

If the value of art is determined by these factors, then we should be able to evaluate it. Schaeffer said we should value art according to its technical excellence, validity (faithfulness of the artist’s message with his or her worldview), content (the truthfulness of the worldview espoused), and the integration of content and vehicle (the avoidance of the two reductionisms).

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.