What is truth in art? What does a symphony or novel, a painting or a play, have to do with truth? Aesthetics has few more difficult questions than this. Yet the difficulty gives no excuse for not thinking about it, for the arts in one form or another pervade our environment and influence us all.

Genius and talent come from God. He gives some men and women the ability to make or perform works of art. To think of literature, painting, music, and the other arts as merely peripheral to the main business of life does no honor to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Man’s aesthetic faculty reflects the image of the God who created him. While only a minority write, compose, paint, or design, everyone has some capacity for responding to art. As Abraham Kuyper said, “As image-bearer of God, man possesses the possibility both to create something beautiful and to delight in it.”

All truth is of God. Every facet of it is related to the Father, who is the God of truth; the Son, who is the truth; and the Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. Moreover, truth is related to Scripture, the written Word of truth. All the arts must be judged by Christians in relation to truth. They are, as Calvin Seerveld has said, not to be “excluded from the test of truth as if [they] were simply a collected insight in a realm outside of verifiability.”

My purpose in this essay is to propose several marks of truth in art—not to attempt to give a complete answer to the question of truthfulness in art but simply to shed some light on it.

1. A good place to begin is with durability. Truth is not transient. It never wears out. If something is true, it keeps on being true. One of the early works in aesthetics, the Greek treatise Longinus on the Sublime, expresses this insight: “That is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface.… For when men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, hold identical views on one and the same subject, then the verdict which results, so to speak, from a concert of discordant elements makes our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable.” So art that is deeply true stands up to the passage of the years.

We must distinguish between durability in artistic works and the unique changelessness of God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”—that is eternally durable truth. So are the other great truths about God and man revealed in Scripture. These constitute Truth, as distinct from truth in art and other fields of human endeavor. In the latter, truth has durability but on the finite rather than eternal level.

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But the principle of durability does not help us with what is newer in art. However much we love the great aesthetic achievements of the past, to confine our attention to them alone is parochial. Durability must not be pressed so far as to rule out contemporary art from any claim to lasting truth. Nor does the application of it always require many years: occasionally contemporary judgment quickly recognizes a masterpiece and is proved right by posterity. More commonly, however, great works do not come into their own till years after their creation. For example, Melville’s Moby Dick, now a secure masterpiece, was practically forgotten for decades. And Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion lay dormant for nearly a hundred years until Mendelssohn’s revival of it revealed its towering greatness.

2. Consider next unity as a mark of truth in art. Truth has its own inner coherence. The criterion is very old. Biblically it is rooted in the oneness of the Triune God. Outside the Bible it found classic expression in Aristotle’s Poetics. It has been well said that form is the cup of art. When one finds that a book or symphony lacks unity, he does not have to know the Poetics to say, “It doesn’t hold together.”

The concept of order, which is related to that of unity, is implicit in the cultural mandate in Genesis. When God created man, he was placed in a garden and told to cultivate and keep it. Order is implicit in this idea of cultivating a garden. The creative process in man is not innately disorderly.

At its truest, art tends toward unity and order. The reason for this relates to the incarnational nature of art. As Goethe said, “The spirit tends to take to itself a body.” In the arts, the concept or idea is given definite form; it is “embodied” in sound, color, or words; in wood or stone; in action or movement, as in drama or ballet. But embodiment requires unity and order; a body cannot function effectively in a state of disorganization.

Certain aspects of contemporary art show a centrifugal and even schizophrenic trend. This stems from the sense of lostness and rebellion so prevalent today. Contemporary art does serve as a barometer of the times. But is this enough? Sure art that is ultimately true can do more than reflect what is. It can also have its prophetic function. The history of literature, music, and the other arts contains notable examples of genius that not only spoke to the present situation but went beyond it to break new trails for aesthetic advance.

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3. Closely linked to unity as a mark of truth in art is integrity. Although both terms have to do with basic form or structure, integrity is more comprehensive, having to do with the matter of wholeness. A novel may be structurally unified, yet fall short of integrity if the characters or dialogue are unconvincing. Integrity refers to the overall truthfulness of a work of art. When we say that a person has integrity, we mean his entire personality is morally sound. So it is with integrity in art.

In the arts, integrity demands that anything contrived merely for the sake of effect and not organically related to the purpose of the work must be ruled out. Regrettably, there is much in evangelical literature, music, and art that lacks integrity. Sentimental pictures of Christ are widely promoted, records dress up hymn tunes in commonplace variations, and fiction written by evangelicals rarely rises even to the level of competent literary craftsmanship. It is evident that many Christians have much to learn about integrity in their use of the arts. In contrast, think of the art with which our Lord used words. He told the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Pharisee and the Publican without moralizing and with an integrity that has never been surpassed. As Saint Paul said of him, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

The Christian writer has the advantage of being in a position to tell the whole story. Because he is a Christian he can present the full picture of not only man’s alienation and lostness but also the possibility of his redemption through Christ. This added dimension has characterized the work of great Christian writers from Dante through Milton and Bunyan to Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, François Mauriac, and Flannery O’Connor. In a letter written about ten years after his conversion, C. S. Lewis said, “One of the minor rewards of conversion is to be able [at] last to see the real point of all the literature we were brought up to read with the point left out.”

4. Still another mark of truth in art is inevitability. Some works of art seem to be the final and inevitable expression of an aesthetic idea. Here a kind of paradox we may call “the familiarity of the unfamiliar” is involved. We may experience this when we hear an unfamiliar work by a composer like Beethoven, in which the inevitability of certain phrases or modulations gives the impression of something already known. In painting, one recognizes that a picture by a master like Raphael is completely right and could have been done in no other way. In great poetry we have the same sense of inevitability. In such cases we say, “This is right; this is the way it has to be.”

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In a letter to his publisher, Keats pointed to this quality in describing the kind of writing he hoped to achieve: “I think poetry should … strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost a remembrance.” And one of Haydn’s contemporaries, the critic Ernst Ludwig Gerber, said of that great composer, “He possesses the great art of making his music oftentimes seem familiar.” To be sure, this recognition of inevitability of expression does not always come at once. It may be delayed till one knows the work more thoroughly, because art does not always wear its heart on its sleeve.

These four criteria—durability, unity, integrity, and inevitability—give us some insight into the nature of aesthetic truth. They are not the whole answer to the question “What is truth in art?,” but they are components of it. And they are closely interrelated principles; each contains something of the others.

To these four marks of truth in art let us add two examples from art that is Christian. Here the criterion is the reflection of the reality of God himself.

The musically sensitive Christian who listens to a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass experiences a supreme example of truth-telling in sound. Truth may be defined as correspondence with reality. The ultimate reality is God, and the Christian knows this reality in Jesus Christ, God manifest in human form. Anything in art that sheds light on this reality has truth at the highest level.

So consider a Christian hearing the B Minor Mass. As he listens to the hushed sound of the “Crucifixus” with its mysterious downward progressions, he hears a tonal portrayal of the Atonement that goes straight to the heart. Then, at the end of the “Crucifixus,” there is the sudden outburst of joy in the “Resurrexit,” as choir and orchestra acclaim the risen Lord Jesus Christ with a power few if any written commentaries ever attain. This presentation of the truth transcends barriers of language as it speaks to all Christian hearers. Aristotle spoke of art as mimesis or “imitation.” Here is mimesis in the highest sense, as Bach puts into music the profound truths of Christ’s passion and the victory over death.

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To turn to another field, consider Rembrandt’s great portrayal of the supper at Emmaus. Here is truth in form and color. Unlike Salvador Dali, who painted a blond Christ on a cross suspended between heaven and earth, Rembrandt portrayed Christ with integrity. His pictures show us our Lord as he was—Jewish, a real human being here on earth. Yet when the great artist paints the supper at Emmaus, he gives us the very moment of truth when the disciples’ eyes are opened and they see the risen Lord. The person they see is indeed human. We recognize him as the Christ, but Rembrandt shows us at the same time his glory. Here again we have truth in art, mimesis in its highest Christian sense.

But what about truth in lesser works of art and literature? Truth in art cannot be limited to the works of supreme genius. Wherever there is integrity, honest craftsmanship, and devoted cultivation of talent, there something of truth may break through. Literature has its minor classics and painting its primitives. Folk music can speak as authentically as a sonata. Honest craftsmanship, as in functionally beautiful furniture or pottery, enriches culture. And though these may not receive universal renown, they can attain a measure of truth.

No discussion of truth in art can be considered complete without some reference to the relation of beauty to truth. After contemplating an ancient vase, John Keats wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The final lines of the poem—“ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ ”—seem to provide a definitive answer to the question.

Yet this identification of beauty with truth, so often taken for granted, needs scrutiny. Writers and other artists correctly reject the tendency to put moralizing into art. But do they have no moral responsibility whatever? Is art devoid of any ethical dimension?

The great biblical phrase “the beauty of holiness” answers with a qualified negative. Even if one were to grant autonomy to the beauty found in works of art, there still remains the artist himself. Like every human being, he stands under the ethical judgment of God. What he creates may be beautiful and aesthetically true. Yet it may tell a lie. The French writer Jean Genêt writes beautiful prose, but his work is decadent. Picasso’s erotic drawings are beautiful but corrupt. For the basic analogy, however, we need to go back to what Scripture says about Satan. There is a depth of meaning in Paul’s statement that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Beauty itself can become the vehicle for a lie.

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To this possibility two kinds of beauty stand as exceptions—the chaste intellectual beauty encountered in such things as pure mathematics or scientific equations, and that beauty which Ernest Lee Tuveson has called “the aesthetics of the infinite.” The latter is the beauty reflected in God’s work in creation. The Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray tells of seeing the Buachaille Etive Mor, the great peak in Glencoe, in brilliant winter moonlight: “Let us speak of the unspeakable, for there is no speech so profitable. [Its] face was washed by intense light so searching that no shade was cast by ridge or buttress. All detail merged in the darkness of one arrowy wall, pale as shadowed milk, impregnably erect. At the remote apex, a white crest broke spume on the high seas of infinity.… To my unaccustomed eye the scene at first bore an appearance of unreality; yet the more I gazed, the more surely I knew that I saw not an illusion greater than is usual, but truth made manifest” (Mountaineering in Scotland, Denton, 1947, p. 222). This was one of what Murray called those “fleeting glimpses of that beauty which all men who have known it have been compelled to call truth.” Such beauty is incorruptible.

And what of the purely intellectual beauty of higher mathematics or scientific equations? The physicist Dirac maintained that the truth of an equation is evidenced by its beauty. So those who are trained to think in these realms recognize beauty in the balance and symmetry of conceptual thought and in the disciplined simplicity of symbolic logic. Just as a chess master speaks of a beautiful series of moves, so a mathematician sees beauty in numbers and symbols. On this level, beauty, while manifest through the mine of man, has a certain incorruptibility even though it may be put to debased uses, just as the pristine beauty of nature may be despoiled by man.

But for most of the beauty man attains, Keats’s identification of it with truth must always be qualified by the Christian artist. Nor can he accept the finality of the poet’s conclusion, “—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The Christian artist has to know more than this. He must know his responsibility to the God who gave him his talent, and he must also know the misuses to which beauty is prone. Beauty is not exempt from the consequences of the fall. Like money or power, art may become an idol. Apostasy may assume angelic forms. This is why the Christian artist stands so in need of humility. Like Bach, who appended to his compositions the words Soli Deo Gloria, he must never depart from the priority of seeking to glorify God in all he does.

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To identify beauty with what is immediately pleasing or captivating is to have a superficial view of beauty. The difference between a Rembrandt portrayal of Christ and one by Sallman is the difference between depth and superficiality.

Moreover, to identify beauty exclusively with harmony and orderliness does scant justice to the power and truth the arts are capable of. Rouault’s paintings of Christ are not conventionally beautiful, but they have the inner beauty of truth. Merely to look at Grünewald’s Isenheim alterpiece with its agonizing crucifixion scene is to be confronted with the most terrible yet true picture ever painted of Christ’s suffering for the sin of the world. Dissonance in music, stark realism in literature, and the “ugly” in visual art all have an indispensable relation to beauty. The concept of beauty in art must be large enough to include the aesthetic astringencies: beauty wears different faces. There is the unclouded serenity of Raphael in his Alba Madonna or the seraphic slow movement of Mozart’s last piano concerto. In contrast, we have the thorny beauty of Browning in The Ring and the Book or the rugged beauty of Béla Bartók’s music.

To turn again to “the aesthetics of the infinite,” the incorruptible beauty of God’s handiwork in nature has its terrible as well as its pleasing aspect. The bleak wastes of the Sahara are beautiful in a different way from the smiling loveliness of a Hawaiian landscape. Moreover, our apprehension of beauty changes as we develop our aesthetic faculties. Only comparatively recently have some of the greater aspects of natural beauty been appreciated. In the eighteenth century, majestic mountain scenery was often avoided rather than recognized as sublime evidence of God’s creative power. Fashions in art and literature change. But elusive and difficult to define though it is, true beauty continues. Just as God has yet more light to shine forth from his Word, he has greater dimensions of beauty for us to comprehend in his creation and in man’s making of art.

Therefore, besides being aware of the perils of the misuse of beauty, we must recognize that beauty has profound theological implications. Among the great theologians and Christian philosophers, no one saw this more clearly than Jonathan Edwards. He spoke of God as “the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty … of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence.”

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The relation of beauty to God, so profoundly developed by Edwards, means that we cannot downgrade the arts as side issues to the serious business of life and service, as some Christians do. When we make and enjoy the arts in faithful stewardship and integrity, they can reflect something of God’s own beauty and glory. Through them we can celebrate and glorify the God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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