The idea of there being objectivity in art might seem counter-intuitive to most people. After all, art is simply about the expression of feeling and emotion, right? If all art is equally beautiful and good, then we must conclude that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing are just as good and aurally aesthetic as Justin Bieber's Baby. Perish the thought! All Justin Bieber roasting aside, it does seem that we can look at the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel and conclude that it is objectively more beautiful than a room of empty metal boxes. This is precisely what led atheist Jennifer Fulwiler on the path to Christianity. She wanted to affirm the existence of objective standards for goodness and beauty, but failed to explain how they could exist on an atheistic worldview. This is her story.
There was a recent controversy in Tacoma, Washington because the Tacoma Art Museum considered showing the work of an artist named David Wojnarowicz. Specifically, they wanted to show a video montage he put together that was pulled by the Smithsonian because it was too offensive. The Tacoma museum’s curator responded to critics by saying, “For someone to come and have to confront this image, it’s not going to be easy but art’s not easy.”Curious about what this non-easy art might involve, I did some searches and found a clip of the video on Youtube (it’s called Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz if you’re interested, though I don’t recommend viewing it). It features images of ants crawling on a crucifix juxtaposed with flickering shots of a young man doing something pornographic.Oddly, it was this kind of thing that helped lead me to God.Shortly after I got married, my husband suggested that we check out an international modern art festival that had come to town. At one exhibit we walked into a large room where stylishly-dressed people wandered around rows of metal boxes, nodding and making approving comments. Were we in the wrong place? Had the organizers not had a chance to set the art out on the boxes yet? As it turned out, the metal boxes were the art.As we walked through the other exhibits, I was amazed at what was considered art: a light bulb, a paper with some holes in it, even an entire building with some spray painting on the side. A favorite approach seemed to be to take something that traditionally symbolized purity and hope (e.g. a sacred religious object) and juxtapose it with something considered dirty and bad (e.g. excrement).“It’s beautiful,” someone commented at one such exhibit. I recoiled at the statement. If someone wanted to say that this art was thought-provoking or interesting, I could have barely seen where they were coming from. But beautiful? No.My husband teased me by joking, “Hey, one man’s Sistine Chapel is another man’s metal box!”“Umm, no,” I mumbled.At the time I was an atheist, and my husband responded with an interesting question. As we walked back through the rows of metal boxes, he said: “Are you sure that you can defend that statement from a purely atheistic perspective?”Without thinking about it, I blurted out, “If not, then I denounce atheism. Because I know more than I know anything else that those boxes aren’t as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel.”