Coming to a Gallery Near You

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The paintings are vibrant with color—brilliant slashes of red, yellow, and aqua. The artist's best work hangs in a gallery at Salisbury University in Maryland. Who created these abstract masterpieces? A dog named Sammy.

Sammy's trainer, Mary Stadelbacher, taught Sammy to paint—holding a brush in his teeth—to raise funds for her dog-training academy.

An art-lover who spent $350 on a Sammy original told the Associated Press: "There are people who make a lot of money to make paintings that aren't as intriguing as what [Sammy has] done."

Sadly, she's right. As a BreakPoint blogger put it, Sammy's paintings raise "an interesting question about what constitutes art. There ought to be an objective standard for calling something art, right? Or do you think I am barking up the wrong tree?"

To answer that question, we must understand that art expresses a view of the world, a philosophy.

Imagine we're touring an imaginary art museum. Beginning in the medieval section, we see figures that are stiff and formal, set against gold backgrounds. This is art expressing an otherworldly philosophy of life.

Next comes the Reformation. Figures begin to look like real individuals instead of symbols. Reformation artists believed God could be represented not just by icons but by paintings of real human beings, who are made in His image.

Next we come to the Enlightenment. Paintings show respectable figures in fashionable dress. Landscapes consist of neat, orderly fields—nature under the dominion of reason.

But in the next room, the plowed fields give way to craggy mountains. Romanticism in art celebrates wild, untamed nature, the Noble Savage, ancient legends.

Finally we approach the room housing modern art, beginning with Impressionism, when art was taken over by subjectivist philosophies. Definitions of art shifted from the subject matter being portrayed to the way light strikes the artist's eye; from great themes of human drama to daubs of paint on canvas; from objective standards of beauty to the artist's psyche.

Expressionism and Surrealism probed deeper into subjective experience. Eventually art lost sight of any objective standards of form and beauty. Art became defined as whatever an artist does.

But without objective standards of form and beauty, even unformed, random marks on canvas—not unlike the dabblings of a dog—can be regarded as art.

Art used to be regarded as the expression of a civilization's highest ideals. Great painters shared a communal vision of the good and beautiful. But today art has become so subjective that many people cannot tell the difference between works that have artistic merit and works that don't. A museum might exhibit a paper plate next to a Rembrandt—who is to say which is art?

Christians ought to care about art because God calls us to lead the way in renewing our culture. Artistic talent is a gift of God, to be cultivated for the service of God and our neighbor.

So while we may regard the "work" of canine Picassos as amusing, we should spend our money supporting those humans who are called to create, as the Scripture puts it, "for the glory of God and for beauty."


From BreakPoint®, August 14, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship