Amidst the backdrop of social media and greater exposure to issues of racism and sexism, “Cancel Culture” feels like a new phenomenon of the 21st century. Our older siblings or parents might chuckle and say, “We called that being ‘politically correct’ back in my day.” The truth is that these ideas have been relevant throughout history—we’re just calling them by different names.
This “modern” conversation has permeated the art world for decades—centuries even. Beautiful paintings, music, and media have been created by deeply disturbed and deeply disturbing individuals.
As a classical musician myself, these ethical questions become hard to escape and imprudent to ignore. “Clair De Lune,” one famous example of musical brilliance, was composed by a womanizing, unfaithful man named Claude Debussy. And he was not the first to openly live a lifestyle contrary to biblical morality, or any morality for that matter.
So how do we rectify excellent art and evil people? Is there such a thing as good art by bad people?
Art is, inherently, a deeply personal form of expression. In music, the composer, musician, and listener may all take away different understandings from the same piece! Benjamin Zander delivered a speech on the transformative power of classical music, intending to prove that “everyone loves classical music; they just don’t know it yet!” He demonstrated this when working with kids in Ireland during its more tumultuous years. He played a piece by Chopin for Catholic and Protestant children while working with them on conflict resolution. The next day, one of the children came up to him: “You know, I never listened to classical music in my life. But when you played that piece… You know, my brother was shot last year, and I didn’t cry for him. But last night, when you played that piece, he was the one I was thinking about. And I felt the tears streaming down my face. And you know, it felt really good.”
Chopin did not write that particular piece for that particular child, but God was able to use it to bring healing in a way that only music can.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul urges the church of Philippi, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When it comes to art, we must use this as our baseline, as our guide. When I play Clair De Lune, I become overwhelmed by the beautiful creative-power God gave us and allows us to express through music. Many similarly feel “touched” by a piece of art or “blown away” by the sheer thrill of a movie. The pure, personal emotion of music has greater power than the sin of the man behind it. God uses art to glorify Himself, even when the artist does not. By placing art into this light, we reclaim what sin corrupted and allow the artistic object to undergo transformation by all of art’s ultimate source: God’s beauty.
I do recognize that many cannot divorce art from the artist. There are books I have read that, knowing what I now know about the authors, I cannot read without becoming distracted. It is when you cannot meditate on the good, true, honorable, or other positive qualities that the art becomes inconsumable.
This standard also maintains a biblical basis. In the book of Romans, Paul addresses one of the many conflicts in the early church. He says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Rom. 14:5-6) Paul’s mandate is clear: whatever you do, let it honor God. So, for some, they will not be able to honor Him while interacting with bad artists. But for those who can, God can redeem what was born in sin, much like he redeems our lives to him.
So, is there such a thing as good art by bad people? While I wish I could give a clear, straight-cut answer, what I can say is this: Art is only beautiful when we acknowledge God as the artist. Everything beautiful is only that way because it reflects God. No man, no matter how evil, can take that away.
Katherine Baker graduated from Stoa in 2017. She currently teaches piano, guitar, and ukulele in her private music studio, Joyful Noise Studio, which she has owned and operated for over 5 years. She enjoys staying involved with Stoa through working as a debate coach, Monument writer, and committee member.