Meaningful Art

Photo: Grateful thanks to Laura Ockel on Unsplash, heart, heart!

Found this in the files. It’s a comment I submitted in response to an article by a Southeast Asian photographer whose work I admired. The article dealt with the question of what’s good or bad “street photography.”

Many people today would probably resolve the issue by asserting, with emotion, that “there’s no such thing as good or bad art.” I disagree.


I find good street photography very hard. First, because there’s the challenge of finding and then isolating a subject that satisfies one’s standard of “good.” It requires intense internal concentration and filtering out the temptation to take second-tier photos that are postcard-pleasing or worse.

But skipping lightly over that, I don’t believe for a second that “good” is subjective. I believe that it is relative, but not a matter of the passing moods of the human heart. All of the world’s great spiritual traditions give us a thoroughly reasonable, practical, commonsense standard for measuring “good.” The universal instinct that drives all human behavior, they tell us, is the longing for happiness, and for freedom from suffering. By observing the human scene with calm, dispassionate eyes, saints and sages in all ages have concluded that happiness increases when we use our human instruments of perception and action “expansively.” Happiness comes when we use body, heart, will, mind, and soul to achieve greater health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy.

The nihilist 20th-century thinkers of the West, with Jean-Paul Sartre as their flag bearer, tell us that life is meaningless, and that we are radically free to behave in any way we choose, without having to fear that some overarching God or impersonal force will intervene to punish or prevent us. But this seemingly radical and revolutionary view is simply intellectual hooliganism. It’s dishonest, the work of intellectual con-artists. Our everyday lives tell us that there are actions that bring us pain and suffering, and that we can identify these harmful actions easily by their contractive effects on our body, heart, will, mind, and soul.

Happiness is the universal measuring stick for values and morality. Actions and art that promote sickness and sloth, hatred, sadism, ignorance, and sorrow are, for all practical purposes, not just “bad art.” They are “bad” by any reasonable human measure.

Art that betrays the universal human project of finding happiness is philosophically bankrupt and treasonous. It may be clever or “realistic,” but it is not attuned to truth. The implications for the overwhelming mass of so-called art today are obvious.

Sartre and his nihilist acolytes have drawn entirely the wrong lesson from the apparent meaninglessness of the behavior of subatomic particles and the alleged randomness of the evolution of species. For a powerful corrective, I can highly recommend an extremely valuable, inspiring, very readable, and revolutionary book: Out of the Labyrinth – For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, by J. Donald Walters.

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