The Worldview Behind the Work of Art: Five Cautionary Statements

Analysing a work of art by constructing a worldview that supposedly shapes the work of art or is embodied by the work of art is currently a fashionable trend in Christian engagement with the arts. While I think this is a valuable approach, I am sometimes uncomfortable with the way that the relationship between the worldview and the work of art is conceived.  Thus, I offer five cautionary statements that are meant to clarify how we appreciate works of art:

1. Works of art do not have worldviews; they are to lesser and greater degrees shaped by them. People have worldviews.

2. Analysing the worldview of a work of art sometimes offers the critic a false sense of confidence upon which to base judgements. A work of art is not necessarily ‘better’ because it has clearly been shaped by one coherent worldview.

3. Worldviews are not exclusive. Sometimes analyzing a work of art  by drawing out its connection to a worldview has the unfortunate consequence of placing the work in misleading categories such as ‘Christian worldview’ or ‘secular worldview.’ While the magician may be able to pull these convenient rabbits out of his hat, it seems plain that works of art generally dwell within the grey areas between worldviews.  In view of an accurate understanding of a work of art, it may not even be desirable to categorize a work of art according a worldview that appears to lie behind it.

4. A worldview is only one aspect of many that contribute to the meaning of a work of art. It is not, as Flannery O’Connor cautions us, ‘the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with.’ Some folks might be under the impression that if you pick out the worldview ‘the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.’

5. The purpose of appreciating a work of art is not to determine the worldview that shaped it, but to allow the work of art to shape, challenge, question, and enrich our own worldviews.

What do you think about the relationship between worldviews and art?  Is there anything that we can add to this list?  Is there anything that we should take away?


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: Ben

    Something that could be added to the list, or perhaps incorporated into points 2 or 5, is that just because you’ve determined that a work proceeds from a worldview that is wrong, that does not mean the work can be dismissed. A good artist, no matter what his worldview, has some degree of insight into reality and recognition of artistically good patterns. This means that challenges to one’s own worldview contained in a work have to be dealt with, and the artistic goodness of what the artist has achieved must be acknowledged.
    Point 3 I think builds off my earlier post on worldviews and is a useful extension. I emphasized that a person’s development of a correct worldview is not instant or perfect. By necessity, then, the works they produce will not fit perfectly into the ideal form of a particular worldview.

  2. says: Dan Imburgia

    Interesting statement. I would like to see a bit of discussion on what a “worldview” is, starting maybe with “world” and then “view,” then the two together. thanks, enjoy your site.

    1. says: Wes

      Allow me to take a stab at your question, Dan. I think by world we mean everything, the universe as created by God. And by “view” I think we mean the perspective or framework by which we understand the world.

      If we apply this to Jim’s post, then we are talking about the extent to which works of art communicate a certain perspective on the world.

      In response to Jim’s post then, I would say that a work of art does present a worldview (a certain way of viewing the world), which may or may not be the worldview of the artist. For example, I think a painting can communicate a certain perspective on the world that the artists did not even intend.

      I think Jim is right, however, is drawing our attention to several ways in which we overplay worldview analysis to works of art, and certainly it is true that works of art influence and shape our own worldviews.

  3. says: Dan Imburgia

    Among other things, I paint (write) icons and religious paintings. My copy of the ‘Blessing Christ’ from Mt. Sinai may inspire someone (indeed, a group of Orthodox religious who stumbled into a showing by accident were pleased). But a Jewish friend may see a symbol of oppression and persecution, another former Catholic friend may have stirred up in her the past horrors of her parochial school traumas, my protestant/Calvinist friends may sniff out a tendency of idolatry and reach for the lighter fluid. The painting exists in a ever changing matrix of contingent possibilities that are never concluded or established, except temporarily through power or force (I won’t belabor an old-hat post-structuralism here). I think you do a good job of addressing the ‘gray areas’ in your cautionary statements. However, I seldom ever begin any kind of statement with “the purpose of X is…,” anymore. All of my attempts in the past have not proved useful, and defining X always ends up leading one down the rabbit hole of inter-referential undecidability, at best, but too often just ends up a dishonest platitude. No one (except God) knows who painted the ‘Blessing Christ’ at Sinai. And someday know one will know who the artist of the copy who called himself ‘Daniel’ was. That makes about 4/5 of all art criticism rather problematic and maybe pointless. Before we get to the last 1/5 I reckon we aughta figure out what we mean by “art.” obliged. (oh, one can see the original online and my copy at my site)

    1. says: Ben

      I think it is possible to talk about the purposes of works of art, for the reason Nicholas Wolterstorff outlines in his book Art in Action. He argues there is no single purpose of art in general, but rather numerous purposes of various works of art, from accompanying “hoeing cotton and rocking infants” to being “background for such actions as eating meals and walking through airports.” The purpose of a work of art is not dependent on divining the maker’s idea (and as Wes pointed out, he may not perfectly realize it anyway), but on figuring out the role it plays and is meant to play in our lives.
      In your example of the icon, it seems to be clear that it is providing an image intended for religious devotion; those who reject it reject that way of worship or the one it is pointing towards.

  4. says: Dan Imburgia

    oh, note to Jim, I live close and a bit down below you on Whidbey Island in Wash State. I love Vancouver. Daniel.

  5. says: Nancy

    As an art historian, I have never heard the word “worldview” used in conjunction with analysis of a work of art. I have, however, heard this word in certain Evangelical circles.

    In art historical academia, there is an ongoing debate about how much the art stands on its own, and how much an artist’s concious or unconscious intentions matter when analysing it. In my opinion, we need to understand what we know for sure about the artist and his/her approach to that particular work of art to enhance our understanding of it, though we always should begin and end with the object itself. An artist’s story, influences and outlook enrich our understanding, but simply stamping a “worldview” onto that artist makes for very poor historical research.

    As you’ve stated in the post, the word “worldview” implies a complete set of beliefs and presuppositions that certainly do not exist in the same form from person to person. It is perhaps wise to drop it all together?

  6. says: pgepps

    See, my difficulty with this whole “worldview” thing is that it exists on a level akin to “assumptions” or “presuppositions,” that is, it is only “wholistic” by inference.

    What are articulate are beliefs and practices, and the artifacts (texts, products, utensils, works of art, etc.) by which they are articulated. We infer beliefs and practices from artifacts, and where we find commonalities in our inferences, we synthesize wholes in which we may conveniently situate them; this is, indeed, useful conceptual work. Nonetheless, it is just that: useful conceptual work *on our part*; the wholes are *our* constructions, our impositions.

    Even where we commit what Wimsatt & Beardsley called “the intentional fallacy,” we are still inferring a whole from separated artifacts, that is, a “work of art” artifact and a “artist’s nonfiction prose” artifact. This may be useful or misleading; I find it helps a great deal with Hopkins and Keats, and misleads considerably with Coleridge and Poe, and confuses with Robert Browning, and borders upon outright mendacity with Shelley.

    When we are able to preserve the articulation of the artifacts by *relating* them to other artifacts, we help to safeguard the utility of our inferences. When we begin to truncate or disarticulate the artifacts in favor of our inferences to wholes, we invalidate our inferences and efface the very artifacts we putatively interpret.

    What “worldview” criticism seems to do is to hastily infer high-order abstractions from any artifact and impose them on any related artifact, preserving the *construct* (our inferred whole) by disarticulating the corpus. I’m against it.

    I agree, then, with the vector of your thoughts–though I disagree with several particular utterances above. #1, for example, seems misguided to me: the inference chain artifact –> “world view” seems more useful than the inference chain artifact –> “person” –> “world view.” The artifact will, to some greater or lesser extent which I have more or less successfully explored, articulate some set of beliefs and practices which evidence a “world” of human and material relations, and will do so whether I have a keenly personal sense of (say) Shakespeare’s personality or religious views–or whether, as is the case, we really don’t.

    2, 3, and 5 are especially strong and “ring true” — only in #5, I would drop “our worldviews” and say, instead, “us.”

  7. says: Ben

    Nancy: I can’t speak for where Jim is coming from regarding using worldviews as a tool for analysis, but for myself I have grown up hearing worldview talked about in every field. A significant section of evangelicaldom has become enthusiastic about analyzing the worldviews of everything from science, to literature, to music, to philosophy. I think this can probably be traced back to the work of Francis Schaeffer. Whatever the origin, while I have come to see the errors of certain forms of worldview analysis (see my comment above and earlier post on this site), I am not ready to drop the concept; I think it can still be valuable with some rethinking.
    pgepps: You said “What “worldview” criticism seems to do is to hastily infer high-order abstractions from any artifact and impose them on any related artifact, preserving the *construct* (our inferred whole) by disarticulating the corpus.”
    I have certainly seen this happen, but I do not think that it will in a more careful analysis that recognizes the cautions mentioned. Thanks for your contribution, though. This is an issue I’m still thinking through.

  8. says: pgepps

    Ben, I’m heavily influenced by Schaeffer myself. The part of his influence that stuck with me most profoundly is crystallized in the moment in the How Should We Then Live video series when, responding to his (correct) anticipation that most of his audience will find John Cage a ludicrous example, he points out that artists like Cage and Pollock are not being silly; they are serious people making serious statements, and we have an obligation to hear them out seriously.

    My concern with the faddish uptake of Nash, Pearcey, et al in much of evangelical education, which is what I’m thinking of when I think of a body or movement or school of “worldview” criticism, is that its general tendency (though this is not inevitable nor universal) is to flatten everything to fit the mold, as I’ve noted. (other concerns involve what seems to be too much confidence in “critical realism,” a fetish for “objectivity,” and a tendency to let some simplified “worldview” schema stand in for the written word and faithfully received sacrament as the decisive phenomena, the “given” of the Christian’s here-and-now)

    It is worth continuing to think through. I avoid using the term “worldview” and am critical of attempts to shore up truth’s truthiness with supplementary appeals to “objectivity.” I agree, however, that there has been valuable conceptual work done by those who have more faith in these terms than I can spare. Cheers!

  9. says: Dan Imburgia

    @ Nancy’s excellent points, how are we ever going to know what we “know for sure,” (I can imagine some eye-rolling here) in a useful way, and what does “understanding” mean in this context? When can I say I understand the “Blessing Christ.” How many accumulated ‘facts’ are necessary for this ‘understanding,’ how much research? (how much prayer?). I just went back to wikipedia looking for the article on “Blessing Christ” but I see now that it is being called a “Christ Pantocrator!” However, my understanding is that this particular Icon was not recognized taxonomically as a ‘Pantocrator’ (given the rules established by art ‘authorities’ who bother with such things) indeed there is no ‘title’ to the painting. The Fathers at St. Catherines always called it the “Blessing Christ,” maybe whoever changed the Wiki article may have talked to a different brother who called it a Pantocrator and then that person went on line and ‘corrected’ the wiki article (I reckon you academics are familiar with all this, it has to do with Jesus’ hands and fingers and such things). However I am engaging this icon I would not say that I ‘understand’ it, or assert what it’s ‘purpose is,’ in any categorical way, or even speculate on the ‘worldview’ of its creator other than conversationally, which I enjoy a lot. The “Behind” of the Title “The Worldview Behind…” of the article is problematic as well. It perhaps suggests that there is something lacking in the artwork, that maybe the artwork suffers an insufficiency (or is perhaps an obstruction to its own existential appearance?). I really like Jim’s post though, it fosters these kinds of interesting discussions where we all can think through one another’s ideas. Thanks for a great post.

  10. says: Jim

    Thank you everyone for your very interesting and thought provoking comments. I regret that I was not able to take part in this conversation as it unfolded. I was on holiday with my family at the time this post was published and we had no internet access during the entire time we were away. This was very nice, but having read your comments I am sad to have missed this opportunity. I will provide some responses below in the hope that you will look back at this post again.

    Dan: I think you are absolutely right to point out that the making of a work of art requires that the artist let go of the purposes and meanings that may accompany the work as others read it, view it, listen to it, etc. But I don’t think this makes most art criticism pointless. One point I was trying to make with this point is that appreciating a work of art is not about trying to understand who made it or why. Good art criticism, I think, ultimately aims to draw the audience into a deeper engagement with the imaginary world of the work of art (or, as Kendall Walton might put it, to help us participate more fully in the games we play with works of art).

    I too think that the ‘behind’ in the title of the post is problematic, at least in one sense. I think that in certain popular Christian circles it is assumed that if a work of art ‘fits’ with a worldview then its maker probably had that worldview, or intended the work to reflect that worldview. And it is sometimes further assumed that this worldview, if it is different, may threaten our own (for example, I seem to remember some Christians commenting on the Pantheist overtones of ‘Avatar,’ and it might be interesting to see how this effected their critical discourse). The point is that assuming a worldview to be behind a work of art can be very problematic, especially, as you point out, if we assume that it is the artist’s job to fully realize this worldview. But I do think there is a straightforward and simple sense in which worldviews are always behind works of art. And this is because (as far as I know) only people make art. And people always (as far as I know) have worldviews. I just think that the connection between the worldview of the artist and the work is much more complicated than often assumed, and that artists are not bound to operate simply in one coherent worldview.

    Also, I am actually living in St Andrews, Scotland. I lived in Vancouver and then Seattle before coming to Scotland. The northwest United States is one of my favorite places in the world. You are surely blessed to live there!

    Nancy: Thank you for pointing this out. As Ben points out, I too think that looking at works of art through the lens of worldviews is a more popular phenomenon within Christian circles. In fact, I think it is important to let people know that this concept of a worldview is almost entirely useless to the art historian. That said, I do think that worldview can be a valuable concept if used carefully, and that it may be possible to speak of works of art as illustrations or examples of worldviews without making assumptions about the artist or making hasty judgments about the value and meaning of the work.

    pgepps: In general, I share much of your skepticism about the usefulness of ‘worldview’ (hence the cautionary statements). I think that the intentional fallacy is often behind popular discourse about worldviews and works of art, and I also think, as you say, “‘worldview’ criticism seems to do is to hastily infer high-order abstractions from any artifact and impose them on any related artifact.” You put this much better than I could have. Thank you also for engaging with my particular statements. I am not sure that I understand your criticism of #1. Perhaps it would be helpful if I say that I was hoping to communicate that worldviews (providing we have them) can only be attributed to persons, but it sometimes seems as though we speak about works of art as though they embody a worldview. Instead of thinking of a work of art as embodying a worldview, I think it may make more sense to say that we can use a work of art to help us explore or understand a worldview. Could you explain again what exactly is problematic about #1? I like your suggestion for #5, but I hesitate to drop ‘worldview’ simply because it sounds better, and it seems to fit better given the context.

    Thanks Ben and Wes for your comments which were, to some extant, made on my behalf due to my absence. Although you obviously offered your own thoughts, I think there is much here that we agree upon.

    1. says: Dan Imburgia

      I am looking fwd to your post on Benedict’s essay. Let me encourage you with one last quote that I as an Icon writer/painter found insightful. “An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes “a fasting of sight.” Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical (sic) effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ ” I think that phrase “a fasting of sight” deserves some reflection, it also seems to suggest a transcending of so many critical modernist tropes, while parts of the rest of the essay seems a but reactionary and moralistically counter-post-modernist. Obliged. ps. St.Andrews seems like a wonderful place to teach and study.

  11. says: pgepps

    re your #1: the concept of Weltanschauung was originally a race/culture theory term from Germany, describing the distinctive “racial type” putatively evolved through prehistory as inferred from its historical remains and/or living culture. The idea survived in Anglo-American criticism under the term “worldview” and has been treated variously from various structuralist or psychoanalytic perspectives; in Christian scholarship, I consistently find “worldview” criticism most heavily and noisily espoused by the generation whose secular critical training took Auerbach or Frye as lodestones, with Jungian archetypalism (or, at worst, Bullfinch & Campbell) also frequently represented.

    Historically, then, the proposition to be debated would be “do various people groups have different worldviews?” with related questions being “can artifacts support inferences to racial/cultural type?” and (most importantly) “are racial/cultural types, or worldviews, incommensurable?”

    Now, we can simply dismiss (or use cognitive theory to rebut) the notion that “the people” as described by race/culture is the relevant unit, yet it seems odd to assert that the individual person is…and it seems very questionable whether attempting to infer the “worldview” of a separated individual really means anything at all different from reading stated intentions or peforming some species of psychoanalytic criticism.

    So we are left with a number of questions about the meaning of “worldview” whether predicated of “the people” or “a person,” particularly whether it is anything other than “psychoanalysis” or “cultural criticism” performed under other auspices; yet there are works of art, and they do tempt inferences about people, peoples, places, things, ideas, etc. There is a body of critical work to be used or challenged regarding the nature and validation of those inferences; it seems misguided to use a popularization of “worldview” plus a vague intentionalism to do an end-run around them.

    Having said which, there are definitely critical implications of a Christian theological anthropology which we should deploy over against competing secular critical presuppositions.

    1. says: Jim

      pgepps, thanks for this helpful background on ‘worldview.’ Your question as to whether ‘worldview’ should be predicated of ‘the people’ or ‘a person’, is an interesting one, and one I had not really considered. I suppose I agree with you that ‘worldview’ makes most sense in reference to groups of people (i.e. the so-called ‘Christian worldview’). I think you are also right that works of art “tempt inferences” about worldviews, but my main concern is how these inferences affect one’s analysis of a work of art.

      It seems to me that what you have written could be used to clarify, expand, and perhaps correct what I have said in #1 (though I will have to think about how this could be done). The reason I wrote #1 was to caution against treating a work of art as if it is an embodied worldview. I was thinking about worldview in a less technical sense (simply as one’s perspective on the world), and there would seem to be a sense in which an individual subject has a worldview that a work of art (not a subject) does not have a worldview. Even if worldview should be predicated of groups of people, I wonder if there is a sense in which one must (at least) be able to talk about the individual person as ‘participating’ in this worldview.

      Thanks, again, for this. And please feel free to offer your own suggestion for rewriting #1.

  12. says: pgepps

    Hmmm. Well, I would end-run around the whole list by not using the term “worldview” when I do cultural criticism, but if I were to rewrite #1, I think I would change

    “Works of art do not have worldviews; they are to lesser and greater degrees shaped by them. People have worldviews.”


    “Works of art have features, not views; people view works of art. How we, in our views, account for the features of the work and the views of others can potentially tell us a great deal about how we view ourselves, God, and other people.”

    1. says: Anna

      I think including the term ‘worldview’ is actually important for Jim’s point. I think i would keep your second line and add it to the end of his original clause as you’ve detailed it. I think it is valuable to speak in these terms, worldview that is, at this point in the discussion.

  13. says: Travis

    Jim, I appreciate your post and ‘cautionary statements’ before thinking one has the interpretive key to a work of art and then, now that one’s finished with it, moving on. It actually brought to mind something C. S. Lewis said about art appreciation in his An Experiment in Criticism. Seeking to advocate a mindset in readers of ‘fairly and squarely’ laying ‘their minds open, without preconception, to the works they read’ (12), he goes on to advise the following which I think relevant to your discussion regarding how best to appreciate art (as well as to other discussion on the site regarding whether to call art ‘useless’ or ‘useful’):

    Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (18-19)

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