Monday, March 31, 2008

What is Good Art?

They say art is subjective. I believe that to a large degree, but there are other elements that must be considered when judging art.

Telling good art from the bad art is a matter of

1. understanding an artist’s technique, medium, and competition enough to decide if he has created something that others have not created in the past and/or others would have trouble duplicating.

2. recognizing that the artist makes use of basic tenets of his medium, using compositional theories, lighting techniques, and effects to enhance his final product

3. seeing that the artist has expressed a unique personal vision. The artist has shown us a perspective of the world that includes his view of beauty or the lack of it.

4. Acknowledging whether or not the piece has a subject that affects us on an emotional level and the technique that the artist used makes us feel that emotion strongly.

I find that many who judge art on a professional level do not have all of these basics covered. This is especially true in the area of photography when an artists accustomed to looking at fine art paintings is asked to judge this very different medium. A judge who does not understand the medium must rely on elements 3-4, but will miss the preliminary two critical elements.

Case in point: A photographer stands in the woods and is lucky enough to view an unusual creature scurrying across the forest floor. The creature looks up and the photographer snaps the camera. She has been lucky enough to get a head on shot of the forest creature looking right at her. There are lots of shadows on the ground. The photographer didn't appropriately adjust white balance or meter so that the snow appears white and the shadows appear dark. Rather, the snow in the final photo appears gray. The creature was also moving so fast that he is just a tad out of focus. The image evokes good feelings. There are people who love this creature and would buy this picture to hang on their wall because it makes them feel good. Is this fine art or was this a lucky shot?

As a viewer who is not a judge, it is okay for you to judge a painting on levels 3 and 4. In fact, you should rely more heavily on these points because presumably, if you are trying to decide whether to buy a piece of artwork, you are planning to live with it for a long time in your home. You need to like it, whether or not it is good art in the higher sense. It is the professional or serious critic of art who needs to study and understand the history of art AND the particular art medium he is judging. In my mind, this makes art historians the most capable judges of multi-medium shows and not artists who have mastered a particular medium. (Unless, of course, they have gone out of their way to study the tenets of other mediums that they are judging.) Unfortunately, at art competitions, this is not always what the competing artist encounters.


Nancy J. Bond said...

A very thoughtful post. Other than having your work judged for review or prize, I think "good art" really is subjective. As you have pointed out, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another, sometimes for entirely different reasons (subject, color, composition, etc) The technical aspects of art are not subjective, but when you're selling a piece, only those in whom your art strikes a chord will purchase it. People don't often buy photos, paintings, sculpture, etc. because they are technically good -- as you also pointed out, they will purchase based on an emotional response. Is salable art good art? You betcha'. At least on one level. Excellent post. And just my humble opinion, of course. :)


I love your humble opinion Nancy! I think what is "good art" is a fascinating subject. I have an undergraduate degree in art history and one of the reasons I didn't pursue that field was because of this question. What I admired didn't seem to match what most art historians admired. Just one example - so many think that Norman Rockwell was not a great artist. How can that possibly be?!!! From what I know of his illustrations and painting he hits all the marks of technique and subject. But I guess this is where the art historians key in on the subjective. They find him too sentimental for their tastes. Yet, how can some of them possibly think a canvas full of just red paint is good art on any level? I'm going to have to blog more about this and would LOVE to hear what others think.

Jean Ann said...

Very interesting! I am not an art connoisseur, so I really enjoyed thinking it through with you...


thanks Jean Ann. I"m glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I should make it my goal to help everyone become an art connoisseur!