What is "Good" Art?
Recently, I've been chewing over how we value and judge art, and how we talk about it effectively. I wrote a piece touching on some of these issues, and a version was published over at PolicyMic. I've included an expanded and restructured version here, plus a couple of links that didn't make it in the PolicyMic version. It's long, but here's three selfish cheers to long-form:
I. THE TROUBLE WITH VIEWING ART
When viewing art, particularly modern and contemporary art, I sometimes find myself thinking that what I'm looking at isn't all that good. This is an uncomfortable feeling, and one that we, as viewers, are reluctant to admit. Even with a background in art, I will sometimes discard personal estimations and just accept the art, because of a nagging concern that I am not educated or qualified enough to evaluate it.
This seems reasonable; after all, I am a Western millennial, raised to believe that art is essentially subjective, intrinsically good and inherently undefinable. I have also been raised in a buzzy art culture where "cool" is capital; if the in-crowd likes a piece, you've got to be pretty bold to admit that you don't because it means you don't "get" it.
But these two pressures that force us to repress or override our personal value judgements are, I think, detrimental to the quality of contemporary art and the discussion surrounding it. After digging into ideas of subjectivity, goodness, and value as they relate to art, I will present an alternative metric for discussing and evaluating it. I am also hoping to empower people to express their opinions about art, and make it clear that art is for everyone.
II. JUST THANK DUCHAMP
In the contemporary art world, anything goes. I am not criticizing this aspect of contemporary art, but stating the obvious. For this reality, we can mostly thank Marcel Duchamp and his ideological contemporaries. The Impressionists, with their rejection of the idea that art should be the exclusive domain of the elite and highly educated, and Duchamp's even more radical idea that anything can be art, were both beautiful in their own ways. See his revolutionary Fountain and the drama surrounding it. Duchamp became one of the first and most famous artists to proclaim that art is defined completely by the artist.
When it first came to popularity, this idea of anything as art or art of anything was radical. It gave us a lot of opportunity to experiment, to play, to remove ourselves as creatives from the boundaries of “art” as defined by the cultural elite.
These ideas allowed more people to engage with art. Instead of art world leaders like wealthy collectors and institutions defining and evaluating art, Duchamp opened up the floor for the creators to defend and declare their art as such. Duchamp said anything could be art, and the art world eventually accepted this premise. It is valuable and important that this idea was adopted, up to a certain point.
III. THE DIFFICULTY OF EXPRESSING OPINIONS ABOUT ART
The problem with the idea that the artist defines the artwork and creates art simply by declaration is that it diminishes the viewer’s experience with the artwork. In short, this idea eroded the authority of the viewers’ perspective. Because art is defined by the artist, without heed for the viewer's role, the viewer has no authority over the piece or any real relevance to it.
In this belief system, the artist has the ultimate trump card: “if you can't see it, you don’t understand.” Conversation over, and viewer hushed, if not quite shamed, into silence. At this point, the idea of good or bad becomes irrelevant. If you don't understand something, you cannot evaluate it, even in a relative sense.
This belief is exactly why people are timid about expressing their opinions about art if they have a lick of sense, and why casual art consumers leave it to so-called and sometimes self-proclaimed experts to tell us what is Art. It is both risky to voice our perspectives if they run counter to popular wisdom or the artist, and it is nearly impossible to defend our evaluations on the basis of good or bad.
The below clip from Jimmy Kimmel's Lie Witness News is brilliant satire of this "anything goes" approach, although applied to fashion instead of art:
The argument that a viewer might not be entitled to evaluate a piece of art (the knee-jerk "it's called fashion, look it up" reaction is common in all creative fields) seems to me to be so limiting and so out of touch as to be ridiculous. Art and the act of creation is as human as talking. Some people enjoy creating or are more driven to create art than others, but it is an element of every single society.
The claim then, that someone might not be entitled to express an opinion or question the merit of a piece of work, strikes an off-chord with me. However, just as I am arguing that not all art is intrinsically good, I believe that not all opinions are intrinsically right. I believe that the viewer needs to leave room for the artist in the artwork, just as the artist needs to leave room for the viewer. It's a shared experience.
IV. ART AND SUBJECTIVITY
Subjectivity is the banner under which artist and the art illuminati defend this belief in the artist's ultimate authority over their work. Only the artist can understand the perspective from which they create, they say, and they are right.
But just because they are the only ones able to present their particular opinion does not, I believe, make them a better communicator of their unique perspective. It just makes them willing to communicate. That willingness is valuable, and just as valuable as any other willingness to share and explore. It does not make their communication just as good as any other communication. Some writers express themselves more clearly than others. So do some painters.
Additionally, the fact of subjectivity does not, in and of itself, raise the role of the artist any higher than any other creative and communicating entity. Life is by all methods of measurement a subjective experience, and yet, we still trust in the ability of people to percieve, evaluate and share their perceptions in journalism, in storytelling, in history, in law and in science. It is no different in art, except in these fields there is an attempt at objectivity.
It is the responsiblity of the artist, the scientist, the historian to perceive, evaluate, and convey those analyses. Art is admittedly different in that there is no play at objectivity, such as in journalism and science. (It's important to note that it is this emphasis on objectivity that simplifies relative evaluations of bits of law, reporting, etc.) But be not deceived, there is no such thing as total objectivity, and art might just arrive at more universal truths by discarding that idea entirely. Maybe not, but maybe.
V. ARGUING THAT SOME ART IS GOOD, WITH CAVEATS
This pseudo-utopian ideal that all art is good art is seductive, but ultimately limiting. It is limiting because if it is impossible to create good art, then any art is as good and as important and as enlightening as any other. And if it’s all the same, then as a creator and a consumer, why bother with effort? Post-modern and contemporary art are crafting their own answers to that question, but those answers are beginning to feel like dead ends to me.
I will be elaborating on these "dead ends" later, but I will say that the emphasis on process in contemporary art is a conceptually consistent though reductive eventuality of the idea of "anything as art". When anything is art, and art has no purpose and no message, we are forced to evaluate art on the basis of how it came to be instead of what it is.
Entrepreneur Paul Graham wrote an interesting article on his blog many moons ago about how art can be good, which I recommend. Though I don't agree with everything he writes, he raises some excellent points.
VI. EVALUATING ART EFFECTIVELY
I’m not arguing that there are absolute evaluations of good art. I am instead saying that I believe there are absolute qualities of good art.
Good art makes us aware of our humanity that by connecting people, by sharing vision, perspective, insight and experience. If a piece of art genuinely moves only one person, it is still good art. If it moves you only because you think that it ought to, then it is time to start thinking about why. This does involve a Pollyanna-ish expectation of self-awareness as well as belief in the ability to people to be self-confident in their own perspectives. At the very least, it requires that people be thoughtful and active critics.
Art should not be bewildering, or impenetrable - it is as universal as any individual human experience writ large. Art is a shared conversation, a conceptually public debate. People should feel empowered to evaluate art and call it like they see it, without their evaluation targeting them as unenlightened, as long as the evaluation is developed and defensible. “You don’t understand” isn’t a defense, for anyone. Instead, let's try "show me."
A major part of what I'm saying is this: everyone should feel comfortable evaluating art, but they must be willing to actually communicate about it. Once we can communicate and comprehend, then we can discuss relative values. And we may find that some art does not hold up through this grueling and demanding process of discussion. I often find that I appreciate a piece of art more after discussing it, not less. That is what I'm hoping for - that a more open conversation about artwork shows the strongest conceptual work, and raises the bar for artists and critics everywhere.
Another major part of what I'm saying is this: if you can’t see the emperor’s clothes, it is most definitely okay to say so.