“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let other people decide if its good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Andy Warhol
“…But is it Good?”
Some people might be upset by this essay, particularly those in the arts community. I have been a professional artist most of my life. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master’s Degree in Art Education. I’ve also been teaching art now for, hmm…a long time. Mostly I have focused on teaching artists how to be better painters, but here I’ll turn my attention to a question that I’m often asked by non-artists when they are confronted with the conundrum of ‘modern art’. The question: “But is it good?” This question often surfaces when ‘experts’ in the art community claim that a certain piece is somehow important, even though we may be confused or even repulsed by what we are seeing.
Without getting into a discussion about the definition of what can be called art, suffice to say that although art can certainly be fashionable or culturally relevant (which is of course subjective) it’s fashionableness or cultural relevance does not necessarily mean that it is good or bad. Here’s my thesis: Fashionable or popular, or even culturally significant, does not equal good. Good transcends space and time. J.S Bach was a brilliant composer, but at the end of his life his music was falling out of fashion as the popular taste was migrating to a new style of music we now call “Classical’ (Mozart). Bach’s work was revived some 200 years later however, and is still appreciated today. Why? Well, because it’s really good.
I have a theory we can test that supports my thesis, or perhaps more accurately, a formula for judging art that is as objective as anything I can imagine. It is a tentative, and certainly not an all encompassing approach to the subject. That said, I think it’s a helpful approach. You can let me know if you think it has value.
Art is indeed subjective, in that we can all decide for ourselves our preferences—what we like and don’t like; a subjective personal opinion so to speak. Saying something is good or bad however implies an objective proposition, a criticism, and for that we should have objective criteria that does not rely on opinion. So, without having to become an expert on art I designed this little test to at least give people a reasonably objective tool to tackle the question of what is good in art. This test would apply equally to music. What I’m trying to draw out here is the tension between subjective and objective evaluations. My point is this: you can dislike something even though it’s very good. A lot of people don’t like Bach’s music. That’s fine. However, that person’s subjective taste in no way diminishes the objective value of Bach’s music—it remains good. Of course, the converse of this agreement can be true as well. You can like something even though it isn’t really good. The formula I propose is simply a tool to help you in determining the quality and relevance of an artistic expression.
Before we test this idea it is important to note that much of what we call contemporary art is conceptual in nature, that is, it is based primarily on an idea or a concept, which takes precedence over the aesthetic side. It is often this kind of art that inspires the average viewer to declare: “That is not even art!”
Things like this:
Or someone’s bed on display in a gallery:
Or this artist who won one of the most prestigious international art awards for dismantling a shed and reconstructing it in the gallery:
People often declare about much of what is categorized as conceptual art, “I could do that myself, and I’m not an artist”. I think this is a fair thing to say. A clever or compelling idea, or concept, is not enough to make it good; which brings me to my formula:
Take an artist and or his/her art, and move them thru space (geographically) and/or time, and see if they are still ‘good’.
Let’s take a couple of very different artists and plug them into the equation to see how it works: Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was a renowned American Abstract Expressionist, or ‘Color Field’ artist; Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520), was a famous painter, and architect, from the Italian Renaissance period.
Newman’s “Voice of Fire” painting was purchased by the National Gallery in Ottawa a few years ago and created quite a stir, and not a small number of people asked the question which is the title of this article.
The write up by the National Gallery describing the painting includes phrases like this:
“…Limiting his colours to red and blue, he created this powerful vertical canvas to be suspended from the dome’s ceiling. While it appears simple in form, Voice of Fire conveys a range of meanings. Newman intended the work to be studied from a short distance; its enormous scale transforms the space and tests our sensory experience….”
That kind of prose certainly makes the painting sound, well, at least interesting.
The painting has significant cultural relevance in relation to the time and place it was created: America at the height of the Cold War. You can study up on what art historians have to say about that time period, but let’s just take the painting and move it in space over to Paris, or Tokyo in the 1960’s, to see if it is still an ‘important’ artistic expression. Nope, those cultures are into their own thing, and are not in the same position as the USA as it tries to distinguish itself with its own cultural identity. Now, let’s move it in time back to the Renaissance. No again. Barnett would be thrown out of the studio for using that much paint to make stripes. What if you were to paint something like that today? Would it still be worthy of all the attention, and money spent on it? Nope, it has already been done, so is no longer culturally relevant. Besides, your dad would get mad at you for using that much paint just to make stripes.
Now let’s take Mr. Newman and send him back in time to see if he has the skill set necessary to sell any paintings in Italy in the early 1500’s. Hmmm…tough one. Do you think you could paint something like this Mr. Newman?
Now, let’s put Raphael in the time machine to see how that works out. With his exceptional skills and ingenuity I think it would be a good bet that if he were dropped into today’s world he would be a renowned artist of some sort making very good art. He would more than likely be a very successful one as well: Raphael was a good businessman. Move him from Italy to France during his own time period, no problem.
If you were to make a convincing copy of Raphael’s painting, it would certainly still be a good painting (objective), but perhaps not culturally relevant or fashionable (subjective) in our day. Whether a work of art is good or not, or what you think of it, often has little bearing on how much praise it may receive, or how much it will sell for in the market – that has more to do with what is fashionable or popular. You can also rephrase the question this way: “Is it good, or is it simply fashionable or popular.” Times change, people’s taste change, and those who have influence in these matters understand that many people are easily swayed and can be told, and sold, on what they should like, buy, and support.
I had a mind to run some iconic Canadian artists thru the test, but I don’t want to come off as being too blasphemous so I will leave it to you to apply the test to whomever you like. Just remember, fashionable or popular, or even culturally significant, does not equal good. Good transcends space and time.