Art, Subjectivity and What Makes Art “Good”?

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 an edited version was published over at PolicyMic. I’ve included it here in full, plus a couple of great links to other articles:

Sometimes when visiting galleries or museums, I find myself wondering why a piece was included. Whenever I’d sense I was looking at something not good, or poorly executed, or gratuitous, a nagging concern that I was not educated or qualified enough to evaluate the work would persuade me to accept it. This seemed reasonable at the time; after all, I am a Western millennial, raised to believe that art is essentially subjective and undefinable.

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. Though the Impressionists got the ball rolling, Duchamp became one of the most famous artists to proclaim that art is whatever the artist says it is. (You don’t have to know any art history to understand the point I’m making, but it is good context if you’re interested.) Jimmy Kimmel did a hilarious satire of this idea (though in a different, more commercial industry) with his Fashion Week Lie Witness News skit:

When it first came to popularity, this idea of anything as art 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.

The idea that the artist defines the artwork and creates art simply by declaring it as such diminished the viewer’s experience with the artwork, and eroded the authority of the viewers’ perspective. In this belief system, the artist has the ultimate trump card: “you don’t understand.” Conversation over, and viewer hushed, if not quite shamed into silence.

This eventuality is exactly why people are timid about expressing their opinions about art if they have a lick of sense (this from art school experience), and why casual art consumers leave it to so-called and sometimes self-proclaimed experts to tell us what is art.

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. Why should it be any different in art? It is the responsiblity of the artist, the scientist, the historian to perceive, evaluate, and convey those analyses.

What do you think of this? (Brancusi's "The Kiss")
What do you think of this? (Brancusi’s “The Kiss”)

We also gave up our ability to judge art when we accepted the idea that art could be whatever the artist said it was, because the idea of good or bad became completely irrelevant. If you “don’t understand” something, you cannot evaluate whether it’s good or bad, even in a relative sense.

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.

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”.

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 that by connecting people, by sharing vision and experience. If a piece of art genuinely moves only one person, it is still good art. If it moves many people, it might be great 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 and belief in the ability to people to be self-confident in their own perspectives. At the very least, it requires thoughtfulness.

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: if you can’t see the emperor’s clothes, it is most definitely okay to say so.


Laissez les bon temps rouler,



got something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s