Judging good art from bad art

Previously I raised the question of whether we could judge whether something qualified as art or not. I explored the objective definition of art and how two criteria must be met before something can be considered art or not. Now I want to delve into the topic of whether we can measure good art from bad art and, if so, how we can go about determining the quality of art in an objective sense.

To recap, the criteria of art is that it must :

  1. Have a definitive message to send
  2. Portrayed this message in such a way that is is possible to be understood by the recipient

So it would follow that art can be measured on both it’s content, what it is attempting to convey, and then it’s style, how well it communicates that message.

Renaissance painters like Rembrandt often chose as the message they wished to communicate either a concept from Scripture or the beauty of nature. The former message is rather simple and easy to judge, the painting either succeeds or fails in it’s attempt to portray the Biblical concept. There is not much work for the viewer to do other than link the artwork with the foreknown content.

However judging whether art achieves it’s goal in communicating beauty is quite another matter entirely. In fact, an entire area of philosophy is dedicated to studying the nature of beauty. This area of philosophy is known as Aesthetics.

Since aesthetics is closely linked to other areas of philosophy like morality, it is easy for many people, especially those steeped in postmodern forms of thought, to dismiss the concept of beauty as if statements regarding beauty were subjective descriptions of personal preference rather than propositional statements regarding objective truth.

If we define beauty as a purely subjective notion, with no ideal to measure against, then our ability to discern good art from bad art is crippled at the outset.

If beauty has no ideal then there is no real difference between my 5 year old daughter’s artwork and Rembrandt’s artwork.

This lack of understanding beauty in any objective sense, I would contend, is the reason that trash is now considered art. Without a standard to measure by, emotional shock value, or the ability of a “piece”1 to illicit an emotional response from the viewer.

But the viewer does not confer anything to the piece. The viewer, at best, can only recognize the piece for what it is, or is not.

Good art, therefore, depends on it’s ability to communicate with the viewer. How well it does in communicating the message intended by the artist and how well it does so in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Bad art, consequently, is ugly. That is, it is not aesthetically pleasing. It does not convey beauty.

Now I realize that, at this point, many people will object on the grounds that the definition of beauty has not been settled. Fair enough. I won’t attempt here to delve into the philosophical discipline I mentioned above which deals with this issue in-depth.

What I will say, however, is that before we consider whether a piece is good or bad art, we need to first settle the question of whether it qualifies as art in the first place. After that question is answered, then we can discuss what the piece aims at communicating and whether it achieves those aims. And after all of that, we can discuss whether the subject of the piece is itself beautiful or not.

  1. I would readily agree these works are pieces alright, but we need to qualify that by answering the begged question “pieces of what?” []

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