Tag Archives: aesthetics

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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Judging what is and is not art

Modern art, or more specifically, postmodern art characterized by abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Franz Kline, has been decried by art critics (of a less refined taste as we are commonly told by the self-proclaimed elite art critics) as being trash and not “true art”. However such a distinction begs the question, what is true art and how do we go about judge it in an objective fashion? The first question will determine the latter since, if we cannot find an objective definition on which to stand for what constitutes art, the second question regarding how we should go about judging it will only be an exercise in expressing our subjective opinions.

An objective definition of art
Wikipedia defines art this way:

Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect.

I would argue that art is creative communication. Art includes the items commonly accepted to be art, such as books, movies, paintings, buildings, photography, and music. The realm of art also includes items not yet included in the commonly accepted definition of art. Contrary to Roger Ebert, even videogames can be works of art. I would even go so far as to say that mechanical devices, mathematical formulas, programming structures, and heavy industrial machinery can all be works of art as well.

That is, they can be so long as fill two criteria.

  1. They have a definitive message to send
  2. That message is portrayed in such a way that is is possible to be understood by the recipient

Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the deconstruction of language, has had a profound impact on modern art. We can see the beginnings of this trend in Pablo Picasso’s work wherein common subjects were distorted so that the recipient had to work at discerning what the artist was attempting to convey. And we can see the culmination of this trend in Jackson Pollock’s work (among others) wherein the viewer is expected to bring their own subjective meaning to whatever work was being viewed.

This approach is wholly consistent with a postmodern framework. However since it lacks an intended message from the author to the audience, it cannot rightly be considered art. Even if the objective of the author is to combat the notion of objective truth itself, the lack of clarity in communicating that message to the audience prevents it from being considered art. In order to remain true to the tenants of postmodernism it would need to be open to being deconstructed itself and reconstructed in whatever the subject wished, destroying it’s ability to communicate anything at all.

So there is art that cannot rightly be categorized as art and it has nothing to do with our subjective feelings on the matter. We can honestly say that men like Pollock did not produce art by their new style of  “action paintings”. How could they? They admittedly had nothing they wished to communicate and thus the viewer is left with nothing to learn from their paintings. At best these postmodern pieces are like glorified Rorschach tests designed to act as a cognitive mirror for the viewer’s mind.

look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for –Jackson Pollock

Reynolds News had it right when they wrote that “this is not art–it’s a joke in bad taste”.

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