Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Holy Equation

Two Questions
There are, in my opinion, only two valid questions regarding art: 1) what is good art? and 2) who gets to decide? The questions seem simple, but the answers are rife with gray area and controversy. Volumes have been written. Experts have weighed in. And yet no definitive equation exists that allows a purchaser of art to plug in components Y and Z to produce an X that equals good art.

Defining “art” is fairly easy: Just about any one-of-a-kind thing that is the product of creativity is art. Some textbooks further qualify it as human creativity and require that it evoke an emotional or sensory response. Without getting bogged down in the details, if you can display it or perform it, it’s probably art.

Number 8, Jackson Pollock
Mona Lisa, Leonard da Vinci
But just because the definition of art is rather encompassing doesn’t mean that all art is good art. We know that technical skills factor into the equation and certainly the use of good design principles. What about content? Or difficulty of execution? It seems like the Mona Lisa was more difficult to create than one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, but is that true and does it matter? Does context count? I would think so. Art is very often a manifestation of its time—not good or bad, simply the perfect visual expression of a culture or movement. Think 16th century church-sponsored paintings or Mark Rothko’s fields of color.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko
How do we know that good art exists? The critics tell us! Actually, who gets to decide whether art is good depends on the situation. Anyone can decide whether art is good enough to hang in his or her living room. Purchasing art for your home is a very personal decision. If a painting speaks to you and engages you, by all means, take it home—you don’t need a professional art critic to tell you it’s good.

If, however, the end goal is to collect art for its asset value or to display art in a public forum, some expertise is required. An art critic is like an investment advisor and must be able to evaluate a painting or sculpture’s contemporary significance and to understand how markets price art. We (lovers of art) and posterity may not always agree with critics because they often function in a particular time only. (If you want to see an inside view of this phenomenon, rent Who Gets to Call It Art? from Netflix. If you’re not using Netflix, you should—it’s a great deal!)

For example, in the fall of 1636, a savvy investment advisor would have told you to buy tulips because in six months one bulb would be worth ten times your annual salary. You would have thought he was crazy, but when you sold your bulb at the top of the market in February 1637, you would have been very wealthy. Looking back, though, posterity views tulip-mania as nothing more than a large economic bubble. In this regard, future generations may decide that what is good art today really isn’t when viewed against the background of all the other art that has come before and after it. Somehow, it all seems to shake out in the end.

“Nice” Is a Four-Letter Word
From the beginning, my art instructors (mostly Peet and Marian G.) have consistently criticized my art as being “too nice.” It’s never been about my technical skills or execution; it’s always about the content. I’m not painting (or drawing, photographing, or digitally creating) rainbows and unicorns, but the end pieces seem (at least to P and M) to come from Pleasantville. Even though Javier (the tree frog) is a giant, slimy amphibian, he looks like he’s smiling. My Cat in Winter, which I used on last year’s Christmas cards, is a rusty old cat in a snow storm with nice colors.

When we critique our art in class, the pieces that get the most positive feedback are the ones I would describe as dark and edgy. The content often comes from secret, painful places. My fellow students are expressing loneliness, self-doubt, rage, and fear. In my digital photography class, one student produced a compelling portfolio of black and white images that showed her struggle with being a victim in her own life. Another student, and very talented photographer, produced a study of dead birds. For those of you who didn’t make my tour of the student art show, many of the pieces had dark and edgy components. We all commented that a successful piece seemed to include one or more of the following: shattered glass, amputated body parts, snakes, skulls, raw meat, gratuitous nudity, or blood.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Damien Hirst
I recently read that David and Victoria Beckham “turned their lovey-dovey feelings for one another into a fortune in modern art.” The couple owns works by the likes of Sam Taylor-Wood and Banksy and are said to include in their collection Hirst’s Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a silver bull’s heart pierced with scalpels and other pointy objects. I think animal organs say, “I love you,” don’t you?

I’ve tried to explain that dark and edgy is difficult for me because I was potty trained at the appropriate time, I want my life to feel like a Saturday afternoon, and I worked out most of my emotional baggage in the late ‘80s. Seriously, I’m not a Pollyanna. I do have dark places…I just don’t spend much time in them.

I appreciate what Peet and Marian are saying. Good art engages; it makes you respond. Right now, my art looks lovely over the fireplace. I appreciate very much that they think I can be a better artist, that I have something important to say. The best piece of advice I’ve gotten for finding my voice and my version of dark and edgy came from Doug. He told me to quit searching for the equation. Just paint. A lot.


  1. For me the questions are what's my motivation and who is my audience. I do agree that it will "shake out" in the end. Paint a portrait and get raves for the technical and kudos for accuracy and criticism from the person that the portrait reflects. But, then it all depends who's painting. I have some portaits that my grandchildren have drawn that are my most prized and valuable possessions!

    I agree......just paint a lot, Leslie.........

  2. Well, given I just asked my grandson for one of his art projects for this past year (he's 13) - KNOW that what we like is amazingly personal. That said, I must admit that I do think that art "as a form" can be a positive force if it's not all strum and strang - and while I KNOW that has a place in the world...I prefer MY art and perhaps even the "stuff" that is considered as "real" art be not all "gloom and doom".

  3. I have thought those thoughts about "good" and "bad" art many times. I have also noticed that the "dark" art speaks to me more than the "light" art. "Maybe I'm just a magician at heart," I tell myself. haha. No I know the truth. I have had a lot of anger in the past at the mistreatment of women and I KNOW that my writing was better when I was totally pissed about something. I DO know that the writing was what exorcised the anger though.

    I've decided that "good" art is something that evokes an emotional response in myself. If I feel something pulling at me I know it is good. I couldn't care less what someone else thinks of it.

  4. I agree, good art should elicit an emotional response. The question is, are all emotions valid? Why do revulsion and shock seem to outweigh happiness? Why can't a painting make us feel complete and utter peace? Maybe--not to get too philosophical here--we, as a society, have not experienced euphoria to the same depths as anger, fear, and pain. We just don't know how to relate...

  5. I've wondered the same thing (why the "dark" art gives me more fulfillment.) I think maybe it is because we are programmed (to a certain extent) to exhibit only the positive emotions and hide the negative.

    This art gives us permission to feel what we feel, regardless of social acceptance.

    I have not considered the "euphoria" theory. I'll have to ponder that one.

  6. Think about literature and what wins Pullitzers or Nobels or even what is considered classic--if it doesn't have incest or suicide or eternal despair, it doesn't have "substance." I remember one summer setting on the task of reading some classic literature I had never read. I started with Mill on the Floss. Talk about dreary. The brother and sister are separated in childhood, finally find each other after many years of searching, and then they drown together in the mill where they were born...

  7. OMG and don't get me started on Faulkner. I still have the "The Sound and the Fury" on my reading list to re-read. The first time around it was all I could do to keep from slamming it against a wall. I want to know if the material is more accessible to a more mature spirit. (I think my spirit is more mature.)

    I find that, as much as I love the dense, "good" literature, I still love the good "beach book" almost as much. They satisfy different needs. I don't know if that's true with the visual arts, however. I do like the new graphic novel format that many of our kids are reading. It is criticized for being too "facile" and dumbing down reading for our kids. I think it's a story and art put together for a long time. Like a comic book, only more story.