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What is good art?

Successful art is a mix of technique and vision.
Artwork by Alexander Calder, With artwork added by David Dodde

Artwork by Alexander Calder, With artwork added by David Dodde /David Guthrie

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What is good art?

This can be hard to answer because of the slippery nature of the word “good.” Does good mean beautiful? Or does it mean realistic or intellectually challenging?

Instead of asking if the art is good, a better question might be “Is it successful?” Answering this question involves identifying something of what the artist set out to do and then deciding how well he or she achieved that goal. Imagine an artist painting a portrait. Say the particular goal of this artist is to create a likeness of the sitter and capture something of her personality. After the painting is complete, a viewer looks at the portrait and sees both a likeness and a sense of the person. By this measure the painting is successful.

Success is measured in different ways for different kinds of art. The goals for a portrait are different from the goals of a conceptual art installation. This requires knowledge of different genres and the unique ways works are created within each of the forms. This knowledge can be narrow (demands of a sonata) or broad (expectations of folk art).

After identifying (or more likely guessing) the goals of the artist and having some familiarity with the limits and possibilities of the chosen form, it is possible to make some judgments about whether the artist was successful in achieving those goals. An easy but limited first step is to look at technique and craftsmanship. Most, though not all, successful art requires a solid grounding in the chosen form, be it deft paint handling or accomplished musicianship. For some this is the sole criteria for art.

Art that does not look skillfully made will elicit comments like “My four-year-old could have done that.” The problem with this approach is that impeccable technique can also come off as empty and dull. Listening to a rote piano recital or a too-long guitar solo will attest to this. Skill and technique are an important component, but there is more to art.

In addition to technique and craftsmanship, successful art will be infused with the artist’s vision. Vision comes partly from the internal dialog the artist has with him or herself. The other side of this coin is the dialog the artist has or wants to have with his or her audience. Artists always have to strike some sort of balance between these two. Some artists create primarily from an internal dialog with little thought for an audience. Others think a lot about what they are communicating to the audience and how the audience will receive the work.

Another component of vision is how the artist engages the past and the present. A knowledge of past artworks provides not only inspiration but awareness of what ground had already been covered. A knowledge of the present allows the artist to speak to the current culture with relevance.

How these mix together will have implications for the artwork. Artwork that has too much of the artist’s inner dialog can be impenetrable. Work that is too concerned with audience reception can be contrived and soulless. If the artist is too focused on the past the work may be nostalgic and derivative. Too much focus on the present can result in trend following and unknowing repetition of the past.

Successful art shows the artist’s unique perception of the world. It will not give all the answers, leaving room for the viewer to engage. Hopefully, this “conversation” results in a new way of seeing for the viewer.

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