Ever since the concept of art as we know it was developed in the 18th century – when art forms such as music, painting and sculpting were collected under the title art – the classification of any particular work of art as good or bad has been heavily discussed along with the question of who has the power to make the determination. In his theory on art sociology, Pierre Bourdieu came up with the idea of the gatekeepers, those who decide who is allowed to enter a certain field. The theory is still applicable fairly well today, but when it comes to theories on good and bad art, there are as many as there are art theorists.
Many people in the art field today have the role of gatekeeper: art critics, curators, gallerists, collectors, artists themselves and board members, to name a few. These gatekeepers are not necessarily trained in the field of art. There are many examples of people without art related education, or people from other fields entirely, that have shown an extraordinary talent for finding good and interesting art and artists.
For example, the economist and art collector Simo Kuntsi had a strong interest in art, and he bought art from many soon-to-be-successful artists, thus showing an eye and mind for good art without any education in the field. Another example is Harald Szeemann, one of the first to be called a curator as we use the title today. Though he did study art history, he never graduated from a university but still became the director of Bern Kunsthalle when he was only 28 years old. Even so, most of the gatekeepers do have some art related education, and it appears to be increasingly important to have this in order to be accepted into the art field.
So how do the so-called gatekeepers distinguish good art from bad? A hunch? A gut feeling? Maybe, but not on that alone. Recognising good art is not only about education or knowledge about art. It is also about realising what is going on in the world at this very moment. Intuition or taste may play its part, but one still has to be able to see art in the big picture, from a broad perspective. Further, one also has to be able to recognise a well-made work of art.
As a curator I am one of those who supposedly has the power to decide what art is good and what is bad. So what then defines good art? What are the elements good art is made out of? Historically, the value of art and defining whether it is good or bad, has widely relied on the technical skills of the artist and the value of the material used in it. Contemporary art seems to be more and more about the idea behind the artwork, the concept, rather than the actual artwork as a material object.
Art is indeed multi-layered. Therefore, recognising and defining a good work of art is not simple in any way. There are many aspects to consider: the idea behind it and how is it realised; is it immaterial or object based? How does it relate to the context it is placed in? Does it address any issues? Does it represent any ideologies? Does it concern anything specific at all? What are its historical references? The questions to answer seem endless. A good work of art can somehow mediate and raise all these questions, sometimes even provide an answer to them.
Thinking about visual arts, it is very important to me that the art be strongly connected to the society it was born in. I do not see the reason to create art that does not derive from the artists own experiences of, and opinions about, his or her surroundings. Sometimes I wonder if that is even possible. This is also one of the reasons why the idea or concept behind an artwork is so important.
Art has played a big role in societal changes throughout history. In times of turmoil, such as we are experiencing now, it is no different; on the contrary, art is at the moment an important tool for raising political and social issues. This does not mean that all art needs to be conceptual. An artist’s intention or idea does not need a concept, in the sense of conceptual art, to be present in the artwork. The main thing is that the idea is there, and to me it is the first thing I am interested in when evaluating an artwork. The old device, “art for art’s sake,” does not work for me. If it did, the discussion in this article would be pointless.
We could state that “This is beautiful art, therefore it is good”, which is something that Plato could have stated, but to him good meant something else than the good that I am trying to define in art. Ancient Greeks did not distinguish the notions of beauty, truth and goodness from each other; they were all the same thing. Therefore, what was beautiful was also good and true, and vice versa. The goodness they meant was a moral or divine goodness, instead of the evaluation of art I am searching for.
Some want to define good art based on purely aesthetic reasons, such as the example above. The fact that some, or many, people can agree on an artwork being beautiful does not make it good. Mere beautiful works of art tend to be superficial. If it is both beautiful and has a deeper meaning than what the viewer sees at first sight, then it has the potential to be really good. Works of art that would not be perceived as beautiful have the potential to be good as well, as long as they can be defined as art. Ergo, the beauty of art is not the most important value to me when I define good works of art.
Further, the realisation of an artwork is important. Often there are works raising important issues, with great potential, that still fall flat because of how they are realised. This can be solely because the artist has chosen poor materials, but it can also happen if he or she is not skilled enough in using the medium of choice. Some works of art get ruined by getting over-explained in texts or signs, while others fail to mediate the idea intended by the artist.
Immaterial art is a whole different chapter. I have found that instructional works of art usually work well, as they hands-on activate the audience through the instructions given. The participation itself creates a stronger experience, and a line of thought that probably touches the ideas intended by the artist. Performances, however, are harder to mediate, and the audience is more likely to feel alienated. A skilled performance artist, or conceptual artist, does succeed in creating interesting performances that mediate the idea behind them, where a bad or untrained one does not.
Of course all of this is highly subjective – the way each of us experience art. We get different associations depending on our cultural inheritance, our education, and our social background. Some art is harder to approach for common people, while more easily approachable art might be considered commercial or lightweight by art professionals (implying that it is bad, and if it is not bad, it is not particularly good either).
This again means that an artist can be successful, and considered to make good art, though the so-called gatekeepers do not agree. Here again, we have to define what “being successful” means, but it is not a question I am going to develop further in this article.
Based on the discussion above, I would make the conclusion that good art is art that evokes some kind of response or reaction in the viewer. It does not have to be strong or violent in any way, and it does not have to be the reaction the artist intended, as long as something happens in the encounter between artwork and viewer. This something can be very subtle, or it can be life-changing.
In the encounter with an artwork there is the potentiality for a seed to take root. An artwork can evoke thoughts like nothing else. It does not matter if it is visual, sound, or if it stimulates any other sense – some react stronger to sound and some to images. Good art has the ability to provoke our imagination and make us associate, connect things, and see patterns we might not see otherwise. Artworks that affect the individual also have the potential to affect society on a larger scale, and that is, in some extent, what I, as a curator, think art is for.
Julia Nyman is a student at the CuMMA program at Aalto University. She is an exhibition maker, coordinator and art philosopher, among other things. She perceives art as a method for destructurising society, and messing around with people’s minds.