This is such a loaded question. What is art? What is good?
Of course art can take many forms — a painting, a musical score, a culinary creation. It’s also subjective: everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But for the sake of this article I mean visual art. And by good I mean high quality and lasting — the kind you might find in a museum or a book about art history.
Lots of artists create beautiful art. They paint pictures with photo realism and use colors in a wonderfully appealing way. Their work is aesthetically good, no doubt, but that isn’t the kind of “good” I am talking about because it isn’t particularly unique or lasting. Aesthics and preferences aside, what makes objectively “good” art?
Based on what I know, I have come up with four characteristics. Of all the art I have read about, every piece boasts at least one of these:
1. Good art tells a compelling story. For example, Gian Lorezno Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne tells Ovid’s story of the Greek god Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph, Daphne. Just as he is about to catch her, Daphne cries to her father, asking him to “change and destroy this beauty by which I pleased too well.”1 Bernini captures this moment: when Apollo touches Daphne, and she begins her transformation.
Bark and leaves twist up Daphne’s figure — roots anchor her feet to the ground and her fingers become branches reaching up. She is becoming a laurel tree. Both characters’ facial expressions reveal their thoughts: Apollo’s confusion at feeling rough bark under his finger tips instead of soft flesh, and Daphne’s terror at being caught and freed from her human form.
Yep, Bernini tells the classic mythological story in a compelling way. Gah.
2. Good art conveys an important idea. If you pay any attention to the contemporary art world, you’ve heard of Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and political activist. The main goal in all of his art is to speak out against the oppressive Chinese government.
His most famous piece, however, is Sunflower Seeds. He filled a room with 100,000,000 porcelain, hand crafted sunflower seeds. Visitors to the exhibition could walk around the room, wading ankle deep in seeds. The installation “alludes to the globalization and mass production in China that caters to western consumerism, and to the deemed insignificant element at the bottom of the production chain – thousands of cheap labors, assembly lines in gigantic factories, and tedious procedures.” A loaded piece that conveys important ideas.
Much of the art of the Renaissance and Reformation period is similar. Church and political leaders commissioned artists to create work that would teach religious lessons and highlight political power: ideas important to the patrons at the time and important to us as we study history now.
3. Good art utilizes a medium in a new way. Monet used his paint to depict light instead of solid forms. Kandinsky painted to evoke emotions — similar to a musical piece in its complete abstraction — instead of representing reality as his predecessors had done.
Bernini did this as well with his sculpture. He was the groundbreaking artist who ushered in the Baroque era by moving away from the static forms of the Renaissance. He shot some life into his stone. All of his sculptures, while marble and stationary, are full of energy and movement — a new use for the marble medium.
Or good art creates a completely new medium. Marcel Duchamp called his ready-made sculptures, like a urinal, art. And yes, they are art.
4. Good art makes you think and feel. When you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, you can’t help but wonder what she is thinking. You ponder. Who is she? What is that smile about? Why is the landscape behind her uneven? What made him create this new kind of portrait?
Even if you never come up with answers to these questions, you’ll have interacted with the piece. It’s “an enigmatic portrait that has intrigued viewers for centuries.”2 A lasting piece because it makes you think.
I recently went to the LA County Museum of Art and saw James Turrell: A Restrospective. His light installations explore “sensory deprivation and seemingly unmodulated fields of colored light.” I’m not sure what his intent was, but wow.
I thought about the way my eyes perceive light and color and I felt. I felt anxiety, fear, peace and joy as the colors changed in the installation. It was an emotional experience. It was art.
My knowledge of art starts in the Renaissance and moves forward. I would love to hear examples and characteristics from ancient and medieval art — What characteristics have you found in common with “good” art? Are there different characteristics for other forms of art besides visual?
1 Ovid, Metamorphisis, (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005), p. 16.
2 Laurie Schnieder Adams, Exploring the Humanities, p. 372.