How can you tell if art is good or bad?

In my early twenties after I had moved back home from college, I asked my parents what they thought about a painting I was working on. I can’t tell you what piece it was, but I remember my frustration that they had no means of objectively looking at the art and giving it any sort of merit beyond the fact that their son did it. While I know that’s hard for a parent to do (I’m a dad of three now), there are plenty of objectives at stake when it comes to looking at art.

It’s easy to think (and even want) art to be some subjective thing that is good to one person and bad to another. (We also live in a society that wants to deny absolutes unless it is convenient. See how we give students trophies for half-attempted work?)

And I think a lot of people confuse taste or preference for merit or intrinsic goodness. They aren’t the same thing.

So what is good?

Without getting into a fundamental philosophical discussion, there are a lot of ways to approach this question.

1. Technical Skill

The first approach is perhaps the most common: how well-executed is the piece in terms of technique? How realistic is it? A lot of early or experimental works fall apart quickly because the technique is bad. Maybe the paint is not mixed right, so it falls off the canvas or the sculpture collapses because it isn’t well constructed.

This happened with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco in Milan. He used an experimental technique for mixing the pigment and plaster. It started decomposing almost immediately. But, even though it was already needing repair at the time of his death, it’s one of his masterpieces and an icon of the Italian Renaissance.

I’ve seen some of Salvador Dali’s early work and not been that impressed with how he applied the paint. It’s clumsy, and you can tell he really struggled with creating the refined, smooth, dreamlike images he is famous for. It took him decades for his skill to match his ambitions. After a lot of hard work and study, eventually he was able to create the sublime, giant “atomic” paintings of his later years.

2. Composition

Remember the elements and principles of design we talked about earlier? Line, shape, value, texture, color, and so forth. Another way to evaluate artwork is to look at how the formal elements interact with each other. Is the art clumsily composed? Do elements barely touch each other in weird tangents that make it awkward? Sometimes this is done on purpose, just like some songs intentionally have discord and jarring contrasts to create a mood or make a statement. Most people find a lot of beauty and pleasure in harmonious compositions, so in most people’s eyes that is artistic success.

3. Content

Of course, no discussion about artistic merit is complete without talking about content. What message do you think the artist is trying to send, and how well does that message get across? If the artist deplores the atrocities of war, is it likely to have soft, pastel colors?

Picasso’s “Guernica” is a reaction to war in his native Spain. It is over eleven feet tall, black-and-white, and filled with writhing, jagged figures: a mother clutching her dead child, a startled horse, a trampled soldier, a traumatized bull. News of the battle was plastered across Paris newspapers, where Picasso lived at the time.

It’s not a beautiful painting. It is a powerful painting that poetically talks about the horrors of war.

“I like it”

Now that you’ve been through this objective evaluation, you can form a personal opinion of the artwork in question. It’s at this point where you can safely say whether you like it or not, because you can back it up. You’ve done the work of actually looking critically at the art and deciding for yourself if it is successful.

This is why artists are often offended if you just say, “Oh, that’s pretty,” or “how nice.” Because it’s pretty easy to tell when someone hasn’t really paid attention.

The same goes for people who have a knee jerk reaction to whatever they don’t consider “art.”

Taking the time to objectively consider a piece of art goes a long way to create a richer and more rewarding experience.

My friend Matt says that “really studying art is the difference between glancing at the night sky, and actually getting a telescope and charting the stars.”

So, the next time you are at a museum, gallery, or an opening, pick two or three pieces and spend some time getting to know them. Figure out what makes them work and why. Then, form your own opinion about it beyond a mere like or dislike.

I promise it will make your time more memorable.

Photo Credit: wvs via Compfight cc