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What ‘Good’ Art is…

…is often subjective. Experience with a specific medium and type of art, as well as a knowledge of the artist's work and history, are important in determining what is 'good' art. How 'good' may be defined, ultimately, may depend on the subjective, but educated 'eye' of the collector or connoisseur.

The presentation of artwork in a museum exhibition or gallery environment, also has repercussions for the way artworks are interpreted. Columbia University art professor Susan Vogel commented “Museums provide an experience of most of the world’s art and artifacts that does not bear even the remotest resemblance to what their makers intended.”1 Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt observed that objects presented in museums are seen as “social objects” that can’t be separated from their society or history.2

An interesting test of subjectivity, opinions, and environment concerning Inuit art was conducted by Nelson Graburn and reported in Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ) in 2001. He found that agreement is not always possible among whites (qallunaat), or between white experts and Inuit artists about what is ‘good’ Inuit art.3

Graburn, on several occasions, compared the reactions of Inuit carvers and non-carvers, and white Inuit art experts to specially chosen sculptures that were mostly Inuit made. He concluded that “white evaluations of Inuit artistic talent show a remarkable lack of agreement” whereas Inuit opinion showed more consistency.4 Although some pieces were somewhat similar in ranking.

Graburn found no agreement among the white group as a whole (novices or experts) or among the experts themselves as to what was ‘good’ Inuit art in the sample provided.5

The question of what Inuit artists and white experts ‘see’ and how they evaluate art Inuit art is an issue in Graburn’s test(s). It has been noted that for the Inuit “art making has functioned as a vital means of cultural affirmation” to reaffirm the past and to comment on the present.6 Culturally what is valued affects the characterization of ‘good’ art for the southern art market for Inuit art.

For Inuit art experts there is an “extraordinary scope and diversity of contemporary Inuit art,”7 based on the styles of the individual artist, the community of origin, the materials and characteristics, and the generation of the artist.8

Peter Millard, in a 1992 IAQ article, posed the question what is meant by the ‘good’ in good art? He notes that there is “no objective test for determining quality in art.”9 The author observes, as well, that “connoisseurs” “have gone through stages in their development of taste to a point of mature discrimination” based on study, constant exposure to art, and “generally liv[ing] alertly.”10

It can be said, then, that an expert, or connoisseur, has an ability to observe “mastery” of a medium, to detect the “illumination” of an experience as depicted in the art, and in the piece’s ability to elicit a stronger emotion as compared to others.11 All of these elements combine to justify an assessment, by a connoisseur, that a work is ‘good.’ Yet none of these qualities in an expert will produce consistent judgements about what is good art.

Examining the evaluation of artworks over time Millard argues that generally the majority of agreed upon masterworks have stayed consistent and thus the ‘eye’ of the connoisseur performs a valid function.12 He believes, that in regard to Inuit art, while “subjective” choice is important …the trained eye is needed to establish the attributes of “excellence.”13 Millard remarked: “One of the signs of quality in a work of art is that it prompts intelligent analysis and can sustain it.”14 The author notes, as well, that the more academic or theory-oriented methods of explaining ‘good’ Inuit art are still evolving.15

In a 1992 Inuit Annual Quarterly article George Swinton observes that it took time for individual styles and regional characteristics of Inuit artists to emerge. Inuit art, he writes, has matured to the point where Inuit artists, he feels, can be seen as individuals, and, like any artist, can be evaluated accordingly.16

It has been argued that art is inseparable from culture and that there are various approaches to interpreting art that affect how art is interpreted and, ultimately, estimated to be ‘good’ or not. Approaches to interpreting art include17: Art Historical (a traditional way of looking at aesthetics); Symbolic (the role of an art piece in society); Cultural (does the piece reflect the characteristics of a particular group); Functional (what was the intended use of an object); Structuralist (the methods and materials involved in creating the object); Environmental (does the material the object is made of reflect environment it came from): Behaviourist (is the intent of the work to alter people’s behaviour); Community (does the object reflect the values of the community it came from), and Social History (the provenance of the creator and of the owners of the object).

The art critic writes about what is ‘good’ in art in public forums such as professional or academic journals. The connoisseur, who may or may not make his or her opinions public, spends a lifetime educating his or her ‘eye.’

The types of questions asked by art critics include18,19: what senses are engaged by the work, what is the medium, what are the processes used, and what is the artwork’s form and how it is organized. The critic will also ask her- or himself what the work is about and what evidence, internal or external to the artwork, reinforces her or his interpretation. Based on this evidence, and the criteria the critic feels is appropriate to the artwork, a judgement will be made.

Art criticism has a long tradition in art history. It is one method through which ‘good’ art is determined. There are various approaches to art criticism,20 of which interpretation is an important characteristic.

Criticism can be seen as a means of “responding to, interpreting meaning, and making critical judgments about specific works of art.”21 Correspondingly, Edmund Feldman (author of Practical Art Criticism), believes that the “‘central task of criticism’ is interpretation.”22 Terry Barrett (author of Criticizing Art) recognizes that “Interpretation is the most important activity of criticism, and probably the most complex.”23 Interpretations, he notes, are “not so much absolutely right, but more or less reasonable, convincing, enlightening, and informative.”24 Connoisseurship, as argued by Elliot W. Eisner (author of The Enlightened Eye), “is the art of appreciation.”25 It “involves the ability to see, not merely to look” while bringing together “different dimensions,” “values,” “experiences.”26 Connoisseurship, therefore, is knowledge drawn from a variety of sources and senses.27

Expertise in art is not just for the critic and the connoisseur. Christie’s Guide to Collecting points out that a “good eye is one that is backed up by knowledge, supported by a good visual memory, and independent enough to make individual judgements and fresh observations.”28

Expertise, then, for an art critic, connoisseur or collector, includes: a “thorough understanding of techniques of production,” the materials and a “realization of the difficulties” associated with them, and an ability to analyse the “idea or meaning in a work.”29 While not defining what ‘good’ art is, the Art Dealers of America Association (ADAA) has characteristics to use to assess if an artwork is worth considering. A buyer should look for: “authenticity, quality, rarity, condition, provenance and value.”30

Ultimately the art critic and the connoisseur may guide opinion, publicly or privately, as to what is ‘good’ art. The buyer, however, will, in the end, should make their own choice, while satisfying her or his own intellectual and emotional needs, what is ‘good’ art.

As many Inuit art gallery owners describe Inuit art collectors as “diverse”31 in their backgrounds, and as Graburn’s tests indicate, Inuit artists and white Inuit art experts do not agree on what is ‘good’ Inuit art. It could be argued that what is ‘good’ Inuit art is, as yet, still subjective.

“Every collector’s story is unique” and the choice of an artwork is the “pure reflection of an individual collector” that in the end “the joy is in the searching, the finding and the sheltering of special objects.”32

Sources
1 Denis Dutton, "The Decontextualized Crab," originally published in Philosophy and Literature, 16 (1992): 239-44. denisdutton.com
2 Denis Dutton, 1992
3 Nelson H.H. Graburn, "White Evaluation Inuit of the Quality of Inuit Sculpture," Inuit Art Quarterly, V.16, No.3, Fall 2001, 30-39
4 Nelson H. H. Graburn, 2001
5 Nelson H. H. Graburn, 2001
6 marionscottgallery.com
7 marionscottgallery.com
8 feheleyfinearts.com
9 Peter Millard, "On Quality in Art: Who Decides," IAQ, Summer/Fall, 1992, 4-14
10 Peter Millard, 1992
11 Peter Millard, 1992
12 Peter Millard, 1992
13 Peter Millard, 1992
14 Peter Millard, 1992
15 Peter Millard, 1992
16 George Swinton, "Inuit Art Exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery," IAQ, 1992, Vol.7, No.4, pp.25-30
17 "Using Material Culture Methods to Interpret Art Objects," art.unt.edu, based on Thomas J. Schlereth’s, 1980, Artifacts and the American Past, p.3
18 Anon, "Questions In Art Criticism," mati.eas.asu.edu, based on Terry Barrett, 1994, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary
19 Ronald H. Silverman, "Art Criticism: the Skills of Art Criticism," instructional1.calstatela.edu
20 The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, see curriculum resources links, art.unt.edu, based on Terry Barrett, 1994, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary
21 The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, see curriculum resources links, art.unt.edu
22 The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, see curriculum resources links, art.unt.edu
23 The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, see curriculum resources links, art.unt.edu
24 The North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, see curriculum resources links, art.unt.edu
25 Mark Smith, 2005, "Elliot W. Eisner, Connoisseurship, Criticism and the Art of Education," infed.org
26 Mark Smith, 2005
27 Mark Smith, 2005
28 Robert Cumming, 1984, Ed., Christie’s Guide to Collecting, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
29 Robert Cumming, 1984
30 Art Dealers of America Association, artdealers.org
31 Lisa Crawford Watson, Dec. 2001, "The sustaining power of Inuit art: Inuit art has evolved from humble beginnings in Canada to become a highly collectible art form worldwide" findarticles.com
32 feheleyfinearts.com