Is there a difference between good and bad art?
Or is it all a matter of opinion?
By Daniel Lee-Jacobs
As the owner of an art business, I get asked this question quite a lot…
Hundreds of years ago, the answer to this question would have been a lot less subjective. Nowadays, it’s a much more open-ended question.
If we look back at the art produced across the 14th — 18th Century — from the Renaissance to the Romantics — art was highly representational. The aim was to create art that was highly realistic (even if the scenes were rather grand!) The quality of the artwork was highly correlated to the skill of the artist. We could say artwork was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dependent on whether the painting accurately represented the spray of the ocean, the reflection of the trees in water, the emotion of the figures and characters.
Diego Velazquez, An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) Oil on canvas —Scottish National Gallery. Wikipedia Creative Commons.
It wasn’t until the time of Claude Monet and the Impressionists that this notion began to change. They focused on light and movement — creating images which captured the transient feeling of the scenes in front of them. At the time they were mocked and scorned for their ‘impressions’ of the world, which to the people of the day appeared like ‘bad’ paintings. Of course, nowadays, this isn’t the case and people pay millions of pounds for Monet’s water lilies.
Today’s contemporary art often takes an even bigger leap away from reality. Abstract art can’t be judged on its relation to real life, whilst for conceptual art, the idea itself is the most important aspect.
In today’s world where there are so many forms of art, which aren’t just 2D, they’re 3D, audio, interactive or immersive, art cannot be judged based on just its visual qualities.
View of “Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979,” 2016. Front: Roelof Louw, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), 1967.
Even if critics do talk about colour or composition or tone, what makes ‘good’, and even great art stand out, is the clarity with which the artworks central idea or concept shines through and is embodied in the artwork. This is a function of the execution as well as the idea itself.
A beautiful photorealistic landscape can be brilliant because it can transport you to that place, so that you feel immersed in it, so you imagine the breeze on your face as if you were there. A sculptural installation might be brilliant because it so aptly and poignantly characterises a difficult or current topic — take Grayson Perry’s Brexit pot for example. Even Rothko’s monotone abstract paintings have a mesmerising and imposing power achieved through their sheer scale and depth of colour.
Image: Grayson Perry, Matching Pair, 2017 (detail). Glazed ceramic. Diptych. Each: 105 x 51 cm, 41 3/8 x 20 1/8 in © the artist, courtesy Victoria Miro
Whilst there is always a personal undertone of what you will like and dislike — I do believe there is a difference between good and bad art.
Just like with good and bad writing — good writing may be playful, it may be serious. It may be complex or concise. It may be factual or fictional, but it takes you on a journey. With bad writing and bad art, you’ll soon forget what the storyline is and never return to find out where you got lost…