Is there good art and bad art?

Is there good art and bad art?

There is no getting away from the fact that the arts is a subjective area of knowledge. This means that views on what is good art and bad art vary from individual to individual. Societies, too, have differing traditions of art, meaning that music, literature, and fine art can have a radically different form depending on which country you are in. And our tastes also change according to which historical era we are looking at. It took a long time in England, for example, to recognize Shakespeare, as a great writer, with critics ranking other playwrights and poets – for example John Fletcher and Ben Jonson – far above him in talent. Now he is almost universally regarded as the greatest writer who has ever lived, not just in England, but throughout the world.
This is very unlike the more objective areas of knowledge, such as mathematics and natural sciences, where is much easier to access the truth, or at least get close to it. It is also difficult to frame in just one question, so we’ll try to do it in two. These will look at the extent to which our idea of beauty is universal (ie, across cultures and time), and whether or not we can say that artistic conception and technique can be quantitatively assessed.

Is our idea of beauty universal?


The idolisation of beauty is not a modern phenomenon. Beautiful people have always been seen as desirable, and lauded by society. The most famous early example of a beautiful woman, and still the name that is used proverbial to express someone beautiful, is Helen, whose abduction by Paris led to the decade-long war between Troy and Greece. The story of the Trojan wars is more than 2500 years old. Since then, a continuous theme in art has been that of beauty, and you don’t need to look far to see its depiction in modern society.
Titian's Venus and Cupid

Beautiful people – and beautiful things – are everywhere, on billboard poster, magazines, fashion shows, films, photographs, and the internet. But to what extent do we all see beauty in the same way, and what might affect the way we view it differently? There are two schools of thought: those who say that our aesthetic appreciation depends on our cultural conditioning, and those who believe that judgements on this issue are more instinctive, based on genetic programming. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence for both, so it’s hard to arrive at a certain position.
If we look throughout history, and across different cultures, it seems that ideas of beauty vary so much that they do depend on the culture in which we are brought up. The example of Shakespeare is given above, but there are plenty of others. The representation of women in art has changed radically, and has gone from being voluptuous (we might even say, fat) during the era of artists like Titian (c. 1488 – 1576) to being stick like during this century, as seen in some of the twentieth century’s most famous faces, like the British model Twiggy, pictured here in the 1960s.
Changing tastes over time also indicate that beauty isn’t universal, and here the evidence is also in abundance. Fashion is built on the fact that the clothes we choose to wear are constantly subject to development, and the music industry is predicated on new sounds, which are promptly discarded when the new big thing comes along. The Impressionists were an artistic movement that were initially reviled when they first appeared (the name itself was given to them as an insult), but we now view the work of Monet and co. to be masterpieces. The Victorians considered African art ugly when the European colonization of that continent was in full swing; a few decades later, the Edwardians viewed the same pieces with admiration and respect.

In terms of cultural comparisons, those radically different traditions mentioned above also seem to provide us with evidence that beauty is a subjective concept. The structure and melodies of Japanese and Chinese music are virtually impossible for a Western ear to discern. Traditional styles of dress vary massively from one country to another. Architecture in one part of the world is very distinct from that in another.
But there are challenges to this assumption that beauty is universal. First of all, globalization seems to be blending ideas of what is beautiful, leading to more consensus than ever about beauty. Architectural and artistic movements now draw on many different influences, and the faces of models are becoming more culturally diverse, as we become more attracted to all races – not just our own. There are few places in the world where the music of bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and U2 have not enjoyed massive popular and critical success.
Studies also support the idea of universal ideas of beauty. The 1993 study carried out by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, two Russian artists based in New York, revealed some very interesting results about cross-cultural ideas of beauty. They investigated the artistic preferences of people from ten different countries, and discovered some fascinating shared tastes. People liked realistic paintings. They liked landscapes. And – here it got interesting – they also liked the colour blue to figure prominently.
An ideal landscape?

They also liked wide open areas, water scenes, and human figures and animals to be present. It didn’t matter whether they lived in urban or rural areas, that was the overwhelming preference for the ideal image. Melamid himself offered this explanation:

Maybe the blue landscape is genetically imprinted in us, that it’s the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it . . . We now completed polls in many countries – China, Kenya, Iceland, and so on – and the results are strikingly similar. Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland – what can be more different in the whole fucking world – and both want blue landscapes . . . The blue landscape is what is really universal, maybe to all mankind.

golden ratio rectangle
There are also rules for aesthetic beauty like the Golden Ratio. This is a mathematical formula applying to two quantities (the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one) which can be turned into a rectangular representation looking like this:
This rule can then be applied to art and architecture, examples of which appear in the works of many artists and architects, notably Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dali, and Le Corbusier.

Objectivism and subjectivism

Objectivism is the idea that value judgements can be applied to art, in other words, some art is ‘good’ and some art is ‘bad’. Objectivists have a fairly strict definition of what constitutes art, Regarding it as something that has been produced after a demanding process. First, art is generally the preserve of an individual who has received training. This person – the artist – then develops a concept, applies his or her technical skills, and produces an end-product. This can be a piece of music, a painting, a film, or whatever. This product can then be judged according to how well-conceived it is, its level of originality, and the technical skills employed to create it.
Subjectivism sees art rather differently. Subjectivists argue that a broader definition of art is necessary, and a training is not a necessity. For strict subjectivists, almost anything can be regarded as art, as the most important element in the process of artistic expression is the role of the viewer or audience. In other words, if we feel something as we look at a bag of rubbish arranged in a gallery, it is art.
Where you stand on this debate fits in with your whole outlook on life, and spills over into the other ways of knowing and areas of knowledge. If you are someone who believes in moral relativism – ie, that ethical standpoints can never be absolute, and vary from person to person, place to place, and throughout history, then you will probably have more sympathy for the subjectivist standpoint. If you are someone who believes that we can access the truth by using reason, then you may well incline towards the objectivist school of thought.

The arts as a way of knowing – a solution to the question?

But perhaps it is a mistake to try to judge pieces of work as good and bad. Why should we feel the obligation to do so? Partly this is the result of the age in which we live, where everything must be assessed and ranked. Can we really say that one artist is ‘better’ than another, or one piece of music ‘superior’ to another? An alternative approach would be to rid ourselves entirely of such terms, and try to measure the extent to which art communicates with us. The more we know about a particular art form, or piece of work, the more it communicates with us – a far more meaningful judgement than whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This approach means that – just as with natural sciences and the scientific method – the arts become more a way of knowing than an area of knowledge.
Does this mean then, that we should take a subjective view of art, and view it all qualitatively as the same? Obviously not. Artists can still be measured in terms of how well they use this way of knowing to ‘speak’ to us; indeed, this is a fuller way to view the artistic process, as it takes into account that art has to be designed for a viewer or an audience, and the truly great artists are the ones whose art touches something inside those who witness their work. Artists who just represent what they see or feel about the world, without being able to communicate this knowledge to other people must be seen as less successful. In other words, perhaps we should try to blend an objectivist and subjectivist approach to art.
Certainly, though, this way of perceiving art would remove any hierarchy of art forms, with claims being made for fine art and sculpture at the top of the heap, and later forms such as photography and film being  towards the bottom. This is akin to ranking French or German at the top of some spurious hierarchy, and placing Arabic or Urdu at the bottom, clearly a pointless way of judging languages.
The fact is, we are all different, and all see the world in a multitude of ways. To lay down a blanket statement about what constitutes good or bad art is never going to allow for these differences. Art is often a personal matter, with depictions of scenes, or passages in books perfectly mirroring one person’s life experiences, but sounding foreign and alien to another who has never come across the same event. As a father an husband, I am now moved by any representation of families in the arts; as a student, I was much more interested in depictions of rootless young people searching for meaning in life.

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Is there good art and bad art? (10th May 2013). Last accessed: 23rd February 2017


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