Friday, March 03, 2006


In response to noting (on another post) that there are criteria other than emotional response by which to judge artwork, lou gagnon asked me to elaborate. I responded:

In no particular order of importance, I believe artwork can be judged on at least the following criteria:

Emotional provocation
Conceptual complexity/quality
Integrity (or consistency)

[there are footnotes to a few of those you can see on the original]

Later I elaborated further that "OK, I lied. Truth is the number 1 criteria," which elicted two comments that deserve a response. The second, by aurix, was simply, "Could you elaborate on truth as a criterion?" which I'll take as my license for responding in some detail to the first comment by Henry:

Why is truth the number one criterion? And what does it even mean? I was just about to comment that your list of criteria was quite good, except that truth should be taken off.

If by truth you mean intentional sincerity of expression, I don't think truth has anything to do with anything.
The rest of Henry's comment also suggests he and I have very different working definitions of "truth," but I'll respond to this part first. For me, "truth" is not an intentional sincerity of expression, but rather a well-considered, effective expression of an insightful analysis, which is virtually my exact definition of a "work of art." In this sense, truth is for me the most important criterion for determining whether work is good or not.

In thinking about this I keep coming back to Warhol (and if you don't agree that Warhol was a good artist, you might not get much out of the rest of this). Andy told more truth through his work than we'll likely process for decades. Consider how he notoriously reponded to interviews with what he thought the asker wanted to hear. This is a particularly good example of what I mean by truth, because on the surface it seems to be anything but (thereby illustrating that it's not a matter of a relative point of view, but rather an excellent means of conveying a point, regardless of who may agree or disagree with it). The point of Warhol's work here was, in part, to demonstrate that the interview (the media attention and resulting celebrity) was the thing, not its content. So whether what he actually said was somehow cosmically true (however one measures that) was irrelevant...there was truth in his message, and how he chose to express that message was a well-considered, effective expression of an insightful analysis (i.e., it was good art).

Henry continued:

I was just talking with a friend a couple of days ago who said contemporary art was losing its soul, because (among other reasons,) an artist nowadays could vomit on a canvas and call it art. My friend quickly turned to me and said as an aside, "of course, if you vomited on a canvas, that would be different. I know you, and I know you probably had a good reason for it."

So apparently "truth" is in the eye of the beholder.

Well, perhaps, but sincerity is not an element of my definition of truth. Irony (and [I think] even cynicism) can reveal truth as well. So for me the ultimate test of "truth" is not a matter of intention (that's part of assessing conceptual quality and integrity) but rather of effect (like that of emotional response [think "beauty is truth" and this is more clear]).

It can be bent very easily, especially among the "educated." Like car salesmen around the world already know, the smarter you are, the easier you are to fool. I'd strike truth from the list, whatever it is.
I'm happy to strike sincerity from the list [update: or I would be if it were on the list...], but art without "truth," as I see it, is inferior. It may be pleasant enough, but it's not meaningful beyond that, and I strongly believe there is more.


Anonymous pc said...

I certainly agree about sincerity, after all, criminals, dictators, rapists, the ignorant, etc., can all be sincere.

Edward said: "truth" is not a matter of intention (that's part of assessing conceptual quality and integrity) but rather of effect (like that of emotional response [think "beauty is truth" and this is more clear]).

I wonder if I understand this. Is this paraphrase on track: truth is, in part, a visceral response, something that can't be faked. Beauty, I take it, is just an example of "effect." I would take trutb to mean some irreducible and central part of the artwork that's communicated to the viewer. But my question is, What's the difference between this and a popularity contest? If we're talking about response, then the key is that most people would have to respond for the work to be true. Otherewise, how do you indentify true (even if you can define it)?

So is it all relative like the French thinkers think, or is there some absolute here. Edward, do you have a response to this>

3/03/2006 10:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I think perhaps I made that point poorly. I didn't mean to say truth is a matter of effect, but rather that the test of truth is a matter of effect. In other words, if an artist has succeeded in imbuing the work with truth, it will ring, well, true to the viewer. Or at least it won't ring false. Which is rather complicated if the "truth" the artist is seeking to reveal is very complicated, but there's nothing wrong with work that's demanding, IMO.

truth is, in part, a visceral response, something that can't be faked.

I'm not saying that, although truth may evoke a visceral response. I'm trying to say truth is an achievement...a seeing of something. What makes an artist good is the seeing and then the successful expression of that truth.

I won't go out on a limb and say there's any absolute, but I do think some things are mostly inescapable, at least from human condition POV over the past few millenia.

Not sure I know how to express this, but essentially, what we often think of as "truth" is something only verifyable from "God's" POV. Within the human experience, however, I think some truths are indeed inescapable...think a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...

3/03/2006 10:50:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...

So if truth is a "an achievement...a seeing of something" does that mean that in your view truth is insight? That the artist has revealed something that hasn't been seen in that way before? I kind of believe this, whatever you call it, is the top one or two things. I often think of it as originality, or something, like in science or scholarship, that enlarges or deepens the field. But that's not truth, I guess. Although in your Warhol example, that's what he's doing--saying something that hasn't been said before and that is somehow needed. Another thing one might call truth is whatever that quality is that makes an artist's work stand up to repeated viewings. Could durability and robustness be an aspect of truth? I try to be empirical minded and skeptical when talking about art, but it's absurdly difficult. The other thing I'm wondering is how you've arrived at your ideas--pure Edwardian cogitation or is it the result of some art history training or something?

3/03/2006 11:13:00 PM  
Anonymous george said...

Hmm, regardless of how one arrives at the truth it must be an absolute. It cannot be true today and untrue tomorrow. Truth is persistent over time but may be moderated by a higher truth. (Einstein - Newton)

3/04/2006 01:05:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Mr. W, I think I can unify your 'truth' and 'transcendentalism' criteria this way:

It's revealed truth: something very true and telling about the human condition that comes out, sometimes quickly, sometimes after time and consideration, but it comes out regardless of the sincerety of the work.

In fact, sincerity can interfere with it. This battle between intended meaning and emergent meaning, for me, almost always ends with emergent meaning being far and away the victor.

That kind of truth can hit home very viscerally, or it can simply be very resonant.

That kind of truth has a Zen-like quality; it can sometimes be very hard to finger or describe a specific truth of that sort. It almost has to emerge through the dimensions of an artwork. When it's there, you know it.

Does that sound right?

3/04/2006 08:53:00 AM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...


The two words that comes to mind reading your thoughts on truth in art are Vitality and Authenticity. Is there a self evident (not self obvious) unity to the thing despite it’s complexities and or contradictions? Do we accept it as real in a Gestalt way. “Form follows function.”

The challenge with the word truth is the knee jerk retreat to “absolute truth” that many of us respond to. Deception is one of the more powerful tools an artist has, at least for me.

3/04/2006 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Mr. Gursky!

Very well assembled from my poorly offered parts. I like to think the artist (or the poet in the artist) perceives that something very true and telling about the human condition (and, therefore, is somewhat cognizant about it), but the fact is I'm not sure that's always the case...the artist may simply be sensing the truth or dancing around it in the dark and luckily strike upon it in someway. Which is not a dig at find any nugget of truth at all and share it with the rest of us is an incredible gift (in both senses of the word).

pure Edwardian cogitation

well, not pure...mostly cobbled together from philosophical texts about art and studio visits.

The challenge with the word truth is the knee jerk retreat to “absolute truth” that many of us respond to. Deception is one of the more powerful tools an artist has, at least for me.

I would agree with the first idea wholeheartedly. Indeed that does make this discussion rather tricky. I'm not sure the second idea follows directly from the first though (i.e., it's true, but not related). Deception, like irony or sincerity, etc. are merely tools toward revealing truth. If work does not reveal truth, in my book it's (and I'm putting this gently) crap.

3/04/2006 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...


Hence the use of the words “powerful tools.” Perhaps I reduced my point to far. The assumptions that generally surround “absolute truth” prefer the component parts to also be true. This expectation makes it very easy to find fault and therefore dismiss as untrue.

If a work does not suspend our disbelief and transcend it’s material components then it will rarely reveal a truth beyond it’s materiality. The “absolute truth” seekers will point to Picasso’s lies to dismiss any truth they reveal.

3/04/2006 10:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Edward - Wow, what a thoughtful response! I see your point about the human condition. My follow-up question would be: What art does not in fact examine the human condition?

I'm not trying to be facile or flippant here, I'm just trying to explore the issue a bit further. One might trivially say that anything created by human hands ipso facto reveals something about the human condition.

I can see giving an answer like Lou's directly above, that art must "suspend our disbelief and transcend its material components," (and nicely said) but I should admit I don't find this important. (At least I don't think I do; tho I'll keep reflecting on it). Different types of art pursue different reactions. Instead of trying to generalize "truth," I think the only thing one can say is, "it works for me." Call it aesthetic relativism.

Then again, I also happen to believe we're all robots living on a big rock -- semi-automatic beings of fiber and filth -- so when it comes to "truth," all I know is that some things work and some things don't. Some things work only for me, and some things work for the millions. Any more examination than this I'll leave to the philosophers.

3/04/2006 10:45:00 AM  
Anonymous eva said...

I liked the whole list. I may have my own interpretations of those words, but I would still take them all.

3/04/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous w.w. said...

i have to agree with henry and his "aesthetic relativism." i was thinking something similar as i read the initial post and list of comments. i feel like one must factor in what a viewer brings to the work - therefore becoming a variable one cannot qualify in order to determine if a work carries "truth."

the part of the post that suggests that truth is a matter of effect is really inconclusive to me, especially the idea that truth is conveyed within the message (the shared concept?) of a thoughtful work of art. edward, are you saying that truth manifests itself physically, is symbolized or mobilized somehow within the work, i.e. it is transmitted from the work to the viewer, no matter who that viewer is? that truth is somehow universal? that is beautifully optimistic, but i'm skeptical.

3/04/2006 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny...painting can feel utterly true when defenses are down and Guston's "nobody in the studio even yourself" allows ideas to come through--not simply vomiting but visually forging thoughts, think how such 'truth' is received is another story. There's the faith it sill communicate, strike a chord, reach a suitable cultural moment, there is the chance for consensus. Consensus to me seems to be the closest relative to the truth discussed here.

3/04/2006 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me--there's the faith it will communicate...

3/04/2006 07:19:00 PM  
Anonymous r houston said...

Edward, I have to say I have trouble with your choice of the word truth, but only on semantic grounds. I know what you mean when you’re saying it, and that’s the important thing.

Kant believed in the ‘universal communicability’ of the judgment of beauty (I'll substitute your use of truth here). That is to say that if one finds work to be ‘true’ one is entitled to demand that everyone else feel this way as well. This is what I understand you to be saying when you talk about the work ‘ringing true’ to the viewer. Careful review of my own experience leads me to believe this.

But what is the best way to make this demand? I feel that modern art criticism and curatorial practices tend toward exclusion rather than inclusion. The educational system, as noted in the last post, does not help either.

You said “If Ms. Whittaker or Davison wish to argue that Vettriano is good, they should discuss his work in those terms.” What would you say is the world of ‘high art’ doing to try to include these ladies in the discussion? Many of the commentors indicate that the dearth of cultural awarness on the part of the general public is an issue, what is the responsibility of the art world to include them, and what form should this take?

3/05/2006 01:01:00 AM  
Anonymous bob said...

Interesting blogg. I go along with the idea that truth is fundamental to good art. And Warhol is a good illustration of this point. One of the things he is saying is that when an idea of beauty becomes consensus it becomes universal. The viewer of his work is made skeptical as to whether truth/beauty is absolute or whether its just manufactured. Ironic and cynical art acknowledge this predicament, while the sincere approach evades it.

3/05/2006 03:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at today's Times' title, "Collective Consciousness." Cotter's article features art collectives, but the title also suggests the way in which visual ideas pollinate and simultaneously inform artists' trajectories (individual, collective, whichever). If enough artists reach a version of such truth, a groundswell for the idea forms (ie., artist collectives--there's enough now to warrant today's feature). Consensus forms. Who represents? What becomes the greatest truth? While I don't think the art world has a responsiblity to 'educate' those who have the choice to educate themselves according to their interest (moving from excluded to included) I am compelled by the ways in which truth appears and how consensus is formed around it. It takes smany artists to make an artist, to evolve the criteria for consensus.

3/05/2006 09:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Curious said...

I feel that on your list you present three highly linked attributes of an artwork: Truth, Emotional Provocation, and Transcendentalism. If these are the basis of our discussion, then I think we might be inclined to pay attention to where these areas overlap.

I feel that what I might be getting here is that Truth represents a form of union between emotional provocation and transcendentalism, with a bit of Integrity to match. Still, being new, I have questions.

With so many personal and ephemeral qualities at work in this discussion, could an absolute ever be reached? Is it ever? I feel that we, as artists, strive to break-down theory and critical reasoning in the aspiration that one day we'll be Meta-artists and therefore be capable of interpreting and relating all Art to all peoples. I don't know... is this over-doing it? As artists, need we be able to breakdown, digest, and boil-off Art and put it seperate compartments in order to better understand our own work? Does our own work fail to be relevant if we seek to abandon commonly-held benchmarking and sociological and artistic referencing standards? (X was talking to Y with this piece, which garnered a response from Q over twenty years later... do we actually have to think like this, or is it subconscious and automatic?) Georgia O'Keefe made Art in the desert, can Art exist in a vacuum? Does Art that genuinely has a voice have to assume a certain degree of criteria in order to survive the multitudinous assassination attempts that will be thrust upon it in the gallery?

I feel that people create criteria like Edwards in order to simplify or shortcut into finding for themselves what must make art good. Maybe this is what goes on silently in all of our brains whenever we walk into a gallery; maybe there's an awareness we fail to be aware of that's driving our thoughts to make the connections and likenesses that it does. If that's true, then it's quite possible that we may never understand it at all, and all the books we've read were merely starter courses to prepare us for what's existing right before our eyes. Art is like Love with respect to the aspect that it refuses to be measured, and dies after being held up to scrutiny. I feel that this is the fallacy of intellectualism in art, no matter how much I strive to be an art intellectual.


3/05/2006 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does thinking dissect and kill? Does reflection nullify the art you love? Or can it tease further meanings and allow the strength of the work to reflect your ideas and world not only on a visual and immediate level of instant cognition, but on other levels as well?

3/05/2006 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Nietzsche said...

The history of transcendentalism is a fraud.

The search for truth, or apparent desire to dispassionately seek objective truth, is actually nothing more than a manifestation of the will to power; this will can be life-affirming or a manifestation of nihilism, but it is will to power all the same.

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

3/05/2006 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

from "The Day After Tomorrow":

Jeremy: Friedrich Nietzsche? ... He's one of the most important thinkers in 19th Century!
Elsa: Please! Nietzsche was a chauvinist pig who was in love with his sister.
Jeremy: He was not a chauvinist pig!
Elsa: But he was in love with his sister.
too knackered to do the heavy lifting just now, but absolutely adore where this conversation is going...

I feel that people create criteria like Edwards in order to simplify or shortcut into finding for themselves what must make art good.

for the record, the criteria were offered only after a request to do so, not because I think they're in anyway absolute or concrete...I just don't think emotional response is the only way to judge whether art is good or not.

3/05/2006 06:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Curious said...

To Ed: Absolutely agreed. Sol Lewitt and countless others wouldn't have had a career if emotional response was required, in my opinion. Sorry if my comments were too direct, just voicing some things on the mind.

Thinking and reflection do just as you say; thinking is required. Not-thinking is stagnation and regression. Raw emotionalism, like PMS, seems always shortlived and can often end badly. Who did Pollock really inspire other than Ted Kennedy? The basis for aversion to thinking would be to avert over-analysis and investing so much of yourself into commonly-held beliefs and theories that you risk losing sight of the individual point of view... and produce work that becomes "overly derivative." Commonality begets banality? This is a fear. It's probably completely irrational, but I kinda like it.

3/06/2006 03:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I insist that there are no real criteria for judging art except felt response. Make any list you like, and you will have to make exceptions for each item, and furthermore, some of them will be criteria like "truth" which don't hold up well to demands for a definition. You might as well try to define "love." Some have, but it doesn't change how you feel when you feel it. The felt response to art has more to do with love than criteria.

3/06/2006 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I insist then that we'll have to agree to disagree. There's work that I adore, but I know it's not good art. All kinds of transference issues come into play here that you're not addressing. What about the piece you "love" because it reminds you of the happiest time in your life (or something similar)...does that automatically make it "good"?

3/06/2006 05:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...


Yes, it automatically makes it good. It's functional enough at least to do that. But we should distinguish between a felt response to it as art and a felt response to it as a pleasant association. It may give rise to both or either, but those responses don't come out of the same place.

How about the reverse example: What about the piece that has all the qualities you like in art but doesn't do anything for you? Are you missing a criterion from your list? Have you not defined your criteria well enough? I don't think it works like that. I know perfectly decent people whom I don't love. They're smart, attractive, funny, the whole bit, and nevertheless, eh. Plenty of art gives me a similar reaction.

3/06/2006 05:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

well the criteria were never offered as exhaustive, merely as examples beyond emotional response that can be used to judge art.

Yes, it automatically makes it good. It's functional enough at least to do that.

With respect, I think you're make the same mistake the English ladies were though, Franklin. What moves you is not necessarily art, let alone good art. A painting that makes you deliriously happy or reduces you to tears each time you view it can very easily by every other criteria (and in every other person's assessment in the world) be god-awful. The fact that it functions to move you may be a personal response totally irrelevant with regards to its "quality" in the eyes of anyone else.

But, that's just my opinion...why I listed the criteria in the first place was not to convince anyone that work that they were moved by wasn't good, but rather to demonstrate that work that moved them wasn't automatically good enough to earn a place in the history books. That the army of people who move art into the history books do indeed have to rely on a range of criteria because it's not very likely each and everyone of them will have the same emotional response to each and every work of art.

What about the piece that has all the qualities you like in art but doesn't do anything for you?

Like a Pollock you mean? Well, I try to see why others have deemed it worthy of the museum space it takes up. I read up on it, I accept or reject the importance of its innovation or integrity or transcendentalism or whatever motivated the powers that be to declare it "good" and I make a committment to keep my mind open...thinking perhaps one day I'll "get it" or "feel it." I don't assume my personal response to work is the ultimate test of its value. Again, Pollock leaves me cold, but I've read enough about what he accomplished to appreciate why he's in the museums.

3/06/2006 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

A painting that makes you deliriously happy or reduces you to tears each time you view it can very easily by every other criteria (and in every other person's assessment in the world) be god-awful.

In theory, this could be true. But in practice, I've looked at many works of art and nothing that has moved me to tears has been by any criteria god-awful. There may be people of supremely bad taste who are moved to tears by bad art, but they don't matter. They have bad taste.

Things end up in the history books for historical reasons. Sometimes those reasons coincide with the quality of the art, and sometimes they don't. It's interesting to watch history slight stunning artists, which it does with surprising frequency. The "army of people who move art into the history books" (well said!) ought to have their marching orders scrutinized at every move. Art historians are as often as not wrapped up in art for reasons that have nothing at all to do with quality. They have criteria, sure, but especially in regard to contemporary work, their criteria are the problem. Criteria, at best, are ways of teasing out the felt response. At worst, they are a checklist that substitutes for the exercise of taste.

I'd like to separate what you're calling an emotional response from what I'm calling a felt response. Anyone with a good eye has a pleasurable feeling associated with looking, like the pleasurable feeling associated with tasty food. That's where taste resides, not in the rushes of emotion through our British matrons as they look at Vettriano.

I think your approach to Pollock is fine, with one tweak: I assume that your personal response to his work is the ultimate test of its value, as far as you're concerned. Until you like Pollock, his presence in the museum should always be marked as a suspect choice, tempered only by one thing: that the judgment of people whose eye you trust disagree with you. Without such people, write off Pollock. I think anything less slights your taste.

3/06/2006 07:30:00 PM  
Anonymous theodor adorno said...

franklin: Anyone with a good eye has a pleasurable feeling associated with looking, like the pleasurable feeling associated with tasty food.

Whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine; he is convicted by expressions like "a feast for the ears." Yet if the last traces of pleasure were extirpated, the question of what artworks are for would be an embarrassment. Actually, the more they are understood, the less they are enjoyed.

Taste is the ability to keep in balance the contradiction in art between the made and the apparent not-having-become; true works of art, however, never at one with taste, are those which push this contradiction to the extreme, and realize themselves in their resultant downfall.

3/06/2006 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It's funny that you should drop by, Theodor. Over at we were just talking about how anticapitalist and anti-individualist projects tend to fizzle out of their own accord after a while. That doesn't bode so well for the Frankfurt School. I think philosophy is only as good as its application, so tell me how one might apply that high-sounding sentence at the end of your post there. I think it's powered more by sound than substance.

3/07/2006 08:36:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

I find Franklin's arugments compelling but I don't think his "felt response" contradicts Edward's criterion that good art is an "effective expression of an insightful analysis." The reason is that both "emotional response" and the more refined-sounding "felt response" may be misnomers. I'd like to suggest enlarging the way we're talking about this way of looking at art to include the intellect. In other words, "felt response" is an instantaneous thing. For example, when I look at art, I either "like" it or not. But I'm not stupid: I'm not just looking at pretty colors and I'm able to sift out the merely appealing from the significant pretty easily. One way I think many artists do it is to flip through their mental rolodex and sort out the derivitive, the stale, the self-parodying, and the unimaginative from the originals. This only takes a second, but I think that originality may be the most important telltale sign of Edward's idea of truth. And I think anyone with what's quaintly called "a good eye" sees truth very quickly and without analysis.

I think what Edward does in stressing truth is to break down and analyze the sophisiticated yet instant apprehension of a work of art that many of us have. And talking about truth with a relatively well understood and well analyzed figure of the past (sigh) like Warhol is all very well, but is there really a vocabulary for the kind of truth a brand new innovative genius displays? The reason the visual is powerful is because artists reveal in art what is impossible to paraphrase in words. (I'd be suspicious of any new art that you could paraphrase too easily.) Yet, the false is easy to detect and discuss! Think of Vettriano. I think what we all object to is the absence of any kind of truth in his work. So I don't think I am going to look at art now (for a while, anyway) without thinking about truth after my instant "felt response."

3/07/2006 10:10:00 AM  

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