Thursday, June 26, 2008

By What Measures Is a Picture Considered "Good"? Open Thread

Long-time readers know that the issue of whether something is "art" or not is wholly separate from whether it's "good" art or "bad" art to me. But lately I've been readjusting my thinking on the criteria by which we collectively (if not unanimously) declare a work of art "good."

In today's New York Times, there's an article about a contested "Warhol" painting, titled "315 Johns":


John (yes, that's why it's called "315 Johns") Chamberlain claims it's authentic, but he has $3 million at stake over that assertion, having sold it for that much in 2000. Gerard Malanga, a former Warhol assistant (who the Times says "helped create many of the most famous silk-screen paintings"), claims he and a friend made the piece with no input whatsoever from Andy. Now it's questionable to my mind that if an assistant who was involved in creating "many of the most famous" works then makes a piece in such a way that it can be mistaken for the work of his or her employer, whether he can then claim no input whatsoever (i.e., it's not clearly a work done in a style one would associate with Malanga...but that's perhaps another thread).

Although the question of whether the piece is worth less than $3 million if Andy didn't know it existed is tangentially related to my topic this morning, I bring this up mostly as an excuse to borrow the language in a quote by Andy that ends the article:
In the murky world of Warhol it’s anybody’s guess whether such information will ever lead to a clear answer. Warhol himself might not have cared much. As he once said — or is said to have said, "My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person."
Which leads me to the first point in rethinking by what measures we determine whether artwork is "good." Not to contradict what Warhol supposedly claimed, but theoretically if a portrait is really "good" it can actually make its subject famous (think Dr. Gachet, Mona Lisa, Dora Maar, Christina Olson, etc.). So my first question is whether "fame" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one. I know the standard industry answer to that question. I use it all the time to deflect queries about why I don't like Thomas Kinkade, for example, but in trying to come up with a unifying theory about the measures that lead us to declare art "good," I don't think you can leave "fame" entirely out of it.

This ties in to my second question, which centers on the places all famous art tends to end up: museums. Currently the so-called system moves artwork along from the studio to galleries to collections to museums where it lives happily ever after (with the odd deaccession exceptions). But in reading the essay by Carlos Basualdo titled "The Unstable Institution" (from the collection of essays “What Makes a Great Exhibition?”), I had my thinking on what it means for art to be acquired by a museum somewhat clarified for me. Basualdo argues:
In Western countries, modern art was thought to be structured around the relative balance between a number of institutions founded on a common history or histories, that is to say, on shared values. In this order of things, the tension between production and the market finds a sort of referee in criticism and museums. We could say, very schematically, that the duty of criticism has been to inscribe production into a symbolic field in a way that simultaneously makes it accessible to the effects of the mechanisms of the production of exchange value, while the duty of art history has been to recover the specific differential in the work that hinders its complete subordination to exchange values. Of the two, it was the institution of the museum---which from its origins has had a fundamentally ideological character---that sanctioned the value of the work as exchange value, but not without first disguising it, hiding it in the folds of a particular historical narrative that the museum was supposedly responsible for preserving and intensifying. [emphasis mine]
Indeed, even if one agrees that, for the most part, museum acquisition is a valid measure of quality, it's not possible to separate that out from the fact that museums fundamentally sanction the value of the work as exchange value, leading to my second point in rethinking by what measures we determine whether artwork is "good." Is "exchange value" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one?

I know that by now some folks are cracking their knuckles in preparation for typing a blistering retort, but stick with me a moment. The idea "collectively considered 'good'" (i.e., more or less meaning a majority of people agree, as applicable to, oh say, for example Michaelangelo's David) requires collectively recognized criteria. These by definition must be somewhat relative to time and place and therefore artificial. Still, most of us do at least momentarily rethink our opinion of a work of art that sells for millions of dollars (if we're honest about it), no? And don't opinions about quality evolve? Is there some value point at which, even if you loathe a work of art for aesthetic/philosophical/political reasons, that you'd still consider saving it from a burning museum if you were the only one who could do so? At which you recognize the cultural value it holds because it's so expensive?

I like to think, in my more romantic moments, that the only valid measure for whether art is "good" or not is how influential is it with other artists. But even there, I've seen the fact that someone's work is selling like hotcakes impact how much interest it holds for other artists, so the noncommercial purity of that measure is questionable as well.

Left out of this discussion so far, obviously, are questions of how well made an artwork is. That's an issue that gobbles up gigabytes of comments here, but even there we can break that question down. Having been on the receiving end of lectures from conservators (like I made the work??? geesh...), I know that how "well made" an artwork is can be seen in terms of archival issues as well as questions of how pleasing/compelling the lines, shapes, forms, composition, etc., are. Having said that, it should be noted that the latter is probably what most people mean when they step up to assert that a work of art is "good" in their opinion.

But that brings us full circle to the issue of concept. Should I send the "Mona Lisa" off to one of those painting factories in China, they will, as advertised, return a replica so convincing that many of the same people would conclude that this forgery is "good" in terms of how pleasing/compelling its lines, shapes, forms, composition, etc., are. Close inspection might reveal the comparative inferiority of the brushwork, but to the average viewer, using only those criteria, this would seemingly be a "good" painting. So my next question becomes
whether "originality" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one.

So far the measures I'm most comfortable with here include influence on other artists, aesthetically compelling/pleasing, and original. But I can see problems within each of those as well and I think it's foolish to pretend the others (e.g, fame, exchange value) are irrelevant.

Consider this an open thread on how [UPDATED FOR CLARITY] we, collectively, conclude an artwork is "good."

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110 Comments:

Blogger Matt Niebuhr said...

Of what makes an artwork "good" my opinion is guided by thinking about much of the work of Sol LeWitt: perhaps, not unlike his view on conceptual art:

“He also liked the inherent impermanence of Conceptual art, maybe because it dovetailed with his lack of pretense: having started to make wall drawings for exhibitions in the 1960s, he embraced the fact that these could be painted over after the shows. (Walls, unlike canvases or pieces of paper, kept the drawings two-dimensional, he also thought.) He wasn’t making precious one-of-a-kind objects for posterity, he said. Objects are perishable. But ideas need not be. ”

from NYT -story 9 April 2007 - Kimmelman.

LeWitt - has managed to extend what matters beyond his physical presence…

And this from Portland Art + News….

a bit from local artist J. Hayward whose life was changed while working on a LeWitt project:

“Many young artists were changed. This drawing was to be made of “unstraight” lines. As a highschooler, I felt I needed a little more direction and asked the artist to clarify what kind of “unstraight” line he had in mind. Was he thinking wildly frenetic or just plane wobbly? ”

For me, the perfect a good artwork has embeded in it the characteristics of a narrator - to let the story be it’s own narration and to find out what the story will say... this is artwork with the most potential to be judged "good"...

6/26/2008 09:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Quality can't be measured.

This is easy to prove. If quality could be measured, it would be possible to say that a work of art was good because it had a certain amount of X. It would then be possible to make another work of art succeed by putting a certain amount of X into it. This doesn't work, for all values of X.

Quality can only be recognized intuitively. It can only be defined tautologically in similar terms. Not everyone is equally equipped to detect it. And yet, as I've said here before, it is as real as gravity.

6/26/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron Wexler said...

Good art, in an individual way, holds a mirror to the viewer. That's what I think.

I'm curious if the following 75 comments can answer Ed's question of what makes you declare a good piece of art without reiterating textbook theory or name dropping blue chip artists to illustrate contemporary sensationalism. From the gut maybe?

6/26/2008 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Divine providence.

Amen brother.

6/26/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sigh.

I thought I was pretty clear about the fact I'm moving from personal, intuitive decisions into how we then discuss what's "collectively" considered "good" (i.e., by what measures are a consensus reached, which can indeed be quantified). Sorry if I wasn't clear enough about that. (Never miss an opportunity to bang that drum, though, eh?)

6/26/2008 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not everyone is equally equipped to detect it.

Even this, though, if true, to have any meaning, requires some consensus to prove or even discuss.

6/26/2008 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I thought I was pretty clear about the fact I'm moving from personal, intuitive decisions into how we then discuss what's "collectively" considered "good" (i.e., by what measures are a consensus reached, which can indeed be quantified).

Go ahead and use auction prices then. It will work as well as anything else you come up with.

You might as well ask what's "collectively" considered "love."

6/26/2008 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I've updated the final sentence to hopefully clarify further (and it's my fault for the careless phrasing originally there), that I mean to discuss how consensus is reached, not only how an individual concludes whether a work is good or not.

You might as well ask what's "collectively" considered "love."

on another thread...

6/26/2008 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

I'll bite with a quasi-serious stab at this:

Niebuhr is on the right track with the idea of "good" art as a "narrator." Anything "collective," consensus or otherwise, requires strong communicative channels with low entropy, and narrative offers one of the most enduring forms of this. Within the narratives or stories we tell ourselves and one another about works of art, there will always be stronger and weaker players or characters. The strength and weakness of those characters might have to do with their purchase on originality, or their (excessive) exchange value, or some other thing. Whatever it is, what matters is that it's able to take root within an enduring narrative; indeed, it plays a part in making the narrative itself enduring. So, I think judging a work of art "good" depends upon the strength of the story it can either generate or in which it can take up residence (and so augment).

6/26/2008 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

We, collectively, don't conclude a work of art is good any more than we, collectively, conclude that we're in love.

A consensus is simply a number of people who agree with each other, and we can measure it by counting the people. The opinions of a consensus of intelligent, sensitive people may be worth heeding. The opinions of a consensus of baboons probably isn't unless we're looking for a good place to find bananas.

The relationship of a consensus to quality hinges on the group members' ability to detect quality. The baboons know where to find bananas. Do the art lovers know where to find quality? Some of them turn out to be pretty good at it. Others, well, it might be better to stick with the baboons.

6/26/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So, I think judging a work of art "good" depends upon the strength of the story it can either generate or in which it can take up residence (and so augment).

How familiar the story may be and how powerful it is (i.e., how it lingers or continues to "augment" as you say) can be at odds, though, no? The same sense of originality and/or depth may not coincide in individual viewers, which circles back round to Aaron's statement that good art holds up a mirror to the viewer.

It seems to be a combination of originality (to the individual at least) and depth that makes art meaningful long term.

I think this might be related to how jokes work. Some jokes are hysterical because they're fresh for us (i.e., the first time we see some connection a comic is making there's a strong synaptic connection which releases some chemical or other that [I am not a neurobiologist] and the impact is much stronger than the fifth or sixth time we hear the same joke. Other jokes, though, make us laugh each time we hear them.

I suspect, however, that the jokes that make us laugh each time we hear them tend to be ones that not only had depth to them, but were also extremely fresh for us (in that we hadn't even come close to making such a connection before) the first time we hear them.

Perhaps artwork that gets to us each time we view it follows a similar course.

6/26/2008 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I agree with both Franklin and Jonathan, perhaps surprisingly.

It is possible for the inherent quality of a piece of work to be so forceful that it creates its own narrative. It is equally possible for works of low inherent quality (of which I would include the alleged Warhol above) to be integrally attached to a sufficiently powerful narrative to gain some collective recognition. Narrative can increase the perceived quality of a piece of mediocre work by focusing attention upon it, which is why when an art student complains that 'my piece looked just like a Kiefer and my class reamed it anyway' is missing at least part of the point.

6/26/2008 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Franklin - Your 11:00:00 AM comment does not moot Jonathan Neil's 10:43:00 AM comment. In fact Jonathan's comment may anticipate yours.

The idea of the "strength of the story" is fantastic. Franklin's "intelligent, sensitive people" should be expected to have a stronger story than "baboons," otherwise no one would refer to their opinions or hold them in esteem. A work of high quality should have a stronger story than a banana, and should generate buzz among the "intelligent-sensitive."

(I think it's clear that "story" does not mean the conceptual narrative portrayed by a the work, like the Bible stories portrayed the Sistene Chapel, but rather the amount of reaction it creates in a viewer. I like the use of the word "story" in this context).

6/26/2008 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

We, collectively, don't conclude a work of art is good any more than we, collectively, conclude that we're in love.

I would prefer to leave it at : what we collectively conclude is good can be of little value for any given individual.

I know that might challenge the relevance of the so-called "intelligent, sensitive people" for some, but given that we disagree also as to who they are, staking all your faith on "them" is just as likely to lead you to bananas, no?

In other words, your group of "intelligent, sensitive people" and mine being different people, we're still left with no definitive declaration of who's worth heeding, and so consensus again becomes helpful.

6/26/2008 11:18:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

And Edward, I rather think that your question as posed is really "What makes a piece of artwork important?" There are millions of 'good' works out there which are given minimal to no attention by arbiters of culture such as museums, curators, journalists and patrons. They might even have very compelling narratives attached (I am thinking of one artist I used to work with, who was a fugitive from the law, lived with Mennonites, and Shakerized her style to avoid discovery--what a great press hook! Too bad I wasn't important enough for the press to pay attention to my release...) and just not happen to reach the collective imagination.

6/26/2008 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Except with "strength of the story" we've moved from good art to good story.

Why do people, including artists, strangely, automatically lend credence to "good story" and not "good art"? It's no easier to define or justify what makes a good narrative, but we all would agree that certain stories are compelling or gripping. I make the same claim about art, and people get their panties in a bunch. I have never understood this.

6/26/2008 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And Edward, I rather think that your question as posed is really "What makes a piece of artwork important?" There are millions of 'good' works out there which are given minimal to no attention by arbiters of culture such as museums, curators, journalists and patrons.

For the sake of argument, I think you can flip that around, as well, though.

What is considered "important" may be just another measure for what we collectively deem as "good."

I'm thinking of a minor work that directly leads to a major breakthrough. Perhaps it's not as accomplished as the later masterpiece it made possible, but because of its importance in historical terms we value it...we treasure it...we bestow every attention to it we would if it were "good" per se, and so I'm hard pressed to define a real-world distinction, by which I mean in terms of how we respond to it (we'll go see it in a museum, it will be preserved, it will fetch a tidy sum at auction, etc. etc.).

6/26/2008 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Good art is generative, offering narrative paths and opening up your mind to reverie.

Phenomenological art is stupid (I frame for you, the sky!)

Everything else is boring pedantic pseudo-intellectual crap.

6/26/2008 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Why do people, including artists, strangely, automatically lend credence to "good story" and not "good art"?

If I understand you correctly, then maybe it's because language (and its metaphors) is how we discuss "good art"? Perhaps if we had a medium in which could all draw a picture to "discuss" good art you'd have less frustration.

6/26/2008 11:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

In other words, your group of "intelligent, sensitive people" and mine being different people, we're still left with no definitive declaration of who's worth heeding, and so consensus again becomes helpful.

No, the consensus becomes provisionally helpful at best depending on what we know about the individual members. You put it this way:

What we collectively conclude is good can be of little value for any given individual.

To which I respond with Tonto's answer to the Lone Ranger: What do you mean "we," white man? Consensus is mere number. At one point there was a strong consensus that the sun went around the earth. We know how that turned out.

6/26/2008 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The sun not going around the earth was eventually demonstrable from a newly achievable vantage point. You're not suggesting the quality of art will be as well, are you? From what vantage point could that be?

6/26/2008 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Since Carol Diehl hasn't shown up yet, I will quote her blog:

[Great art is] something where execution and idea merge so completely that we’re unaware of either and taken to a place beyond words.

I happen to agree wholeheartedly with this, and also believe that it is compatible with both visual quality and narrative quality. It does not, however, have anything to do with 'importance' as you define it above.

That is why I think you can included fame and recognition as factors in determining the importance of a piece of work, but not necessarily its quality.

6/26/2008 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

How familiar the story may be and how powerful it is (i.e., how it lingers or continues to "augment" as you say) can be at odds, though, no? The same sense of originality and/or depth may not coincide in individual viewers, which circles back round to Aaron's statement that good art holds up a mirror to the viewer.

Ed, can you offer up an example here?--of when the familiarity and power of a story may be "at odds"? I think these issues are at a tangent to my point about "good" (or, pace PL, "important"; and note, this may simply mark a difference of degree--i.e. it's good when admired/understood below a certain threshold of people, important when above that threshold) art, but they're interesting regardless. Because my initial reaction is to equate familiarity with no uncertain power (endurance, accessibility, enjoyment) that a story holds for us. I'll grant that familiarity requires repetition, which can sap the power (a.k.a. affect) of a story; but now we're talking about different modalities of "power" and at least accepting that the story surrounding a work of art is central to whether it is considered "good" by a critical mass of baboo...I mean people.

No, the consensus becomes provisionally helpful at best depending on what we know about the individual members.

FITZGERALD: The rich are different from us.

HEMINGWAY: Yes, they have more money.

Keep in mind that differences in degree can quickly become differences in kind.

6/26/2008 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

There is a strong consensus that bananas are worth importing. Of that I am sure.

Bananas offer a strong narrative, in republics, clothing retail, dictators, pratfalls, cartoons, novelty gifts, large spiders and simians.

If an artist taps into these narratives by making a painting, it is not the artist that created that narrative.

What is is that is created in art?
Did Koons invent the topiary?
Will Olafur Eliason be hailed as the discoverer of the waterfall?
Will James Turrel be declared a real world Henny Penny?

I don't think irrational unquantifiables like personality and temperament will have anything to do with the discussion.

6/26/2008 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Franklin - Put down the hammer and step away from the nail. I took the term "story" as nothing more than a lovely metaphor to describe how an artwork justifies itself.

When you look at a "high-quality collection of forms," it tells you a "story" of certain strength. If "story" in the original comment above refers specifically to the way you interpreted it, then I'll retract my comment and rephrase my opinion.

I took JTD Neil's comment to be nothing more than that an artwork can create a buzz ... and that people can generate a buzz ... and that all this buzz eventually creates excitement ... and when there is "low entropy" (i.e., high agreement) in all this buzz, then let's call it a consensus.

6/26/2008 12:01:00 PM  
OpenID ericgelber said...

I just hope Will Smith decides to save my sketchbooks and paintings when the shit hits the fan.

6/26/2008 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Daniel Sroka said...

Art is collectively viewed as good for a wide variety of reasons. Some art is considered good because of technique and craft. Some because it contains a powerful narrative. Some because of historical provenance. And some (most?) art is considered good simply because of the trends of style, fashion, and taste ("museum X says it is good therefore...")

6/26/2008 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

...maybe it's because language (and its metaphors) is how we discuss "good art"? Perhaps if we had a medium in which could all draw a picture to "discuss" good art you'd have less frustration.

I tend to think that it's because writers and readers haven't done to narrative what artists and art aficonados have done to art. Narrative has not become an infinitely extensible category that gets new members by fiat.

You're not suggesting the quality of art will be as well, are you?

No, I'm not. Quality can't be measured. What I said about consensus still holds.

I took the term "story" as nothing more than a lovely metaphor to describe how an artwork justifies itself.

I understood your usage. I was pointing out that "strong story," even as you used it, seemed to be self-justifying in a way that made this discussion about art's goodness ironic.

6/26/2008 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I don't think there is an answer.
They are perhaps a couple dozen different cases as to what makes an artwork reach consensual sensibility or intellect. This is even more flagrant nowadays. Before there used to be tighter grounds about common "good taste", but even those shifted through the Ages, and completely different approaches to art were brought under the spotlight or buried into the deep depending what period we're thinking about.


Narrative to me is only one of the possibility, albeit a strong one.
Romanticism is big for the general crowd as testifies the undying thread of Hollywood cinema and the insurgence of heroic videogames.
But somehow the glamour of visual artists has disappeared since many of the current blue chip artists have boring biographies that not many care for.

I think confusion about "good taste" is natural in the present tense of people loosing notions about what triggers an art career. It's not too hard for an artist to get a museum retro these days, but few who get there are still remembered 10 years later.

I personally admire different pieces of art for completely different reasons. I'm not looking at an Altmejd the same way I look at a Sol Lewitt.


I think it's been adressed already, but, I question the sensibility of people eager to consider other human beings as baboons simply because they
haven't reached a proper level of education in such a specific and complex domain as art. Museum attendances speak, and museums are getting more visitors each year.


Cedric C


PS: an artist that started an important trend or a movement will likely have people looking for the piece that started it all, so I guess that relates to story. But many successful artists were just participants of a movement, not the inventor. So I don't think story is enough.

6/26/2008 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed said:
" Now it's questionable to my mind that if an assistant who was involved in creating "many of the most famous" works then makes a piece in such a way that it can be mistaken for the work of his or her employer, whether he can then claim no input whatsoever (i.e., it's not clearly a work done in a style one would associate with Malanga...but that's perhaps another thread)."

If I remember correctly, I do believe it was Malanga who had a falling out with Warhol in the early 70's over Andy's famous cheapness and refusal to compensate Malanga substantially for his contributions. Malanga left the Factory in a huff, moved around (to Rome, for a time), and manufactured counterfeit Warhols to make some quick money. This was discovered, there was some trouble, Warhol was angry, but Malanga confessed, apologized and it was all swept under the rug.

I thought it odd that the Times didn't mention this more explicitly, it had been written about- either by Warhol himself in the Diaries or perhaps in Collacello's book Holy Terror. Also vague is how Chamberlain got the painting in the first place.

Must say, it seems pretty uncharacteristic for a Warhol of that era. He did do multiples of art-world figures like Ethel Scull in the 60's, but by the early 70's he'd mostly moved to his signature portrait style of that decade.

Poor Chamberlain,might be in a bit of hot water though- even though the Warhol Foundation verified it, accusations of politics and inscrutability seem validated in light of this mess.

6/26/2008 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

A point of general clarification:

By narratives or stories we tell ourselves and others about art, I'm talking about the total narrative, not simply the biography of the artist, or the story about how this or that work came to be, or about an amusing anecdote that had to do with a particular work being damaged or thrown away, or even about a story depicted within a particular painting. I'm talking about the story that makes sense (not the totalizing sense, not the essentializing sense, but some kind of significant sense) of the work under consideration.

Whether it's Signac (I think it was Signac) saying of Picasso's Demoiselles that it was as if he was being asked to each "tow and paraffin" or Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie really having something to do with the lights of NYC and jazz improvisation, these are items in larger enduring narratives that render these works of art, at the level of consensus, "good" and "important."

6/26/2008 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous What does It Matter said...

desire for such authenticity

6/26/2008 01:43:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

I am probably going to come off sounding like a real bitch about this, but frankly Ed the way you set up this thread is not about figuring out whether a piece of art is good or not.

You are asking questions about whether other people value art:

Do artists give it the Good Art Seal Of Approval?

Is it in a place where people put good art?

Have other people sufficiently gotten behind the art?

This is a recipe for Emperor's New Clothes, man, and it's totally unnecessary!

While I understand that there is no scorecard that you can tick down to give a work of art, say, a 9.45 or a 3.5, we live in a culture that is freaking *rife* with strategies for dealing with assigning subjective value.

Every single time any of us looks at a work of art, it either does something or fails to do something to us. It asserts values that we can name and describe. When we read books or watch movies, we are often called upon to explain what its impact was on us. And when enough people voice these opinions, a collective sense of value is established.

I don't understand why we can't just take responsibility for valuing art. Why we work to justify the existence of art that's not very good, but that sits in a museum because artists loved it anyway.

We don't do this with any other subjective creative endeavor. We don't wring our hands over the difference between The Love Guru and Don't Mess With The Zohan. We feel fine just stating that while they are both pretty stupid, one is irredeemably stupid and the other was entertaining.

But with fine art, we shroud "good"ness in mystery and spout absurdities like "quality can never be determined," even though that isn't true.

I mean, you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right? What makes art different than that?

6/26/2008 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ed, can you offer up an example here?--of when the familiarity and power of a story may be "at odds"?

By "at odds" I mean specifically as to how long the work seems compelling. Familiarity, breeding as it does contempt [or ennui, if you will] may lessen the impact of the power of a story.

An example might be provided by an anecdote (which I'm making up to illustrate my point) in which Bambino, who grew up in Central Asia, and is totally unfamiliar with stories from the Bible will see, say, M's David as a statue of a naked young man, whereas I will see it as a loaded image connoting courage, determination, ambition perhaps, etc. When I tell Bambino the story of David, it may or may not impact how he feels about M's statue at the time. Moreover, Bambino's never seen Donatello's David either (or any other historically important version), let's say.

Being familiar with the Bible story, M's David, and D's David then, I'll view a contemporary version of David through all three associations. However, my experience of this new David (knowing not only the Bible story well, but also the art historical precedents) will be quite different from Bambino's if, by his slingshot, pose, or other telltale signs, he identifies the subject on his own without being told. He will be making the connection for the first time (that this new artist is referencing not only a Biblical story but important art history), and so it's much more likely he'll be impressed with this new version than I will, even if it's obviously not as well made as M's or D's. It will be somehow more important to Bambino because it facilitated this connection. I would bet that when he thinks of David from that point on, because of the power of that connection, this newest version will occur to him much more readily than it will to me.

6/26/2008 01:57:00 PM  
Anonymous you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right? said...

Interesting "approach."

like something I just read

"How does one sit in a chair alone or around other."

6/26/2008 02:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I mean, you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right? What makes art different than that?

Bingo.

6/26/2008 02:55:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

Bambino, who grew up in Central Asia, and is totally unfamiliar with stories from the Bible will see, say, M's David as a statue of a naked young man, whereas I will see it as a loaded image connoting courage, determination, ambition perhaps, etc.

This is an exceedingly interesting direction to take the discussion, but it's more a problem for epistemology.

To get to your example, what I'm interested to tease out is not specifically how the story of David effects how one "sees" a work of art, insofar as this story stands as the content of M's, D's, or the new artist's work, but the place that M's David holds in the larger narrative of the renaissance; why it's accorded more significance than D's; and why, perhaps, the David story is not available to a contemporary artist as it was to M or D.

I think when we ask what makes a work of art "good" in this larger sense--over and above the individual--you can't help looking to the narratives that carry the work along.

And for DF: the restaurant thing reminds me of how old-timey philosophers used to dismiss their colleagues who studied aesthetics: it's all "cookery"--i.e. simply a matter of taste. But I do think Ed's after something other than "taste."

6/26/2008 02:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

DF's point about taking responsibility for valuing art still stands, regardless of what Ed's after.

6/26/2008 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Rah, rah, Deborah.

6/26/2008 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

This is a recipe for Emperor's New Clothes, man, and it's totally unnecessary!

Actually, I would have thought you'd have seen through to why it's highly necessary to examine this issue from this point of view.

We had a rather boisterous thread the other day about artists changing things, and one of the ideas that emerged was the desire to work around the existing system and, in particular, as Franklin put it, "see the museum system become a lot more flexible." The reason Franklin focused on the museums, I assume, is because they are the ultimate prize...the place history is preserved...the place any given culture protects what it collectively sees as worth protecting...what it sees as "good" examples of its art.

The current museum system is perfectly aligned with the current market. But that's because the consensus is also perfectly aligned with the market (at least as far as galleries, collectors, curators and many artists are concerned...critics are the last hold outs). I'm highly invested in the market, but I'm also somewhat skeptical that it fully represents the what's best about the art being made today. Some of it does, some doesn't.

To get to the point where you can make the museum system more flexible, then, I would submit it makes sense to shine light on how things currently end up in museums. In other words, to lay bare how the consensus comes about with regards to what's considered "good"...what measures are being used, why the public (whom the museums are ultimately beholden to) can't articulate what's wrong with some of the current choices, and where there's room to insert some flexibility and see what direction that takes things.

It's not enough to bitch about the current museum system, especially if you mean one thing by "good" art and I mean something else. We're barely communicating then and that impedes progress. I'm not questioning anyone's autonomy with regards to what they personally see as good art. I'm questioning how the consensus can lead to what you see as good being ignored until you can influence the consensus.

I mean, you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right? What makes art different than that?

I don't know of any restaurant in which most of what's done there will be important 500 years from now. What makes art different is the fact it's a vessel. It's the very best vessel for preserving what's most important about who we are. Getting it right, as best we can, then (and by that I mean preserving the truly good stuff) becomes somewhat urgent to me. YMMV.

6/26/2008 03:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Harry Smith said...

Everything is for sale

6/26/2008 03:33:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

What other "approach" is there that isn't looking to the side to see if everyone else is buying it?

It is of course true that we use a number of lenses for determining value. History, cultural standards and personal stories are all relevant in determining value in art.

Are they relevant in different degrees? Yes! But do the quality of these lenses fundamentally matter?

It depends!

Pretend that I know a collector who has a gigantic collection that is widely regarded as terrible. He truly enjoys looking at art, and collects what he loves, and employs a number of experts who agree with one another that he has terrible taste.

It's a paradox:

Because this collector's entourage of experts possesses a heightened cultural and formal sensitivity and better understanding of art history, they are more "right" than the collector.

But he ignores their advice and trusts his gut because fundamentally he is just as right as they are, even though they have much more knowledge than he does. He's not about to spend a bunch of money on a bunch of things he considers sheyt, but that they consider important.

I am arguing that it's more important for collector X to trust himself than it is for him to trust his experts. By taking responsibility for his own aesthetic decision-making, he's doing the art thing. He's actively participating in what art is and what it's good for.

Collector X may not know a good piece of art if it bit him on his neck. But he understands deeply what art gives him--how it makes him rich.

Even though he consistently makes bad decisions, I think that this makes him smarter and a better participant than people with better collections who are not taking responsibility for their own taste.

Do I wish Collector X would take responsibility for his taste to the point of developing it? Sure. But at least he's engaged in the process of actually enjoying the work.

On the other hand, I know a lot of people who look at art and completely ignore how it actually impacts them. Instead, they start working their knowledge of art history to justify the art. I think that's a pretty lackluster "approach."

6/26/2008 03:45:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

Edward, to answer your museum question using Fictitious Collector X:

Should Collector X keep buying all the work he loves, regardless of what his cadre of experts think?

YES, if he can't learn from them at least he should please himself and take responsibility for his own aesthetic participation.

But Collector X has no business running a museum. That would be solipsistic at best, disaster at worst. Collector X has mastered the first relationship or first sphere of determining value. He listens to his own reactions and trusts them.

But his taste is so bad because these reactions are limited, say, to bright colors. Or big tits. Or images of certain kinds of dogs.

He has no business telling other people about art because he's negotiating it from a very self-oriented place.

But it is an invested one.

What I am arguing is that too often we move too far away from that sense of investment, and that creates a grey wash of relativism.

I think that people can tell for themselves whether something is good for them. And that education should open up more and more fields of good. But that it should never make everything good, or otherwise take away one's faculties for determining value.

6/26/2008 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Sean Capone said...

The thread of 'being in Love' is not too far off the mark, in terms of ascribing emotional relationships with the object of view or desire.

There is some recent scholarship that takes to task the artwork itself (WJT Mitchell 'What Do Pictures Want?'; Jim Elkins 'The Object Stares Back') as partially responsible. The criterion of 'good art' is determined not simply through the narrative of the critic, finger on chin, assessing the picture hanging on the wall, casting down judgment based on empirical rules of style and taste. The picture/object itself can be thought of as a living thing, or rather, is engaged in a feedback loop with the viewer (ourselves), who, being human, insists on behaving as though the image was a vital thing with its own desires and life-force (what Mitchell calls the "double consciousness" surrounding images).

Despite our modernist pretensions,we still think of images as containing a certain 'magic' and tend to project anthropomorphic, animistic, and vitalist values onto these objects of creative endeavor. (Remember a certain Dutch cartoon about the prophet Mohammed?) As a parallel, think of the symbolic associations between 'architecture/city' and 'the body' throughout history, in both art, politics & spirituality. Mitchell, writing about an image of the Twin Towers, says that the image is a "living symbol" that has an organic connection with its referents, "the subject of biography rather than history."

What I take this to mean, then, is that a 'good artwork' does more than live up to criterion of composition, harmony, mimesis, authorship etc. Also it must successfully be perceived and understood as vital, as a desiring alive being itself. The specter of idolatry hangs over this argument, and is not meant to be taken literally, but we still approach images (admit it or not) with a mixture of hard-headed materialism and a sense of naive, emotional primitivism. A picture can be understood as 'good' while still reprehensible, grotesque, or 'savage' by other social standards.

Art is not a passive object of contemplation, subject only to aesthetic laws--the meaning of an art object is not completely present in the images themselves. Perhaps, art is more of a membrane, gathering meaning from the social complex in which we are embedded as well. A 'sucessful' picture (one that has, in a way, sprung to life and is treated as such) is likely to be thought of, likewise, as 'good'.

As a test, I would cite how we relate more to Modern art because it inscribes a closer perimeter to our living consciousness; 'old' art is 'good' because it made it this far, but as ghosts. Movements such as abstraction come about because of the realization that 'art' no longer has to be a communicative medium: it can now be an organic mimesis of the living artist himself: a Pollock painting isn't just a picture, it *is* Pollock. And, on the flip side, Conceptual art realizes that, through communication technology, the life of the art can pass immediately into undead status, and continue on as a ghost.

Good=successful=persistence.

6/26/2008 04:09:00 PM  
Anonymous spinning subject sprial said...

even anti-art is art

6/26/2008 04:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Visual quality. Modernists make visual art for visual reasons. Only the outcome is important; process is important only to the outcome. Things that look better are better than things that look worse. Visual quality is the only inherent function of art. Everything else is either a subsidiary function or a trait. Art needs no subsidiary functions, but it needs traits

This is the first point from Franklin's crazy manifesto. I think is shows how limited his perspective on what goodness in art is.

6/26/2008 04:25:00 PM  
Anonymous John Cage(d) said...

by request

6/26/2008 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm glad you spotted the museum question for Collector X, Deb...it was my next comment.

What you're not convincing me though is that there's a clear enough fence between Collector X and some trusteeship that will lead to his artwork being purchased before some other work by some museum with limited funds that would be better spent elsewhere.

Although I wholly agree that his participation based on his personal interests and tastes has value and should be encouraged as such, I would argue that your example is somewhat flawed in that he wouldn't keep advisers he never agrees with and any adviser with any integrity would quit rather than let their reputation be associated with his collection. In other words, he wouldn't get the support you're implying he does, nor should he.

think that people can tell for themselves whether something is good for them.

Absolutely. Collect what moves you.

But I'm talking about preserving artwork, for which there are, again, limited resources.

The rest of your concluding paragraph confused me.

6/26/2008 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Nicky said...

The Way Of The Wolf

6/26/2008 04:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

D Neil:
---the story that makes sense


This sounds like demanding a lot of self-consciousness from the part of the viewer. There's only about 50 per cent of me that is ready to seek for sense when I look
at art. The other 50 per cent is a total escapist who don't want to know anything but just feel something unspeakable. It must be the autistic part in me. I can
love the most thorough conceptual piece for pure aesthetic reason, and vice versa for an old master.

I agree that extraneous factors (history) are essential
for consensus, but I can't give every powers to the extraneous.
The human body is way too instinctive. The first person who
will start a rumour about the greatness of a new piece of art
surely have received some sparks that is more close to
irrational magic. A revelation, which could be aesthetic or ethic
or both. What made the work possible to exist is just a context, not everything.




Deborah:
>>>you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right?


What about culinary connoissors? They can talk for hours about why a restaurant is good. Art people always talk at the detriment of other fields. Gastronomy is not just some easy pudding?



Ed
>>>influence the consensus.

Keep seeing art and scream (more like, argument) when you see something good. That's how you influence consensus.



>>>Collector X

One rich collector is not enough to impregnate consensus. Like I don't think every artists at Dia
Beacon will be remembered if the museum dies. About 5 or 6 artists might be out of 40, but those
already had made their mark before Dia came in.

I think we all agree that taste is for a great part something subjective and that art should
be as much appreciated by the guts as any other part of our bodies.

The question here is what or who affects consensus. Saatchi? If Saatchi had been so wrong, the exhibit in New York wouldn't have caused such trouble. Obviously something was unexpected about
the art at that time. It is still a matter of consensus. Rejection is a social reality.

Now I just read someone else mention magic, so forgive my repete

Cedric C

6/26/2008 04:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Death to Everyone said...

we need not jobs and food not art funding.

6/26/2008 04:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Fooling to Cry said...

a scene from a William Burroughs documentary which deals with his time in London and the cut up method. For more on this see

6/26/2008 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is anyone else getting these annoying spambot comments which are really only links to youtube videos?

They're driving me nuts.

6/26/2008 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous HP said...

Constantly

6/26/2008 05:08:00 PM  
OpenID deborahfisher said...

First of all, yeah. I'm getting them too.

Cedric wrote:

Deborah:
>>>you can decide that one restaurant is good and another sucks, right?


What about culinary connoissors? They can talk for hours about why a restaurant is good. Art people always talk at the detriment of other fields. Gastronomy is not just some easy pudding?


Sorry if I was being vague. This is exactly what I meant to say, not to disparage.

I can speak from personal experience. I love dining way more than my pocketbook says I should and I could talk for a year about restaurants. What I am saying is that nobody experiences any handwringing about doing this. Nobody tries to validate a truly crappy restaurant.

(except maybe Queen's Hideaway in Greenpoint...)

6/26/2008 05:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Dragon Inn said...

what is a "truly crappy restaurant"

6/26/2008 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

Well, there's the alleged original "Tom's Diner" in Fort Greene, which is not only famous because of the Suzanne Vega song, but also has Christmas lights up year-round, free cookies, lollipops and orange slices with your meal, and a menu which makes your inner six-year-old dance around in glee.

Only when your meal comes, it actually isn't very good. The fancy pancakes taste like they're out of a box from the nineteen-fifties, and the coffee is like burnt dishwater. So is this an example of narrative overshadowing quality?

6/26/2008 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous DEAF DUMB BLIND (SUMMUN, BUKMUN, UMYUN) said...

yahtzee

6/26/2008 06:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Victoria said...

The Show Must Go On

6/26/2008 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Hallas Øvlisen said...

Heay man.
When push comes to show, you what rocks your boat.

You are informed on many levels and your brain works with all aspects of who you are, what you are, were and has been and will ever be.

When everything comes together trust your instincts and let your brain do its thing. Good art is there, everywhere and you know it when you see it.

Thomas Hallas Øvlisen

6/26/2008 06:13:00 PM  
Anonymous If (rainbows) said...

angelic conversation.

6/26/2008 06:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally like the comment by Matt, right there, first. Something about selfless, putting yourself wholly in the work. One thinks that is how good art gets made, but also how good art gets experienced.
Under thirty I listen intently to my idea is.
Some time after thirty, I gravitate towards this is and I have.The words & work -- the rudder, the mask, and a full sail.

c.p.

6/26/2008 08:13:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

"the story that makes sense"


This sounds like demanding a lot of self-consciousness from the part of the viewer. There's only about 50 per cent of me that is ready to seek for sense when I look
at art. The other 50 per cent is a total escapist who don't want to know anything but just feel something unspeakable. It must be the autistic part in me. I can
love the most thorough conceptual piece for pure aesthetic reason, and vice versa for an old master.


I know this is a late entry, but can we at least agree that what Ed was getting at way up top was "good" in the collective, consensual, supra-individual, social, sense? Something happens between someone having a speechless experience and a socius "cognizing" that experience as valid, important, worth preserving, talking about, writing stories about, passing down, arguing, getting pissed, fighting about?

As it regards Collector X (this character demands a screenplay, no?), we should not confuse the tyranny of capital with the tyranny of the majority (these are, indeed, different animals; the latter is much, much more vicious).

6/26/2008 08:33:00 PM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

"The baboons know where to find bananas."

Ugh, ugh, baboons are ground-dwelling and live in the open savannah, open woodland and hills across Africa; bananas grow in hanging clusters on the banana plants and are not native to Africa. You won't find baboons and bananas together in their natural environment, unless you go to a zoo.

" Others, well, it might be better to stick with the baboons."

Not if you are desperate for bananas.

6/26/2008 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Tyler Monson said...

No work of art should cost more than a good meal, nor be required to last any longer.

6/27/2008 12:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

D Neil:

--Something happens between
--someone having a speechless
--experience and a socius "cognizing"


I totally agree. And people are sheeps that will easily follow the opinion of people they respect, I'm just saying that you can't bypass entirely the original sparkling moment of meeting with the work.

These notions of "cultural catalyst - conflict with tradition - acceptance or rejection", are widely discussed in social anthropology. Depending of how attached a culture is with Tradition, it will enhance or deprive the new artwork with every chances at it getting popular. To me that is context. An artwork has certain probablities at becoming popular depending on Context.

But though I'm a big defender of the powers of thinking and reasoning when apprehending an artwork, I know that part of the cognitive process is not at all rational. Part of us are like flies that can move toward a bulb until we get burned. I don't want to ignore the original sparkling moment that occured between an artwork and the influential voice(s) through which it then travels to reach consensus.

Basically I don't want to tell artists "your art will be popular depending of how you fit within the context". Oe say "hey maybe you will be known because you art is SO different from Context that it can only sparkle interest".

I just think there is no secret recipe. An artist is likely to
sparkle interest on a couple influencial voices that will be able to argument their tastes enough to pave way for consensus (at the expanse of other equally great works that will remain unknown). But regardless of what Contexts brought in positions the chance meeting on a dissecting table of The Potential Great Artwork and the Influential Voices, there is always a part of aesthetic apprehension that is irrational, and that's just science: chaos and order. All I'm saying is that a very important process of irrational sparkling occur right at the source of the elaborate context that surrounds the popularity of an artwork, ad that can't be ignored.

Therefore, because irrational aesthetic apprehension is in great part chaotic, no one can predict What Artwork will meet Which Influential Voice and Sparkle What Results. I find it impossible to attempt reasoning the criterias for commonly accepted Great Art.
You can merely point out at probabilites that it can occur,
context providing all that data.
But potential cultural catalysts
are like matches walking around a fire, awaiting influential voices to lighten them. When and why a kind decides to pick up a match would be the key to understanding great art, but the process is too aleatory to give all credits to reasoning or even necessity.



Cheers

6/27/2008 01:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am worried. I see the word "taste" mentioned only once in relation to art. I see no mention of Marxism when clearly Basualdo's essay is a Marxist "analisis". (Perhaps we need to read more...and add to our libraries. That art school's syllabus was vias[ed].)

6/27/2008 07:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean bias(ed).

6/27/2008 08:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, wrong key. And analisis is analysis in Spanish. Mr. B. and I share the same language. All is lost, I know.

6/27/2008 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I'm working with solvents on a restaurant and I must say the place might look like its been there for some time. SOmething about patinas, age, better with time.

friends roamins, countryfolk, lend me your aura.

Pretty mindless work, but its work. I wonder what its like to polish metal for Koons. Very glamourous I'm sure.

6/27/2008 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

museums; cemeteries!

6/27/2008 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Carlos Basualdo is really interested in Franz West's furnishings. I refuse to talk about art unless specific objects are at hand. Like having a bite to eat, you can't have any criteria for it unless it's been in your mouth. And the only way to be a good cook is to keep on tasting it every time. It's a little different than "having a narrative," but that's only a matter of understanding that "narrative" has many forms - continuous, broken, and non. So, even inside of a discussion of narrative, you can be totally stumped by art. But stumping has its own qualities, and these in turn summon their own words, which have their own histories...

6/27/2008 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous polishing metal for Koons said...

its actually quite magical

6/27/2008 08:06:00 PM  
Blogger Roamin said...

God is Good.

6/28/2008 03:54:00 AM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

My response was to a specific question posed to Ed, but since it was taken as a more general statement I'll rephrase it: I'm suspicious of any artist who has to ask someone else if they should keep working at something they're bored with. Advice, feedback, criticism can be essential to artistic growth, but that’s different from asking someone outside the studio where you should be putting your focus. In any case, boredom is rarely the pathway to great art.

6/28/2008 06:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boredom does have its agency, though it is a rare one. Good tends to arrive at its destination via the comparative. Such as is, good may often be little more than an Aspirin, worse, a placebo. In history if we had waited for the good of the collective to determine 'good' we would have had a pretty sad history.
A few years ago, an argument that popular dutch landscapes were a good example of the then current scene seems to have fallen by the wayside, withered, out of boredom.

c.p.

6/28/2008 07:32:00 AM  
Anonymous you must make art said...

is being bored like doing a foxtrot in Fallen Snow

6/28/2008 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Carol Diehl's response on boredom is out of the blue - maybe from another thread? But it does respond to an earlier comment from Franklin about the impossibility love, and counter him with the fact that these more "intuitive and personal" affects have entered the formalist narrative he relentlessly defends. Heidegger wrote that Modernism was qualified equally by boredom and anxiety, Rosenberg wrote that Gorky's "break" occurred out of boredom (all that doodling!), Fried writes about absorption and theatricality - Objects, works of art, do involve affect, even of the autistic sort - think of Merleau-Ponty on Cezanne - description abounds. Hegel wasn't afraid to write about love, and without any bs or piety he wrote the fattest narrative of all.

I've fallen upon a history of art as a history deeply involving affect. Read Nicholas Knight's review of Wade Guyton.

6/28/2008 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Scarlett Johansson and Nine Inch Nails. Together at last. said...

you said "trust the spiral"


However

6/28/2008 02:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things - time and pleasure. What is important and exciting now may not be in 100 years. Is it still good art?

Pleasure in studies done of rats' brains is increased by mild surprises. I would say seeking pleasure is one of our most avid pursuits.
ml

6/28/2008 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger William said...

So, I think judging a work of art "good" depends upon the strength of the story it can either generate or in which it can take up residence (and so augment). - Jonathan

This is a fascinating thread, and I find myself working within the narrative of the artist. What I make may not be as important as the narrative it implies or inhabits. Someone mentioned we aren't looking at a Pollock, but Pollock himself. I tend to find the story surrounding Pollock as compelling as the paintings, in terms of how we understand the paintings and value them.

The fascination with artists is the lie of Modernism, which banished narrative and language in art in favor of 'universal' truths. It's not only Pollock's paintings, it's how his life (think the infamous Life Magazine article that asked "Is this The Greatest Living Artist?) influenced the way people viewed his work. Let's not forget the importance Greenberg's writing and criticism played in shaping how Pollock was received. Collectors weren't sold initially, the public bought into the narrative first. The image of Pollock as the wild genius, unconsciously expressing Modernism through action, is equally part of what makes the work interesting, if not good. In some way, it allows the work to endure beyond the extreme limiting conditions of Modernist Painting.

I really have to agree with Jonathan the it's more than the art itself, but the total narrative that incorporates everyone from the artist, collector x, critics, to the public. The art is only part of the complex equation we seem to be looking to solve as there are many variables that generate value.

I just have an interest in making the variables (narrators) visible in my work. Sometimes, perhaps too visible.

6/28/2008 04:34:00 PM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

Whoops, you're right, Catherine, wrong thread! Thanks! I'll post it where it goes. But I do like your ramble on it.

6/28/2008 04:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Somehow I missed the part where I commented "about the impossibility love."

6/28/2008 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Franklin:

That was the part where you were writing a country/western song with our help.

What kind of car did Jackson Pollock crash? Could be an opening line.

6/28/2008 05:46:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I remeber when a smoke was a smoke and a car was a ford
Jackson Pollock was poor then he was rich
I guess that's why they say life is a bitch
Pollock put an axe in a piano, pissed in a fireplace and pegged peggy or maybe not
Its a great legend if you like losers and pot
Jackson pollock, king of the wild frontier.

hows that?

6/28/2008 07:24:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

So that's what you've been doing here all this time Zip. Writing C/W songs. I will always hum your comments to a Johnny Cash beat now.

6/28/2008 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger Roamin said...

Some things are so ‘bad’ that they’re ‘good’. Other things are too ‘good’ for their own good – and that’s ‘bad’.

Standards of beauty change, privately, publicly. Familiarity breeds contempt – after a while what seemed a very good thing can seem humdrum, if not actually bad. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

6/28/2008 11:28:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Before we can have a consensus on what 'good art' is, we need a consensus on what 'art' is.

We don't have anything approaching this. There are many different views of what art is. Each of those views contains criteria for 'good art'. If you think 'visual quality is the only inherent function of art', then 'good art' is that which has the kind of visual characteristics you think are 'quality' (which sounds awfully like Fry's significant form). Obviously, you'll never reach a consensus with someone who thinks that art is about something other than (or as well as) form.

All the definitions of good art above tell us something about the individual making the statement, but not much about what good art is. An individual's taste is determined in large part by their personality, circumstances, history.

What we need, perhaps, is some kind of meta-consensus - that is, one that transcends all the various partisan positions. This is where the museums and art history books come in. They contain all the different, contradictory ideas about what art (and hence good art) is, and should not try to resolve those contradictions.

6/29/2008 04:15:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Is there a consensus that, regardless of the type of art, one thing distinguishes good from bad - lack of obviousness?

A good artwork (whether painting, video, photograph, installation, etc) is rich in associations. A bad one isn't.

6/29/2008 08:29:00 AM  
Anonymous And now, if I may quote said...

Apropos of detective fiction: "In the American hero-fantasy, the Indian's character plays a leading role....only the Indian rites of initiation can compare with the ruthlessness and savagery of rigorous American training....In everything on which the American has really set in his heart, we catch a glimpse of the Indian. His extraordinary concentration and particular goal, his tenacity of purpose, his unflinching of purpose, his unflinching endurance of the greatest hardships-in all this the legendary virtues of the Indian find full expression." C.G. Jung

6/29/2008 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Flayed alive.

6/29/2008 04:01:00 PM  
Anonymous CS said...

do you mean fillet o?

on this point I am willing to make a concession

or confession_

6/29/2008 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger frank waaldijk said...

dear edward, i've been writing about the same things. just summarily, in my perspective it boils down to this.

quality usually is associated with a supposedly non-subjective standard. this is however hard to quantify. google does it by introducing pagerank. this means that the quality of a website is measured by the buzz it has created - to simplify terminology.

the same principle holds in the art world. what the art world calls quality of an art work is determined by a process which i would call `generalized pagerank'.

is there an alternative? i think so. robert pirsig already has given a very profound analysis of the relationship between quality and art in `zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance'.

thinking along these lines it seems to me that an intrinsic personalized quality can and should come before a generalized extrinsic quality.

this might seem obvious, but in practice of course most people don't take the time to really develop their taste, experience, etc. to form a personal uninfluenced impression of an art work.

for me as a visual artist however it opens up a liberating point of view, namely: forget about the art world. it's a derivative world living off the primary quality whcih some artists instill in their work.

if you like to read more about my thinking (also an open thread by the way) you can visit my blog at http://fwaaldijk.blogspot.com/

greetings,

frank waaldijk
visual artist

6/30/2008 05:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an art criticism junkie, and I love this sort of discourse, so I can hardly beat up on you for the topic of this open thread, but the very notion that we can articulate a "bright line" test for good/bad art just seems so silly to me. Why can we make this pronouncement? Why us? Why now? I can't remember where I saw it, or the context, but there was a quote from Roy Sieber, an African art guru of sorts, which stated with me:

"...the history of taste is a story of constantly shifting attitudes which are not cumulative, and which are neither inevitable nor infallible beyond the moment they are in favor."

With this quote in mind, it seems haughty to me, to the point of arrogance, to think that we can make this pronouncement, that it's valid, that it has broad application, and that it has some degree of immutability.

6/30/2008 11:15:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

If art prices (value expressed in money - "monetized" if you will) are reflections of associative meaning - be they sentimental or mathematically stripped of humanity - what governing principle allows collectors to buy into the sales paradigm without collecting 200 million dollars at every roll of the dice? Why not an infinite number of hotels on Ventnor Avenue? Would the game spiral downwards into an untidy pool of beer and big breasted Twister?

7/01/2008 01:09:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

"...the history of taste is a story of constantly shifting attitudes which are not cumulative, and which are neither inevitable nor infallible beyond the moment they are in favor."

I don't find this incompatible with the conversation about narrative and taste as it has so far occurred. For example, here is Jonathan T.D. Neil form way up at the tippy top:

"I think judging a work of art "good" depends upon the strength of the story it can either generate or in which it can take up residence (and so augment)."

I don't think too many on this thread are looking for universal laws. And I don't think it is haughty to stand by the existence of any consensus at all. It may be pertinent to raise this as a question, though - does contemporary art criticism ever reach a state of public consensus?

7/01/2008 06:46:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

does contemporary art criticism ever reach a state of public consensus?

Does it ever reach a state of public awareness?

As for those 'constantly shifting attitudes', the anthropologists tell us there are universals common to every culture. If we disregard those definitions of good art that apply only to particular kinds of art (such as formalism), I
wonder whether these universals might be a pointer. This is just a very vague idea but.

7/01/2008 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

I'm also dubious about the three criteria Ed suggested in his post: influence, aesthetic pleasure, and originality.

If influence is a criterion, then an art work isn't always good but only becomes good when it influences other artists. This seems absurd. Surely an artwork is always good or bad?

Aesthetic pleasure is a matter of individual taste. I generally like balanced compositions and cool colours. Other people like compositions where the masses are concentrated and bright colours. Etc etc. For some art, aesthetic pleasure is simply not relevant.

Originality is a recent concern. Take Byzantine icons or Egyptian art, for example. Are they to be ruled out of court entirely? What about Malevich's 'Black square'? Is the first one good, but the second bad?

7/01/2008 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Thats it, I'm taking my marbles.

7/01/2008 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

The second one is worth less than the first. Yes. Unless the second one was conceived during an illicit affair with a rival artists wife. But its worth less if the rival artist is not very good. But It's worth more if the rivalry leads to bloodshed. but its worth less if the artist is formerly known as some stupid stage name. but its worth more if the political system it was created under was ridiculously idealistic and oppressive. But its worth less if the art capitulates to the system. But its worth more if it subverts the system. But its worth less if the subversion was relegated tot he broom closet. But it's worth more if the broom closet has significance. But its worth less if the painting is about brooms. But its worth more if the brooms inexplicably multiplied. But its worth less if it all ended well. but its worth more if they make a movie about it.

7/01/2008 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger concrete phone said...

well, something that IS is universal. not that I care about the argument. Something is whether it be deemed good, bad, or ugly, whether it is observable, experience-able, easy or hard, can be or can't be explained. The best is motivated.

Andy decided that the easiest access to this was to focus on the infamous, by making art with and about the less so.

c.p.

7/01/2008 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/01/2008 10:28:00 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

You wrote in your original post:

   Is "exchange value" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one?

In Death Can Be a Canny Career Move, Dorothy Spears relates how Gagosian jumped the price of works by Steven Parrino by a factor of 100 after he died.

Did the goodness of Steven Parrino's art also increase 100-fold when he died? Clearly exchange value is too easily manipulated to be a robust metric of goodness.

Mock me if you like, but for years I've used a three point spot quiz when evaluating art: 1) does it tickle my aesthetic sense? 2) does it provoke feelings? 3) do I find myself thinking about it later? (e.g. does learning more about the work/artist cause me to shift my reading of it?)

These three points correspond to my affective, emotive and intellectual responses to the work.

I find good art consistently scores 3/3, producing strong affective, emotive and intellectual responses. Mediocre art invariably misses a component - I see a lot of work that is affective/emotive but has no critical component, or critical and affective but totally dry. Bad art is in a category all on its own, failing catastrophically in ways that have their own interest.

Donald Norman (here), a cognitive scientist, similarly identified three dimensions in evaluating design: visceral, behavioral and reflective. The large overlap between his carefully researched system and my silly seat-of-the-pants approach suggests at least the number three may be valid.

Importance is unrelated to goodness. Plenty of bad artworks are important. Plenty of good artworks are of little importance. Greatness, of course, is that rare case where importance meets goodness.

7/01/2008 10:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that the least functional of the clocks gathered the most anxiety. Because, of course, a clock is a functional item. Let's place that devastation in a less functional environment and think about what is actually happening.
I'm not saying lets ditch all the useless clocks out there, though thinking most do feel that art has its function, what happens when one can't enter, though somehow are without knowing.... or not, as the case may be?
Should experience run by the clock?

Nicely rounded off, 'where goodness and importance meet'. A combination of jovial and power lunches seems the standard startage.

c.p.

7/02/2008 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Mark G. Taber said...

The first question that comes to my mind is “Which good are we talking about”? There is a point of view that says in effect “To each his own”. In other words, all judgements of quality are subjective. This can terminate many disputes, but it trivializes all judgements. Another point of view will say that there are inter-personal criteria of quality and they can be known. They are universal to all and we can scour the globe for the best examples of aesthetic artifacts from all peoples and bring them together under one roof for our delectation. Thus the encyclopedia museum was born. Eventually a critic will emerge who will say “Not so.” There are no universal criteria, this claim is merely a mask for power. The powerful built the museum in their own image. This critic has been so effective that we are left at an impasse. Do we hobble around with claims to have universal criteria, widely perceived as irredeemably discredited, or do we all become critics unmasking power, louder, shriller, and with very little progress to show for it? Or is it all just personal preference?

If we say it’s strictly personal preferences, then there is no way to make any distinctions. It also leaves exchange value as the only distinguishing characteristic between works of art.

Inter-personal criteria will claim to have some level of objectivity, which in modern times leads to claims of universality, which opens the door to the “it’s a mask for power” critic.

These two points of view operating in concert are a potent and dominant force today and they render any conversation about inter-personal criteria for quality very difficult to carry on.

The way out involves operating within a tradition with a history that embodies standards and criteria for judgements about quality. “In Western countries, modern art was thought to be structured around the relative balance between a number of institutions founded on a common history or histories, that is to say, on shared values.” This begins to suggest what I mean: “Western countries” presupposes shared history and values. The borders of the West may be vague, in flux, or controversial but I think we can agree that it doesn’t include all of humanity for all time. If we are initiated into this tradition, inhabit it, and enjoy the rewards it offers then we will discover that it has interpersonal standards of quality that have been advanced over time. What I think I’m doing when I visit the Met is to try and discover for myself what it is about the art there that exemplifies the inter-personal standards of quality embodied in the Western art tradition. As such, the only other people I would expect to have a coherent conversation about inter-personal aesthetic judgements with would be someone who is also inhabiting the same tradition. This is how we are “objective”. This interpretation is in fundamental disagreement with the rest of the quote by Basualdo who one more Romantic claiming he is ripping away the veil to expose the real truth, which in this case is hidden exchange value.

7/06/2008 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/06/2008 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

People tend to be fickle... and their opinions can be swayed for a number of reasons. I've met people who have enjoyed my paintings until they find out some of my political views-- at which point they label me "talentless", "mediocre", and so on. So due to my views my paintings can go from being 'good' to 'bad' depending on the views of the person observing it.

That does not happen much, but it has happened. It happened with a buyer at one point... that was actually an amusing experience because he wanted his money back. :P

7/06/2008 09:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having only just come across this issue, i hope that Edward will see this comment as for this issue I would strongly suggest the writings of Nelson Goodman who focuses on this very issue. Specifically in Ways of Worldmaking in a little essay entitled When is Art? It is written from the point of view of aesthetics so it tends to leave out the politics. I am happy to supply isbn#s for reference if needed.

Martin Bland
blandmartin@hotmail.com

7/09/2008 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Revisiting my last comment, I've been reading "Talking Prices" by Olav Velthuis (excellent book on art dealers and art prices). On page 115 Olav discusses several pieces of research which show that, statistically speaking, there is a strong relationship between price and artistic achievement (measured by various metrics).

Of course, we can't apply that to a specific artwork or artist - e.g. we cannot argue Hirst's skull is good art because it cost a lot. But neither can we simply discount the relationship between price and cultural relevance.

7/25/2008 02:51:00 PM  
Anonymous lindsay said...

wow, intense thread ...

I don't know how 'good' can be 'collectively' assigned, precisely because of indivdual 'tastes', and cultural circumstance.

'Consensus', in my mind, is more a result of 'social pressure'and mercantile ambiton then anything.

The rich will always have different 'tastes' then the poor, from any tribe, nation state, on any continent.

That said, I too raise the question, is the 'David' universally 'good' across all class and culture? I would have to answer yes. WHY? I personally dismiss all the 'narrative & cultural chatter' above. Rather, it must be a DIRECT individual reaction to the sculpture. Pure & simple. Anyone who has SEE the David has to agree. That 'thing' is GOOD.

That the 'David' has achieved FAME has alot to do with historical precedent, as well as the dissemination of it's FAME, so much so that it's FAME has become self-perpetuating in perpetuity ... I, as example, only KNOW of the David because I've been TAUGHT to KNOW about it.

Is there an artist alive today comparable to the talent and intent of Michelangelo? I would say absolutely yes - somewhere there is, and that artist's 'work' is likely just as 'good' in intent & execution as the David.

However, whether the current general 'consensus' discover & deem it to be so - in our cross-cultural 'money-driven' climate - is quite another 'story' ... A lot of 'artists' have FAME and have secured a place in the history books, but are they really any GOOD? will they 'stand the test of time'?

Augustus St.Gaudens, the American sculptor, is, to my mind, easily on par with Michelangelo, but he is not as well know, or as revered. Yet, LOOK at his work. Surely all individuals from any continent, from any culture, would have to agree - there is no question that it is GOOD. ....

6/02/2010 12:26:00 PM  

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