Saturday, December 7, 2013


What is good art? I came across a poll recently that asked “Is quality in art subjective?” to which an overwhelming (71%, or 42,655/60,463 at the time or writing) number of artists responded yes. For those of you, like me, who need a refresher on the difference between subjective and objective, the Oxford Dictionary of American English defines subjective as “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” 

The results are not surprising then, given that all those polled are artists or art appreciators. However, if the general public were to answer the same question, I suspect the outcome would be quite different. If you doubt me, consider modern art. Here are some of my favorite pieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

The Young Christ, Alexej von Jawlensky

Don't Tell Me When to Stop, John McCracken

In the Kairouan Style, Transposed in a Moderate Way, Paul Klee

East Ninth Street, Joan Mitchell

Band in Boston, Robert Irwin

The range is quite remarkable. Some pieces, such as The Young Christ, look a bit like elementary school art projects, while Don't Tell Me When to Stop is... a giant rectangle. I can hear the people now: "I could've done that!" The traditional response of course being: "But you didn't." This answer suggests that the artist is somehow attempting to con us. He did it, called it art, and fools that we are, we simply believed him.

Well, what if that's what he did? Does that make this piece any less a work of art than if he saw it in a fever dream and slaved on it for weeks? Is that art? What is art? The questions keep coming.

To answer the question of what is good art, and wether quality is subjective, you have to define art for yourself. Some people have an extroverted view of art, and some an introverted view (these are my own terms, not technical). An extroverted view considers the effect a piece of art has on the viewer, while an introverted view focuses on the place the art comes from, namely, from within the artist themselves. 

If you view art in the extroverted way, than many, if not most, pieces will simply not appear on your radar. They are just so many scribbles, half-hearted and useless. Of the things left that you do consider art, what is good?

We obviously need to decide what constitutes goodness and quality. If your definition hinges on technicalities, then there are millions of works of “art” in the world that are technically atrocious. Quite frankly, the work of your child is atrocious.

That doesn’t sound right though, does it? Children’s artwork, much like modern art, is fascinating for its bizarre and whimsical interpretation of everyday life and beyond. No one (or hardly anyone, I hope) goes around critiquing children on their poor execution of basic art theory. Why? Because instinctively, we recognize something of value in that piece of art. It is an articulation of developing a mind, unhindered by convention or societal pressure. We might not consider it technically beautiful, but we value children’s artwork, as many a decorated fridge, or carefully preserved Mother's Day card, can attest. Therefore, quality and goodness can be subjective.

There are many ways to view art using these two definitions. You can combine introverted/technical, extroverted/subjective, etc. I will not say one or the other is right, because the way you apply these might vary piece by piece. It certainly does for me. 

Using definitions can expand your horizons. Perhaps you have never thought about the design of a logo, or the paintings in a hotel room, or your high school mascot, as art. Change your definition, and I assure you, you will find yourself surrounded by art. Once you begin to see the art around you, you can begin to decide what good means to you. I hope that these definitions will be useful as tools of exploration to some of you. 

Now I'm curious. How  and where do you see art? Do you have definitions like (or not like) mine? Please feel free to chime in below. 

All images courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts. All rights reserved to their respective parties. 


  1. Cat,
    This reminds me of many of the classes I took in school and I really think I would have appreciated them a bit more if we took them together! Did I tell you that there was alot of drama in the art department during my senior year? There was discrepancy between professors and then between professors and students on our thesis show and the question of what is acceptable. I also struggled with the question, "What is art?" because professors don't consider design or illustration to be art (which is my style). In the end, I was able to utilize my illustrative style and make it work in a series of ink paintings on wood.

    I remember that Contemporary Art Theory class also drove me crazy and I think I was scarred by some of the work I saw. Contemporary artists place more emphasis on concept than technical skills and I understand that there can be value in that, but sometimes, it seems that many artists just wanted attention by making it incredibly ridiculous and playing up the shock factor (for example, Jeff Koon's work or when video artists film themselves having sex with their boyfriends). I guess I'm just not a fan of contemporary art. I don't care for appropriation and usually can't relate to the artist's intent. Well, the class has definitely broadened my perspective on what "art" is...basically, anything can be art if you have the intent.

    The extroverted and introverted view you mention is a very interesting point. In this case, I generally have an extroverted view on art. I was raised on the logic that the harder you work on something, the more valuable it becomes. Therefore, I generally lean toward appreciating art that demonstrates some sort of technical ability, although that's not always the case (like you said, I do find artwork by children very endearing!) It's also true that I can appreciate an artist's ability and not be a fan of his or her work... In the end, I guess I like it when an artist puts some sort of aesthetic value to their work. ^^;;;

    In Japan, I see what people traditionally consider "art" in the packaging of products and in advertisements. It's easier here because 2D illustrations/drawings or characters play a bigger role than the states. Unlike the states where "cartoons are for kids," cute characters are also used on products for adults!

    1. Jenna,
      Oh sounds like the art department needed to get ahold of themselves.... I fail to understand how illustration and design art not art! That's quite mind-boggling...

      As for contemporary art, I agree it's our there. I must admit I LOVE Jeff Koon's balloon animals. I think it's totally fine to not care for art--it's natural. The issue I'm getting at in this blog is what we consider art, and how we evaluate it. The concept of intent is interesting though. What do you think of...a flower, perhaps? I think flowers are gorgeous, but they aren't made by humans. They just are. Is a flower art, because we can see the beauty, or is it not, because the flower is not intending to be beautiful, it's trying to survive.
      I find the great thing about art is you don't have to apply the same standards to each piece, just like you say about children's work, vs. not liking contemporary art that emphasizes technical skills.
      (I actually had to go look up the definition of aesthetic--not what I thought it was!) I agree I like aesthetics, though sometimes I love a good grungy/disturbing piece of work too.
      That's another thing, I agree that packaging is art. Someone designed that, someone created it out of their minds to be viewed. Hell, I consider the pictures on paper towels to be art because guess what, someone made that! I do love Japan's art values though.