What is a great work of art? How do you judge a work of art?
You stand in front of a painting/ sculpture/ whatever and…blank. What I am I supposed to say? It’s a- blob? “I like the texture…and the shapes…?” Who decides what’s great and what’s not anyway?
I just got back from some gallery openings (quite the spectacle of seeing and being seen). I was asked over and over “what is this about” or “what do you think”? I’ve looked at a lot of art, probably not enough though- but I’d like to level the playing field for everyone and maybe make some people more comfortable with what they have to say about art.
So basically, right now there are two schools of thought and two modes of art making/ theory, the postmodern and the formalist/ modernist. These are competing camps that are completely blurred- especially because scholars love to stick artists and works in categories that the artist doesn’t necessarily agree with.
Postmodernism is all about context, its about the critique of socio-political outlooks- all of our realities are different and relative to our individual situation. This philosophy is extremely diverse and envelope many discourses like gender studies, racial studies, stereotypes, etc. It can take many different forms, in many cases, it does not even ‘look’ like art, it can be documents, text, cooking, etc. Obviously it all can’t be covered in a blog post.
Modernism or formalism is considered a more ‘conservative’ outlook… regardless, the formalist believes that a work must explore the boundaries of its medium, it has to search for the fundamental properties of the medium in order to get to the essence of what painting (insert medium) is.
To explain this better, I’ll use a metaphor of games. Games have boundaries or rules, without the rules there is no game. Take freeze tag. Ok so the rules are if you get tagged you have to freeze, and then somebody else has to come along and tag you and then you get to run around again. So what if you take freeze tag and combine it with hide and seek and maybe monopoly too…the rules of the game get blurred. If you keep adding games in, it turns out there are no rules and its just a bunch of kids running around hiding, freezing and throwing monopoly pieces at you, the viewer, asking wtf. The point is, we need boundaries. We need limits to art in what is and is not art. Because if there is no rules to the game, there is no game. If art can be anything, then it is nothing.
A great work of art stops you. When you look at the work it holds you, you may not know why at first but there is something that gets you and you can’t look away. When looking at a work of art for the first time, don’t listen to anyone, don’t talk to anyone. Just look at it. Does it communicate? This could mean anything, maybe the lack of interaction among the figures is the alienation of the individual amongst the masses; or maybe you just like the color (or lack thereof). Anyway, after you figure out that you like the work (or don’t) figure out why. Maybe it’s too simple, naïve or just boring. That’s justified! You don’t have to like it, but don’t be ashamed (also don’t go off on a hate-rant). Just take the extra five minutes (or more) to really think about the work and why or why not it appeals to you.
The great work of art should stand the test of time. Context should not be divorced from the work, but neither should it be the core. A great work is more than context. A work is great if it supersedes the context for all times, the work is completely evident; you don’t have to read a textbook to “get” it. A great work is subjective, you feel it personally, but it is also objective- it reveals and focuses a personal truth as well as a universal truth.