What Makes Good Art Good and Bad Art Bad?

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What Makes Good Art Good and Bad Art Bad?

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Q: What Makes Good Art Good and Bad Art Bad?

This is an important question but it is one that requires a bit more general context to answer adequately, and that is the answer to the question "What makes anything good or bad?". My answer is that you can only say that something is good in the context of a purpose or goal that it facilitates or inhibits. For example, you can only say that a hammer, a chair, or a bucket is "good" by reference to the purpose of the thing, namely, to pound things, to provide a platform to sit on, or to hold some substance. To understand how the thing is effective at accomplishing the goal it is necessary to understand the features of the thing that make it more or less effective at being that kind of thing. Hammers need to be suited to the size of the person using them and the things being hammered, a heavy head, a strong handle, etc. A good chair needs to be the right size, of sturdy construction, have a comfortable seat, and so on. A good bucket will be free of holes, be easy to carry around, be of sturdy materials, etc. These are appropriate standards because they are the qualities that result in the achievement of the intended goals of the kind of thing. We should judge each kind of thing on the basis of its own purpose. What I mean by that is that we should not judge chairs on the basis of how well they carry water, hammers on the basis of how comfortable they are to sit on, or buckets based on how well they pound nails into wood. This is not to say that you can't sit on a hammer or pound a nail with a bucket, but that these are not the proper criteria on which to base an evaluation as to whether they are good things of their kind.

Now let's see what this tells us about the arts. What is the purpose of art? Some would say that the purpose of art is "anything", "nothing", or "impossible to define", but that's as foolish as claiming that chairs, hammers, or buckets can be used for anything or that they are impossible to define. Art exists in order to express ideas, and it does this through a specific means (means different from those used in journalism, temper tantrums, or exposition) which is to selectively recreate some aspect of reality in order to represent the idea. Some might call this "fictionalizing" or "stylizing". This means that good art (which would include any art whether painting, drawing, sculpture, literature, music, drama or what have you) is any art which is very effective at expressing its idea and accomplishes that expression through the means peculiar to art, but not if it happens some other way, like with a press release or a punch in the stomach. If the expression is weak, vague, unclear, or prone to misinterpretation then it is not an effective means to the goal of expression either.

Scoping down a bit to the particulars of drawing and painting, there are thousands of visual, design, and implementation tools that an artist can bring to the task of expressing himself through drawing and painting, and I can't get into each one in depth since that would require a number of books full of analysis to even describe briefly. To generalize though, a good painting or drawing has a good compositional design that helps direct the attention of the viewer in ways that advance his expressive purpose. It has the lines, colors, and patterns which were intended by the artist (as opposed to being hampered by the presence of random factors or accidents which inhibit the intended expression). The subject matter should be interesting visually, emotionally, and intellectually in order to catch and hold the attention of the viewer since one can't express anything to someone who is repelled or disinterested. It may use a host of optional techniques to advance its expressive purpose such as illusion, storytelling, familiar objects, selective focus (making more important elements sharper and less important ones more muddled), they might call upon mythic symbolism, effective manipulation of the surface (for example making it smooth, bumpy, catching the light in certain ways, etc.), excellence in reproducing realistic portrayals of things to induce suspension of disbelief, repetition, the generation of sensory pleasure or discontent through colors and patterns (for example, some shapes and patterns are pleasant, some are fuzzy or obscure, and others are unpleasant or upsetting), and any number of other tools which an artist can call upon to generate his desired effect. This isn't some kind of cookie cutter recipe, but as in the case of cookies, although there's no universal recipe, there are also potentially more good ones yet to be discovered, some (like chocolate chip) that are known to work, and others (like cookies made of rocks or rat poison) that clearly don't and never will no matter how hard or sincerely one might try.