A recent series of comments in response to a story on musician Gretchen Seichrist had me wondering, when do you know something is a bad work of art, as opposed to simply not to your personal taste? And who ultimately gets to decide what art is truly good?
As I usually do when pondering an arts related question, I posted it on Facebook to see what sort of answers I might get (I count approximately 1500 Minnesota artsy types among my FB friends).
The responses I got were, as ever, thoughtful, probing and witty. So I thought I'd share some of them with you.
Since the question is a two-parter, I'll break down the answers respectively:
How do you determine good art from bad? Or from art that's simply not to your taste?
Actress Linda Sue Anderson mused: "Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography "I know it when I see it." Perhaps the same is true for "bad" art?"
Poet Kathryn Kysar answered: "Skill and craft can make it good art, even if I don't like the style."
Artist Deborah Foutch wrote:
Art that connects is successful. Sometimes the connection is beauty sometimes it's repellent & there is a lot of stuff in between these extremes but Art that fills the eye, or ears but leaves you with "eh" feeling is unsuccessful.
In a similar vein, writer Jacquie Fuller offered:
When I think of bad art, I think of Milan Kundera's definition of kitsch in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." In bad art, "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions."
On the more humorous side, photographer Paul Shambroom wrote:
Simple. If it's in the Museum of Bad Art (http://www.museumofbadart.org/) it's bad. If it's in any other museum, it's good (or someone important thinks it is.) And if it's not in any museum at all it might be genius.
And finally arts educator Bonnie Schock suggests "this depends entirely upon how we define the function of art in society."
Who decides what is good art?
Poet William Reichard's response: "You get to determine what is good and bad art. It's completely subjective. You can trust 'authorities' to make these judgements for you, but it's much more fun to make them yourself."
Sculptor Jim Larson suggested "those who get to determine great art have skillfully maneuvered themselves into those positions."
Poet Leslie Adrienne Miller believes "a society's artists collectively decide good art from bad over time, though individuals with authority at any given moment sometimes think they are the deciders."
and finally Nimbus Theater director Josh Cragun offered this explanation:
The answer is simple: every single person who partakes in creating or consuming [art]. What is profound, beautiful, or mind-opening depends on each individual, their language, upbringing, experiences, and more. The idea that something must be universally acclaimed to be good is a fallacy at best, and perhaps more accurately, a destructive distraction.
That doesn't mean that the conversation about what is important has no value, however. Our evaluations of art are reflections of who we are and how we perceive the world, and exchanging these perceptions is one of the most crucial tools we have in coming to understand both each other and the world in which we live in.
So, what do you think? Have anything you'd like to add to the thoughts above? Share them in the comments section.
Critic Michael Kimmelman thinks sculpture - by which he means those premodern alabaster and bronze figures - has fallen out of grace with contemporary audiences.
A tiny clay sculpture of John the Baptist at the Bode Museum in Berlin is attributed to the 15th-century Luccan artist Matteo Civitali.
Image: Gordon Welters for The New York Times
In a recent "postcard" for the New York Times, Kimmelman described having certain galleries of the Bode Museum in Berlin all to himself... I've excerpted the meatier bits here for your consideration:
...Is it me, or do we seem to have a problem with sculpture today? I don't mean contemporary sculpture, whose fashionable stars (see Koons, Murakami et alia) pander to our appetite for spectacle and whatever's new. I don't mean ancient or even non-Western sculpture, either. I mean traditional European sculpture -- celebrities like Bernini and Rodin aside -- and American sculpture, too: the enormous universe of stuff we come across in churches and parks, at memorials and in museums like the Bode. The stuff Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist painter, notoriously derided as objects we bump into when backing up to look at a painting.
...I grew up with the smells of plaster dust and clay in my mother's sculpture studio on Third Avenue. Making a figure out of stone or metal retains its childlike wonder for me. But sculpture skeptics from Leonardo through Hegel and Diderot have cultivated our prejudice against the medium. "Carib art," is how Baudelaire described sculpture, meaning that even the suavest, most sophisticated works of unearthly virtuosity by Enlightenment paragons like Canova and Thorvaldsen were tainted by the medium's primitive, cultish origins.
Racism notwithstanding, Baudelaire had a point. Sculpture does still bear something of the burden of its commemorative and didactic origins. It's too literal, too direct, too steeped in religious ceremony and too complex for a historically amnesiac culture. We prefer the multicolored distractions of illusionism on flat surfaces, flickering in a movie theater or digitized on our laptops and smartphones, or painted on canvas. The marketplace ratifies our myopia, making headlines for megamillion-dollar sales of old master and Impressionist pictures but rarely for premodern sculptures.
...In an age of special effects, we may also simply no longer know how to feel awe at the sight of sculptured faces by the German genius Tilman Riemenschneider or before a bronze statue by Donatello. We can't see past the raw materiality and subject matter.
What do you think? Is Kimmelman right? In a world of multimedia performances, has sculpture simply become too... basic?
As always, your thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.(1 Comments)
After five years in London running that city's sinfonia, Barry Kempton is returning to St. Paul to lead Minnesota's oldest arts organization, the Schubert Club.
Kempton will assume his responsibilities sometime after the first of the year.
An acclaimed local photographer is joining the University of Minnesota's art department this fall.
Paul Shambroom is a nationally recognized photographer whose images explore layers of power in American culture, from town hall meetings to national security. Most recently, Shambroom has been looking at shrines made from artillary and aircraft on public display in communities across the United States.
Photograph by Doug Beasley.
Now Shambroom will be sharing his insights on the profession with students as a member of the U of M's Department of Art faculty.
A graduate of both Macalester College and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Shambroom has lectured and taught as a visiting artist at institutions including Harvard University, New York's International Center for Photography, and Westminster University in London.