Since the early 20th century, when painting began to stretch the boundaries of what we consider artful, or even art itself, the language we use to describe art, and therefore the way we think about art
, has become so muddled that it is not uncommon to read commentary about art and feel that you need an art degree, yet not the technical skill associated with art, to understand why a particular work of art has value. These ideas are condensed from this version
of a journal entry I wrote recently, in which I am rethinking how everyday people can express confidence in what kind of art appeals to them. It includes some considerations that generally do not seem to be mentioned by authorities on art: museums, critics, writers, and artists themselves, who often speak about art in such jargon that it begins to lack any practical meaning. I consider myself relatively well-educated and very interested in art, but reading critical theory about art often feels like a perplexing joke.
Maybe it might help to overview how people judged art in the past. Up to the middle of the 19th century, a regular person in the Western world might approach a work of art, and ask themselves:
1. Is it beautiful?
2. Can I afford it?
The answer to the second question was almost always a no. Art was still made for people who could afford it, a class of people with more money. There was no significant middle class and no real way to mass produce prints. If people had art hanging in their homes, it was almost always locally made, if not made by a member of the household. But with the industrial age came a growing middle class. Coincidentally, technology advanced several factors that changed art in the 20th century. First, photography became available to amateurs, so people could shoot images of their loved ones and the land around them, creating a crisis of purpose for artists: why paint portraits when a camera can do the job more cheaply? Why paint landscapes? And secondly, prints of artworks became available and affordable to a wide population.
This crisis of purpose was answered by many artists in the 20th century by taking the elements of painting that made sense for centuries, and bludgeoning them into some unrecognizable form. Cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism began to dominate canvas paintings, and the response from critics directly opposed the response from audiences. Critics grew to love it. Audiences seemed to hate it. The result, still very relevant, is an audience of people baffled by art, and a group of authorities in art who assert amongst themselves what has value. Today, someone might go to a gallery or museum, approach a work of art, and ask themselves:
1. Is this art?
2. Is it good? (What do the experts say?)
It's time, however, to change these questions for everyday people. Any time spent at deviantArt shows that audiences are still greatly moved by elements of traditional art like portraits and landscapes, even if the medium is digital. People still respond to basic human connections in art. We consume art more than ever, and the divide between critics and audiences seems just as wide. So, what if we changed the questions we ask about art, directing those questions not to writers, authorities, and critics, but to ourselves?
1. Beauty: Is it beautiful? Do I have a positive physical response to the image? (Note: even macabre themes can be beautiful to some people. As ever, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you.)
2. Challenge: Does this challenge me? Does it provoke, puzzle, frustrate, repel, or confuse me, make me question my beliefs about beauty or art?
3. Design: Can I display it? Is it practical? Does it have a function or is it so offensive, large or ungainly that I would be embarrassed hanging this in my living room? How well does it fit the rest of the decor?
4. Emotional impact: Does it move me? What kind of emotional response do I have when I view this?
5. Identity: Do I identify with it? Does it remind me of home, or make me feel like I belong in a specific group?
6. Skill: Is the artwork skillfully made? Can I tell it took the artist some technical proficiency to complete?
Six categories of factors to help you, the viewer, judge whether a specific artwork is appropriate for you. These questions do not have equal importance
. Some factors are more important to you
than others. You may appreciate being challenged more than a looking at a work of technical skill. You may be more concerned with how a piece of art looks in a room rather than how much it moves you. You may prioritize art that represents your identity over art that frustrates or puzzles you. Moreover, you may prioritize your identity now
, but find you do not need to later in your life, and subsequently, change your opinion on what you like to see in art.
Not only is it possible to change the dialogue about art and the dependence upon expert opinion to help us judge what we like, we can determine how important these factors are to us individually, we can notice how their importance changes as our lives change, and we can use them to set goals both as art consumers and artists.
Below, I've provided six images of artworks. First, prioritize the questions: which are most important to you? Beauty over challenge? Skill over design? Then, for each artwork, answer each question about beauty, challenge, design, emotional impact, identity, and skill with a yes or no. If you'd like to make it more mathematically complex, rate each question for each artwork on a scale of 1 (low response) to 10 (high response). Why did you answer the way you did?