There are different answers to that question, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that even asking the question scandalizes some people. I’ve heard folks say things like, “there’s no such thing as good art or bad art. Art comes from inside the soul. How can you judge that?” So before I even begin to take a stab at answering the question “what is good art?” Let me first defend the right to ask the question in the first place.
You Can Judge Art??
To begin with, let me say that yes, it’s completely improper to criticize the self-expressive art of a six-year-old. A six-year-old cannot produce good or bad art. To a parent, it’s all beautiful. It can’t be judged. The same could be said for someone who enjoys dabbling in watercolor or oil paint for fun or self-expression. Painting, sculpting, practicing the piano… is all fun and personally, I would encourage anyone to explore their creativity—society would be healthier for it. But not all art is like that. The art of a college student earning his painting degree should be judged and analyzed. The work of a professional artist is judged all the time, and rightly so, because he has submitted it to the public eye, not simply as self-expression, but as true art—as expression of something transcendent. If you handed me a page from your diary, it would be completely inane for me to redline a spelling error. On the other hand, if I were a creative writing instructor and you were my student, it would be kosher for me to mark up your essay. Indeed, I would be a poor teacher if I did not, even if it were a good essay. So whether we can judge art is entirely dependent on our context. In the right context, we are free to make certain judgments. In fact, we judge all the time, and that’s not inherently problematic. Does everyone sing equally well? Are all poets equally skilled? If you have a favorite restaurant or a favorite beer or favorite movie or a favorite band or a favorite anything, you’re judging—you’re praising something as superior to something else, or to everything else. We judge, and that’s simply the truth. Some things are better than other things, and it is inconsistent, even dishonest, to pretend otherwise. So can we judge art? We do, whether we think we can or not. What we need most, then, is to critique and analyze our criteria. The criteria which we use to judge between good and poor art will be the subject of my next few posts.