What Makes Art Good?

Nathalie Provosty work, courtesy Nathalie Karg Gallery

Nathalie Provosty work, courtesy Nathalie Karg Gallery

Art ranges in price from $0 to hundreds of millions of dollars, and a common misconception is that it's totally subjective.  YES, it is, but so is food, fashion, music, and many other things in life and there's still a general consensus on what's good quality and what's not. Art is no different, except that in general, people are less confident assessing it because they're not nearly as exposed to art as they are to food, fashion and music. Jean-Michele Basquiat’s paintings, for example, are some of the most expensive in the world, sometimes selling for over a hundred million dollars. That’s not by accident; the body of educated and respected art world tastemakers has endorsed his work, ultimately driving his market to that level despite what dissenters may think about his graffiti style work So with that said, what makes a piece of art good?!  

In my mind, good art is 1) visually compelling and 2) thoughtfully executed. The more art you see, the better you get at determining whether something is visually compelling or just par for the course.

Some questions to help with this determination are:

  • Have I ever seen this before?

  • Is it interesting?

  • Do I want to stare at it for a while?

If you see an artwork that looks like something else seen 100 times, then it's likely a bit boring and you're un-inclined to stare at it/check out the details. A good example of this is doctor office art, or even your standard corporate art --  neutral-colored abstract prints behind glass that you've seen so many times your eye skips over it (ie it's not visually interesting). Alternatively, something that's new and different is going to get your attention for longer.

Part 2 is considering whether an artwork is thoughtfully executed.  This involves looking at it and learning the story behind it. The more you do this, the better you are at making a determination.  Helpful questions to ask here include:

-What materials did the artist use?

-Why were those materials selected?

-What process did the artist follow?

-Why did the artist make this?

Importantly, the credentials I listed above -- visually compelling AND thoughtfully executed - should be considered together to create an informed opinion.  The reason for this is that there are plenty of artworks (like plain white canvases by Robert Ryman) that may not be visually compelling (at least at first) but the thought behind the execution is impressive.  Likewise, some art may offer a totally new visual experience but it was made quickly on the floor with low grade house paint (shoutout to Jackson Pollock).

So this is how people do it -- this is how they’re able to say with conviction that a particular piece is excellent or not (and why others nod in agreement without knowing why). Now you can join the party and have an informed opinion too.