Recently at a dinner party, my husband’s family friends were across the table from me discussing what art is. Not wanting to belittle or offend anyone, I didn’t speak up, but those who knew me and my extensive art background were covertly shooting me worried glances. However, I find these conversations rather amusing as they follow a clear script, and I am proud of myself when I can predict the next comment. The key points consist of personal preferences about what should and shouldn’t be considered art, including but not limited to paintings of landscapes, animals, cottages, flowers, or water. Drippy paintings (an ill-informed reference to Pollock) or artists rolling around on canvas (a made up reference to no one) are usually the targets of intense annoyance. The conversation often then devolves into the resolution that art is subjective.
Is art really subjective?
As a freshman in art school, it was clear that the vast majority of professors agreed about the art that worked. More advanced students as well could identify the elements in a piece that were functioning and how to improve the weaker parts. It was clear to me then and now that the people who spent the most time looking and thinking about art
came to similar conclusions about an art piece.
What’s more, there are artworks that have captivated us for generations. For example, you would be hard pressed to find anyone that could stand in front of Water Lilies by Monet and not see the beauty in that painting. So why then do people think that art is subjective?
I believe that the answer is in the definition. People, for some reason that I have yet to wrap my mind around, feel very strongly that they have the right to decide what art is and is not. In classifying what art is, people depend on personal preferences that are subjective and anecdotal. This line of rationale is both pointless and distracting from the more important and answerable question of what is good art.
I’m taking a stand to kill the question: What is art?
And replacing it with: What is good art?
Good art has a simple definition. Art is good when it achieves the goals of the artist or designer. If the artist intends for a sculpture to make the viewer feel happy and it does = good art. If an artist aims to comment on the political climate and the audience comprehends the message = good art. If an artist turns a urinal upside down to push the boundary of what can be art and it works = good groundbreaking art.
The objective of the artist provides the measure of what is good art. Further, how effectively the artist is at achieving her goals specifies the quality of the work. If the artist wishes to connect with the general public but only speaks to 2% of the population, then the work is relatively unsuccessful. Instead, if the artist had intended to relate to a specialized 2% of viewers then the artwork was highly successful.
So, is artwork really subjective? The answer is that by reframing the question it doesn’t have to be. And that by ending the fixation with what art is, we are free to think about what is good art.