Art isn’t necessarily just about originality and some cultures do not value that at all. In fact, in the past even Europeans rejected art that was too much of a departure from conventional expectations. Being different is not always the key to being included in the art history books.
Originality (as I am using it here) means the level of conceptual sophistication of the artwork. An example would be the Surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Most untutored viewers would not understand the originality of his painting “The Treachery of Images.” The caption reads “this is not a pipe.” The reason Magritte is included in art history books is that some of his paintings are very conceptual in the contemporary sense of that word. He unites philosophy and execution in a way that was more direct than was customary in his time.
Influence refers to whether the artwork or artist had significant impact on successors. Some works may be less technically proficient than other artworks yet have tremendous impact on later artists. An example might be Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” The painting was notorious within the Parisian salon scene but was never considered “resolved.” It inspired the Cubist experiments of Picasso and Georges Braque and led to the other stylistic innovations by the Futurists, the Fauves, and others.
Representativeness refers to whether the artwork is particularly strong example of its style in terms of materials, technique, subject matter, and composition. An example would be the paintings of the Baroque painter Caravaggio. In addition to his drawing and painting proficiency, Caravaggio was a skilled designer and created powerful religious narratives that still resonate. Caravaggio continues to be one of the most representative artists of his day.
More expensive materials can add to the value of an artwork. Obviously, using precious metals and jewels automatically makes an artwork valuable. When Demien Hirst encrusted a skull with jewels, even if the piece isn’t particularly interesting in any other way, it raises its noteworthiness. Also consider Fabergé Eggs. . They are valuable and beautiful.
Older crafted objects, particularly those from ancient civilizations, have historic value. They become a record of times gone by and are valued artifacts no matter how they look. Regardless of your aesthetic reaction to 5000 year old Mesopotamian pieces, you will tend to accept that they are valuable.
Which brings us to beauty. This truly is in the mind of the beholder. Different cultures and different individuals all have unique idiosyncratic responses to art. Expectations, experience and personality are all very important. In its purist sense, beauty rests in the formal qualities of the work—the way the elements are arranged. For instance, if you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting by Mark Rothko and are not troubled that it is nonobjective, you can see the way the surface seems to shimmer.(these paintings are impossible to capture in photographs because they are so subtle). Layer upon layer of contrasting colors build to create that impression in most people. People who need defined subject matter or clear shape boundaries may not see the aesthetic beauty, but most viewers seem to appreciate that quality in Rothko’s work. If your concept of beauty depends upon educating or enlightening viewers as it did in Victorian times, form itself will never be enough.
It’s clear that these pieces are all so dissimilar that no single approach to looking at them will work. As we read our art history books it helps to understand the range of ways we assess work and how they change over time.