When we look at an artwork we decide whether it is good or not. We do that based on what we know and how we feel.
There is a big difference between “that looks good to me” and “that’s good”. When you say that something is good you need to explain what criteria you are using to make your judgment because it isn’t clear that this is about you, not necessarily about the piece.
Most viewers use subjective judgment criteria which are affected by their individual temperaments, backgrounds, experiences, moods, and surroundings. But there are also more general criteria which are reflected in the selections in every art history book and to evaluate works created since 1900, it is necessary to know what those assessment approaches are.
Those who are less experienced in art base their judgments on what the art means to them. Because people in the United States are not given much art education they are usually only able to consider whether the art accurately depicts the world and tells a story. They tend to respond to how it makes them feel which is determined by the experiences they’ve had. Their limited art education gives them few tools with which to understand more complex assessment approaches.
Before the invention of photography in 1839, the purpose of art was to document the natural world and share cultural stories. As photography became a faster, cheaper, more reliable way to record the natural world, art had to establish other functions.
Self-expression has always been part of art, but in a very limited way. Styles and subject matter were prescribed by the patrons and the expectations of the time. Originality was not appreciated. All that changed in the mid-1800s beginning with Romanticism and then the Impressionists.
Common Approaches to Art Assessment
The main approaches to judging art are
- Naturalism: How closely does the artwork resemble the natural world?
- Skill: How well is the artwork executed?
- Iconography: What is the subject matter of the artwork and why is it important?
- Historical Significance: How has the artwork influenced by other artists and the history of art?
- Design: How do the formal qualities of the artwork affect the experience of it?
- Psychology and Biography: How does the background or personality of the artist impact the meaning of the artwork?
- Social and Cultural Relevance: What does the artwork say about the society and/or culture?
- Concept: What is the idea behind the piece?
Uneducated art observers tend to evaluate art using one or more of the first four criteria listed above. These approaches don’t require much knowledge about the history of art and are best suited to artworks that have a narrative and don’t take too many liberties with the observable world. (Note that judging “skill” becomes more difficult when the art is no longer naturalistic. I will discuss that another time.)
Evaluating much of the art that has been created since 1900 requires that the viewer must be acquainted with a broad range of assessment approaches and applying them selectively. Without that knowledge, they will be heard asking “How can this be art?”
Image on this page: Michael Mapes, Fragmented Photography