One of the questions that seems to crop up in discussions of modern art is ‘what makes a good work of art?’ This is totally fair—I recently visited a museum with someone who when faced with a Picasso piece grumbled my five-year-old could draw that. Well for starters, unless your five-year-old is an unprecedentedly gifted draftsman, then no, at the age of five he probably couldn’t. But I understand the sentiment. Modern art is tricky. When the Armory Show introduced American audiences to the European avant-garde in 1913, the public was generally critical. The national scandal was caused by the notion that abstraction was an affront to American ethics of hard-work (again, the work seemed to be the product of this mythical—yet visionary—five-year-old) and academic standards of fine art, but the dislike for many of the pieces also drew from skepticism—the Americans who visited the show had the vague, unsettling feeling that they were being mocked. The most controversial piece was Marcel Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), which features an odd arrangement of seemingly mechanical limbs in downward motion. People were not only upset by the androgyny of the figure—the body appears like a set of pipes or sticks, not flesh—but by the fact that they couldn’t actually make out the figure amongst all the rubble of lines. Although abstraction is now mainstream, the anxiety surrounding modern and contemporary art prevails. Before the 20th century, and to an extent late 19th century, it was possible to identify a ‘good’ piece of art based on its likeness to nature. Then the camera came along and proved that however gifted an artist might be, a painting or sculpture couldn’t compete with the photograph in a contest of imitation. So artists deviated from mere simulations of nature and started to explore more expressive means of communicating through visual media. As Gauguin once wrote “art is an abstraction; extract it from nature while dreaming in front of it.” Therefore, most art is no longer a realistic depiction of actual subjects or events, but a subjective, contextualized portrayal of not only the artist’s inner life plus his environment. Then, to further complicate things Marcel Duchamp came along and effectively decided that technical skill should not limit one’s dream of becoming an artist (he was a notoriously awful painter) and began assembling everyday objects and giving them titles, thus creating readymade art. This abridged version of how contemporary art ended up where it is today is perhaps overly simplified, but the point is, art is no longer based solely on skill, but also the articulation and implementation of ideas. Like the viewers of the original Armory Show, this expansive definition of art that exceeds the limitations of realistic representation creates a great deal of anxiety for contemporary collectors, many of whom hire art consultants to verify that the piece is actually ‘good’. Charles Saatchi provides a cynical, yet sadly accurate depiction of the current art market when he writes “I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation. For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call ‘an eye’. They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This ‘conceptualised’ work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again.” (The Guardian, Dec. 2, 2011)
This long introduction doesn’t answer the question ‘what makes a good work of art’, but it does account for the origins of the question and how difficult it is to definitively answer. So I’ll give my personal response, borrowed from an art history lecturer from school: really great art is enigmatic. It gives you reason to pause because it’s weird, wonderful, stirring, expressive, mystifying and evocative. Art that defies language, despite our best efforts. A few years ago I was working as an intern at a contemporary art museum and part of my job was to provide explanations to the public about some of the performance pieces. I was delivering my spiel to one family and suddenly the father interjected very brusquely, saying “If it takes this long to explain the piece, then it isn’t conveying anything.” I shrugged and didn’t say anything, because fundamentally I had to agree—if a piece is so literal, so laden with definition and expectation that it denies the viewer’s interpretation, it is often devoid of feeling as well.
Review: Glasgow School of Art Degree Show 2013
Glenn Kennedy, Community, 2013
So over the weekend I found myself at the Glasgow School of Art for the second time in a month, this time for the Degree Show. In terms of defining ‘good’ art this provided the ultimate challenge, because unlike visiting a museum where the visitor is secure in the notion that they are looking at ‘good’ art, the degree show is a bunch of young artists with few art world credentials–raw talent, level playing field. The 123 artists featured in the Mackintosh building are quite a mixed bunch, and weeding out the good from the bad is challenging. Bad, by my definition, was easiest to spot –‘ shocking’ pieces that demonstrate a flagrant because-I-can mentality. These are most obviously indicated by gratuitously sexualized or violent depictions or overly complicated installations that are not only aesthetically sloppy, but lacking in any legible meaning. Truth be told, highly graphic photographs of naked, blemished, lopsided bodies; bloody massacres or canvases strewn with four-letter words do not offend or even unnerve me at this point, as much as they exhaust me. I don’t mind this concept of challenging art as long as there is something compelling behind it, but often artists resort to forcibly confrontational, often purposefully repellent works, and in seeking to provoke a strong audience reaction frequently exploit the subject (in the case of unflattering portraits) or alienate the viewer.
The pieces I enjoyed most were those which were more subtle, unassuming and well, if I’m allowed to say it… beautiful. I particularly liked the paintings of Glen Kennedy, as they reminded me of the work of Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, famous for creating a unique tension between harmony and uneasiness. On the surface the paintings are full of vitality; closer inspection reveals a darker motive. Other artist whom I felt showed equal potential included Sandrine Timmermans, Joanna McCafferty, Amy Pickles, Katja Larsson, Katarzyna Litarska, Julia Wylie, Catherine Carlisle, Tilly Armstrong, and Ross Finnie.The GSA Degree Show runs until June 15th. For more information visit gsa.ac.uk