What is good art?

Quality in art does exist, but it seems to be such a malleable thing, so based in opinion, education, experience, taste. There is representation, abstraction, eco-art, the avant-garde, illustration, outsider art, visionary art, truly hip art, snooty hip art, bad art that is hip for being bad, and bad art that is truly horrible. These, with many another quality and style, are all on the spectrum of good to bad in art.

There is also the question, “What is great art?” Is good art also great art? Does famous equal great? Is every artist who is great, also famous, or are there hundreds of thousands of great artists who aren’t even known at all and never will be?

Even to begin to answer one of these question, ”What is good art?”, I need to answer another more revealing, personal one first: what has art done to me?

The experience of art is so personal to each creator and each observer, and there are so many arts to experience… if I want to bring any worthy answer to a question that has inspired artists, teachers, philosophers, and critics for hundreds of years, I have to begin with the raw question: what hath art wrought in me?

Short answer: Art hath both done and undone me.

The cartoon artist, Charles Addams, author of the macabre books, Nightcrawlers, Dawn and Quartered, and Black Maria, made me begin to draw long before The Addams Family made it onto TV. The ghoulish humor and the thoroughly realized nightmare world of the drawings brought rueful laughter and the discovery of ironic delights to the darkness of my own childhood.

aa1f25146a3fc093037160edd91e06e2 Cover of Book “Nightcrawlers” by Charles Addams

Seeing the organic forms of the sculptor Henry Moore in person for the first time, my emotions and visual sensations became so electrically charged that I had to turn away, my heart pounding, and breathe deeply to contain my excitement or risk an attack of herky-maenad dance in a public place.

The raw power of Michelangelo’s sophisticated vision and his superb making of drawings, paintings, architecture and especially his late sculpture filled me with humility and awe and wakened a universal sense of both heroism and the shared human experience of tragedy in life.

The Swiss clockwork of Paul Klee’s imagination, the subversive courage of his hand and the scratchy, smudged beauty of his line opened my own creaky doors to a vast original vision of runic lines on stones, leaves, the bark of trees, a new garden of symbolic possibilities and delights.

When I once visited the JP Morgan collection in New York and was allowed to inspect, very closely on a simple table top, an unframed, postage stamp-sized, 350-year-old Rembrandt pen and ink drawing on paper of an old man smiling at me, I understood what is meant by genius. Within this very small, spontaneous crowd of sienna lines and spaces the artist had completely understood and described the personality of the sitter, his emotions, his history, what had brought him to his life at the exact moment of making the art. My astonished mind went delightedly vacant. All thought blew away in an unqualified actual human connection with the ancient sitter himself and worshipful admiration and respect for the artist who could produce such magic.

The welded-steel sculptures of David Smith made me want to wrestle with them, and be defeated.

smith_4 Photo of David Smith and sculpture

The passionate sadness, the cries and reverberations of Beethoven’s late string quartets awaken deep emotions in me. Tears would instantly well up this very minute, if I were to hear them again. Their sheer depth of beauty brings understanding to broken hearts and smooths a path for the ragged, lost spirit.

Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate” was my personal anthem for a decade of my life, the tune and words holding me up under the pressures of the wicked every day.

Van Morrison… what else can I say…?

More locally, Rob Shetterly’s series of paintings, “Americans who Tell the Truth” inspires me to social and political activism. The strong faces and lives of our true heroes tell me that I can also stand courageously in the face of discrimination, corruption, violence and prison to speak truth to powers that do not hesitate to crush anyone saying or even hearing it.

martin_luther_king_jr._0 Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. from “Americans Who Tell The Truth”

Dave Morrison, the Camden poet/guitarist/singer, made it through a frightening bout of cancer partly through the gritty, beautiful, raw words he wrote to find and express his love of life, art and friends. That must be truly good art – it actually has the power to heal.

So….”Good Art” seems to provoke emotion and response ranging from a warm feeling of recognition and a smile of agreement to a raw, spontaneous intoxication and extreme pleasure. Somehow, it feels unexpected, fresh, new. It’s full of hope, and it opens up a future of more and better.

What is good in any art seems related to the incontrovertible fact that an apparently inanimate object can sit or hang before me or enter my eyes or ears unbidden. My chance encounter will literally hit me, blow me away and create both emotion and ideas that feel as if they’ve changed the way I look at my life forever. Amazingly, this good art can be made by a mere child or a great master.

There also seems to be a certain level of craftsmanship, a close attention to making something that feels important and inevitable. The artwork is a vehicle that carries emotion or idea or intoxication, sometimes for many thousands of years, sometimes for some small part of a day, as in a concert or a drawing in the sand that disappears with the tide.

That vehicle consistently delivers the message. The caves of Altamira, the pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon at Athens, the freely painted watercolor or the paper mache owl you made as a kid that your parents will guard and treasure forever. All these run the gamut of art, good and great, back and forth, over and over.

Like you, it’s original, unique. It is embodied with the spirit and presence of its maker. The depth of its truth is what makes it last. Its making is viscerally attached to its meaning. It says as much as it means to say and somehow much more.

So… What is good art? After all this talk, will you know it when you feel it, dear reader.

Written by Alan Crichton

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