Having read a number of essays and articles written by artists, critics, and the like, I am a little put off by the very idea that anyone would make sweeping statements about what makes art “good” based on what is, in the end, their own personal preference rather than any real universal rule. I am also generally annoyed at positive statements like “That’s not music” or “That’s not real food” when the speaker actually means that the music or food at hand simply does not fit their private tastes. The world holds many different types of beauty, and I think that an appreciation for variety is something that a truly intelligent and ethical person must have, even if you do not appreciate all types of beauty to the same extent.
That said, though, I am certainly not of the school that believes that beauty is a completely relative thing. I do believe that certain absolutes exist, and that some universal rules do apply when it comes to judging whether something is truly beautiful or not. To that end, having considered this matter for some time, I have come up with a few standards that I do think apply to all art. In considering these standards, though, please realize that I understand that having a low score in one area does not completely disqualify a particular piece from being counted as art or as “good” art. That said, here we go:
- Eminence. Good art must be elevated above the rest of reality in some way. This is because, rather than being a mere sample of reality, art should be a characterizing example of it, or a condensed representation of a particular aspect of reality. If an artist sees beauty in the trash of the world, it is not enough for him to pick up a piece of trash and say, “See!” He must represent that trash in such a way that others can see the beauty as well. An artist should be more than a mere collector of trinkets: some level of synthesis should occur in which he creates something new.
- Difficulty. While anyone can be an artist, all artists should understand that they should not expect others to regard their work with any respect when they did not respect the work enough to put in any real effort. Great creations arise out of toil. An artist who simply throws elements together in a way that anyone can with minimal effort does not deserve to be termed an artist, however strange or shocking his combinations may be.
- Communicability. I have never understood those who have the attitude of: “My creation is so profound and personal that no one can understand it but myself. If you don’t like it, that is only because you are not as wonderful as I am.” If you want to create simply for the sake of creating and you have no intention of sharing your creations with others, that is fine. However, if you are the only person who will ever truly “get” your work, you should not demand that others respect and like it, and you certainly should not expect to publish it in any way.
- Versatility. In some cases, one might say that a particular piece of art is good because it is so simple that virtually anyone can understand and enjoy it. In other cases, one might say that a particular piece of art is good because it reflects a deep understanding of a particular subject that can only be appreciated by a certain group. I think that a truly commendable piece of art can do both. A good example of such versatility would be The Matrix. (We won’t mention the sequels.) That movie is both entertaining and philosophical: you could watch it and then talk for hours about its ethical arguments, or you could just watch it.
- Integrity. When I say that a piece of art must have integrity, what I mean is that it must deliver on its claims. That is, it must be exactly what it claims to be and do exactly what it intends to do. For instance, a comedy can be a great comedy regardless of how ridiculous its scenarios and events are, while a piece of historical fiction is not allowed to be overtly ridiculous. Art can convey both humor and gravity. However, if something intends to be serious but ends up being funny – or vice versa – it is not good art.
So how is my list? Would you add anything? Give me your thoughts.