I’ve done a few videos in the past criticizing certain persuasions within art and music, especially in the context of sacred art, and I have to admit, that’s pretty easy to do. It doesn’t take a brilliant or courageous person to debunk something. It’s not, however, all that easy to assert something good or true in it’s place. It’s not easy to propose something that is then subject to the same potential for debunking.
And so, to be fair, I thought I owed it to the ideas I’ve criticized to propose criteria that produces good art.
I want to do this not only to be fair to those alternative ideas, but also because I think this is a conversation that we as a society desperately need to have because art and design are extremely influential on our psychology and our sense of well being.
For example, if every library in the world drew inspiration from the ideas about art and design that produced public spaces like this, then I expect that occasions to study would be a lot more attractive for many of us. Instead, we have to slouch our way into places like this which they’ve erected in the city I live in.
Nothing says love of learning like a garden shed cosplaying as an imperial star destroyer.
Art and design have the power to reassure us and produce a sense of comfort, peace, and beauty or they can produce a sense of anxiety, chaos, sterility, nihilism, and just plain ugliness.
So it matters a lot that we have some way of describing what is good art and what we can measure art against to make that judgement. But the current state of affairs is one that insists that no criteria exists. Slogans like “It’s art because I say it’s art.” and, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” dominate contemporary conversations about art.
And this climate heavily favors the interests of the art establishment and art dealers against the general public. Imagine if you had a product for which there was no criteria to judge its merit. Maybe a piece of electronics like a stereo, a tv, a computer, or something more significant like a car or a house.
Imagine if the vendors of such products convinced everyone that their wares were good because they say they’re good and if you object then they will slander you for being old fashioned, closed-minded, and unsophisticated.
So you just have to bow to those pressures and buy their product without knowing if it will improve your quality of life or if it will have the opposite effect. We’d look at that and say, no. That’s manipulative, coercive, and unjust.
And yet, when it comes to art and design, that is the approach that is imposed on us and reinforced by our education system no less.
And so now, all art dealers and artists have to do is say, “Wow, look at this stunning innovation in art. He’s done it again. It’s so brave and forward thinking.” We’ll start the bidding at $100,000 please.
And hapless city councils who want to reassure themselves of their own cosmopolitan sophistication, eagerly spend that kind of money on public art that is bewildering and oppressive to the public.
And this happens because there is no criteria that we can all appeal to judge the merit of some work of art other than our emotional response which is no more valid than anyone else’s.
In preparation for this video, I asked my facebook followers to share with me what they thought was some of the best art ever produced and notice I didn’t say, “what’s your favourite?” I said, what’s the best.
And, predictably, I got a range of examples and styles, but from among the styles that are begotten of the movements that would say art is relative and cannot be quantified, nobody responded with that statement. They submitted their favorite modernist or post-modernist pieces because at bottom, we all admit, that it’s a valid question.
Well, if it’s a valid question, then there must be a valid answer. So here is my best attempt at it while fully admitting that this is a crude attempt and probably incomplete. So it would benefit from ongoing conversation and feedback.
Number 1: it should be revelatory. It should communicate something that the artist has captured that the rest of us could benefit from. Either an experience of beauty, a form that is rarely seen, or a movement that urges us to our highest callings.
It should produce in us a gratitude for having been exposed to something that has enriched our understanding of truth, goodness, beauty, or ourselves.
Number 2: it should be skillfully produced. If there are two artists with the same talent and instincts and all other things being equal, but one of them disciplines themselves through practice and good habit so that their ability to produce the art is higher than the artist who does not take those pains, then the one who has made the greater investment and sacrifice should be recognized for having more merit.
Number 3: it should be unique. Someone who has mastered the paintbrush isn’t producing good art if they are only replicating what other artists have done. Say they can masterfully copy a great work of art. That demonstrates, skill, but it isn’t enough to be a photocopier. They should be able to produce something unique. Something that penetrates insights and visions that have not yet been seen.
Number 4: It should inspire. It should produce feelings of humility in its viewers as well as an inspiration to be and do better ourselves. It should ignite something within us to understand that human beings, including ourselves, are capable of great things if we only tap into the virtues that we can choose to start building now if we want to.
Number 5: It should be beautiful. Now, by beauty, I don’t mean flowery or delicate or something like that. I mean as an attribute of being which transcends all our other categories. And I wish I could spend a lot more time on this criterion but I’m conscientious about the length of these videos so I’ll leave you with some bread crumbs for further study.
Beauty is a transcendental like I just alluded to. Some theologians are in the habit of saying that God IS Beauty, just as he is Truth and Goodness. This means that beauty, while difficult to define because exceeds our limitations, it is far more real than some subjective preference allows.
When we encounter something that is difficult for us to understand, we seem to have two possible responses. One is to appreciate that it is greater than us and to humble ourselves before it. The other, is to refuse that humility and insist on defining it narrow and simplistic terms and that’s what “beauty is in the eye of the beholder does.”
It’s a way of saying that beauty is of our own creation and it is subject to our whims and designs and the only argument I’ve ever heard in support of this rationalization is that everyone has different preferences, so obviously there is no objective beauty.
Well, look at what happens when someone posts one of those order of operations math questions on Facebook. You get an array of answers that are far more diverse than responses you’d get to a work of art. But that doesn’t mean that, therefore, all of those answers are equally valid. It could just mean that we need better formation and education.
Well, I’d say that the same is true for beauty and our appreciation of it. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the conditions of beauty are wholeness, harmony, and radiance. I don’t know if he was right, but I expect he was a lot closer than people who see diversity in preference and assume that, therefore, all preferences are correct.