Updated: Nov 12, 2020
by Ranjan Kaul
There is a general tendency to dismiss discussions on differentiating good visual art from bad art by the naïve and flawed notion that judging art is subjective. Again, there are detractors to such a discussion who maintain that art is culture-specific and what may appear good in one cultural ecosystem may not be appreciated by another. These misconceptions arise because art is confused with taste and preference. It is perfectly natural to have a preference for a particular type of cuisine, say Chinese or Mexican, and even for a particular dish; or remark that a house is tastefully furnished because of its sombre colour scheme and beautiful artefacts. Art is not a dish or drapery that caters to specific tastes or colour preferences; its intrinsic worth goes far beyond decoration or beautifying surroundings. Rather, art has a more universal character. Good art is nuanced and outward beauty cannot be a sole criterion for a work to qualify as good art.
Yes, undoubtedly, visual art does provide aesthetic pleasure; beauty is a term often used to describe a work of art. At the same time, when talking about beauty, like taste, one cannot take away the cultural bias. The idea of beauty can vary across cultures and social groups. For example, how would you describe a beautiful nose? Straight, slightly upturned, narrow, long, short, broad?
We need be careful to categorize an artwork as “good” just because it is harmonious and pleasing to the eye. A good artwork may often be balanced and excellently composed, but sometimes great artists consciously introduce a jarring note or a striking element – a rough and heavy brushstroke, a contrasting colour, a disturbing form – to surprise you, or create a mood, or make a statement. It may have some mystique, reflect disquiet, or have a subject that unsettles viewers that will compel them to look at the work with greater curiosity.
For example, take a close look at Picasso’s painting titled “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” which he created in 1907. The painting portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel; all figures in the painting are angular, distorted and not conventionally feminine. They have intimidating visages; the two on the right seem to be wearing masks. Yet, the painting is universally recognized as being among the world’s greatest and path-breaking works. It is inconceivable that the first reaction when seeing the work would be something like, “Wow, what a beautiful painting!” The work in fact is immediately disconcerting, and given a chance, many of you may not want to put it up on the walls of your living room.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=547064
Art has a lot more to offer than just aesthetic enjoyment. A good work of visual art is often multi-layered – it is not only the overall composition, with its form and colour palette, but often it is the theme or concept and the style of expression. For instance, see the painting titled Diagonal by one of India’s foremost modern artists, Tyeb Mehta.
Diagonal by Tyeb Mehta, Oil on Canvas, 1973
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (reproduced with permission)
As the very title indicates, Tyeb Mehta uses the yellow diagonal in the work, as he has in several of his works, to not only carve out distinct pictorial spaces on the canvas but also to represent multiple metaphors: the rupture and schism in society; universal existential concerns of human beings; the trauma of the Indian Partition. The artist was a young man at the time of Partition which left a deep impact on him.
The painting shows two figures, dramatically juxtaposed and positioned on both sides of the diagonal. On the left is a distraught and anguished, falling figure, a subject which the master often revisited, while the other assumes an aggressive posture with its head and shoulder in solid black. Mehta successfully uses flat solid planes of colours to create spatial depth and draw in the viewers, as it were, till they encounter the pain and suffering. He was able to evoke emotion through his seemingly simple lines, flat coloration and deformed and abstracted figuration.
Good art is often, but not always, imbued with emotion. It will incite or provoke a feeling – pain, awe, pathos, love – that will reach out to viewers in some way. We often speak of a theatrical performance as dramatic; a good work of visual art also uses dramatic effect and might use non-realistic graphic elements or discordant notes to arrest the attention of the viewer.
When you consider that there are works of art that have been loved for generations, great art does seem to have a universal character to it. Timelessness itself is certainly one criterion that can be applied to determine what constitutes great art: Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel; Van Gogh’s Starry Night; Picasso’s Guernica, or closer home, Amirta Sher-Gil’s paintings or Ramkinkar Baij’s sculptural masterpieces. Such works are simpler to identify as good art because they have passed the test of longevity. What is however more challenging is to judge a contemporary work that is here and now. Yes, this may not appear easy at first but it can be done. And this essay tries to do precisely that – identify some specific criteria to help you sift the grain from the chaff.
When viewers look at any work of art, they look at it from their individual perceptions, differing sensibilities and moorings. (To reiterate, as explained earlier, this is different from personal tastes and preferences.) The reactions to an artwork can be manifold: it can amaze you, shock you, evoke empathy, resonate with you and your sensibilities in relation to social causes that concern you such as climate change or political events that you’ve strong views on. Good works of art are often a reflection of the times through which an artist lived and worked as we saw in the case of Mehta’s Diagonal. They will invariably find a connection with you and speak to you in a way that words become unnecessary.
The most obvious criterion to judge a work of art is the technical mastery the artist displays in the execution of the work, the effortless flow of lines, the flawless brushstrokes, the definition of form and texture in a piece of sculpture or pottery. But, at the same time, just as beauty, technical virtuosity cannot be the sole criterion of good art. A perfect reproduction of a masterpiece or a photograph may certainly display the technical virtuosity of the maker, but it does not qualify as art. We need to be careful to distinguish art from craft. Master crafts-persons would have with years of practice perfected their craft, which would enable them to produce thousands of impeccable works. But if these crafts-persons are only reproducing works with little originality and only a skill that has been passed down for generations, they’re not producing art.
At the same time, I hasten to add that many folk and tribal artists both in India and abroad have done amazing original work within their genres and styles which also bear their signature as their assertion of individuality; quite a few of these works would certainly meet the criteria of good art. To give just one instance, Ritika Ganguly* recounts the work of the last surviving patua folk painter Bhaskar Chitrakar (belonging to the generation of artists who did scroll painting) from the Kalighat area of South Kolkata who recently did a series of satirical works against the backdrop of the corona virus.
Creativity is certainly among the foremost identity-markers of art, which happens in a make-believe world, in the theatre of imagination. As we saw earlier, when briefly discussing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, good art will invariably possess a newness where the artist displays a highly imaginative interplay of the rendering of technical skill with a subject, theme or emotion that captivates the imagination of the viewer. Today, we see elements of technology, architecture, photography, audio-visual content, theatrical performance and other art forms entering the domain of visual arts that truly not only raises the aesthetic and imaginative experience of viewers but also engages them so fully that it makes them eager participants. Again, exploring the deeper potentialities of an existing medium or working with ecologically friendly materials that reuse garbage and waste for producing art can itself be a creative art statement.
Besides being emotional and sensitive, human beings are also cerebral. As intelligent beings, we like to be intellectually challenged; we solve puzzles, read mystery novels, watch detective films, play mind games like chess and bridge. Good art is often complex and mysterious. It is open to interpretation, it exercises the perceptual capacities of a viewer, possesses an “aha” factor.
Consistency is an important criterion to judge a work of art. Art masters, over time, and learning from their mistakes, have been able to produce a body of art which uniformly meets high standards – even if they are remembered , by only a few of their works. It is easy to find parallels in other creative fields, such as music, literature or film: a Ravi Shankar recital or a Beethoven symphony, a Satyajit Ray film, or a work by Munshi Premchand. A good work of art is not a flash in the pan; it comes with both practise and genuine creativity and talent.
Finally, a distinct individual style is another factor, though admittedly debatable, that distinguishes good visual art. Many great visual artists develop over time a unique, distinctive and recognizable style of expression. So, those familiar with Indian modern art will be able to quite easily identify a painting by Tyeb Mehta, Husain or Souza. However, merely having an individualistic style in a work does not necessarily make it a good work of art. In fact, at times, adhering to a style just because it has become popular can come in the way of creating more original art and prevent the artist from growing. Picasso, though he is best recognized for the originality in developing “cubism”, kept experimenting and exploring new ways of representation. While there are various factors that can help to discern good art, an artist’s popularity is not necessarily a determinant.
*Read Ritika Ganguly's article in artamour, "The Coronavirus Touches the Brush of the Patua Painter of Kalighat",
Also read the three part essay by Ranjan Kaul,
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.