Who determines whether art is good or bad?

A recent series of comments in response to a story on musician Gretchen Seichrist had me wondering, when do you know something is a bad work of art, as opposed to simply not to your personal taste? And who ultimately gets to decide what art is truly good?

As I usually do when pondering an arts related question, I posted it on Facebook to see what sort of answers I might get (I count approximately 1500 Minnesota artsy types among my FB friends).

The responses I got were, as ever, thoughtful, probing and witty. So I thought I’d share some of them with you.

Since the question is a two-parter, I’ll break down the answers respectively:

How do you determine good art from bad? Or from art that’s simply not to your taste?

Actress Linda Sue Anderson mused: “Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography “I know it when I see it.” Perhaps the same is true for “bad” art?”

Poet Kathryn Kysar answered: “Skill and craft can make it good art, even if I don’t like the style.”

Artist Deborah Foutch wrote:

Art that connects is successful. Sometimes the connection is beauty sometimes it’s repellent & there is a lot of stuff in between these extremes but Art that fills the eye, or ears but leaves you with “eh” feeling is unsuccessful.

In a similar vein, writer Jacquie Fuller offered:

When I think of bad art, I think of Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” In bad art, “all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.”

On the more humorous side, photographer Paul Shambroom wrote:

Simple. If it’s in the Museum of Bad Art (http://www.museumofbadart.org/) it’s bad. If it’s in any other museum, it’s good (or someone important thinks it is.) And if it’s not in any museum at all it might be genius.

And finally arts educator Bonnie Schock suggests “this depends entirely upon how we define the function of art in society.”

Who decides what is good art?

Poet William Reichard’s response: “You get to determine what is good and bad art. It’s completely subjective. You can trust ‘authorities’ to make these judgements for you, but it’s much more fun to make them yourself.”

Sculptor Jim Larson suggested “those who get to determine great art have skillfully maneuvered themselves into those positions.”

Poet Leslie Adrienne Miller believes “a society’s artists collectively decide good art from bad over time, though individuals with authority at any given moment sometimes think they are the deciders.”

and finally Nimbus Theater director Josh Cragun offered this explanation:

The answer is simple: every single person who partakes in creating or consuming [art]. What is profound, beautiful, or mind-opening depends on each individual, their language, upbringing, experiences, and more. The idea that something must be universally acclaimed to be good is a fallacy at best, and perhaps more accurately, a destructive distraction.

That doesn’t mean that the conversation about what is important has no value, however. Our evaluations of art are reflections of who we are and how we perceive the world, and exchanging these perceptions is one of the most crucial tools we have in coming to understand both each other and the world in which we live in.

So, what do you think? Have anything you’d like to add to the thoughts above? Share them in the comments section.

  • pamela

    I think something that touches you, makes you feels harmony, joy is art. Of course, some “art” makes you feel disgust, aversion. Is that art? do we need that? Of course, it’s subjective. But I feel primitive “crap” like Picasso’s is so overrated, because art dealerss want to rake in big profits–and do. I feel something that brings out the humanness, enobling quality of man is good. Crap and feces on the paper doens’t do it for me.

  • Dave Jensen

    If you want to determine the difference between good art and bad art, arm all your museum patrons with rotten tomatoes and invite them to throw the tomatoes at any bad art they see.

    Good art is like good music, a good book or a good poem–most people like it, can relate to it, or can get an insight from it.

    Mediocre art is usually bad art.

  • Ricardo

    to start, you must think: is it art, or just rubbish kitch?

    art is only art when it makes you feel emotions, when it’s ment to be art. if not, if you don’t feel anything, it’s not art.

    whether is is good or not: just decide it yourself!!

  • dave britton

    there has to be some objectivity to judging art. Maybe the words good and bad are inadequate because they belay subjectivity and relativity. The truth is relative means the truth is in relation to another truth as it was established. If we say a work of art is bad then we are relating it to other pieces of art that was already considered bad and same if we say it is good. Ultimately we will use modern parameters, how [ celebrated] liked is the artist, does he or she has rich patrons to inflate the value for their own posterity and thelevel of mass media saturation. Currently we would have to say that African Americans are not producing good art just because we are not exposed to it on a national level, but that is the fallacy. Bless