A responder to a previous post questioned my criteria for
making distinctions between good art and bad. Many gallons of ink have been
consumed on this topic, much of it by people a whole lot smarter than me, but
it’s worth considering anyway.
This is not a matter of taste. For instance, my own
preference is for abstract art, but one of the best contemporary painters I
know about is Lois Dodd, a landscape painter. If I could have any half-dozen
works from any point in history, the list would be something like this:
Cézanne, Matisse, Pollock, Rodin, Rembrandt, Giotto. Give me some more and I’d
add Manet, Monet, Caravaggio, Mondrian, Dürer, and Brancusi.
It’s also not a matter of theory, although theory does drive
much of contemporary art. Theory is nothing more than a way to try to gain a
meta-understanding of what is an otherwise mysterious process, and much of
contemporary theory is less helpful than advertised.
Here’s what I think good art is, distilled from close to
forty years of looking seriously at art: A
good work of art is one that will deeply engage you no matter how many times you
look at it. A really good work will do that basically forever. You own a
Warhol because you want to be the owner of a Warhol. You own a Matisse because
you want to look at it.
Discerning whether a work of art will fulfill that criterion
is itself a mysterious process, but it can learned. It’s pretty easy to
comprehend the quality of a work well after the artist’s time has passed, but
much harder when the work is new. Part of the function of art dealers, curators
and critics is to make that sort of judgment, although many do it poorly or not
My own journey in that area began when I asked an eminent
critic whose judgment had been repeatedly ratified by history how to go about
learning to look at art. I had expected him to recommend books to read, but he
told me, in essence, to spend a lot of time looking at art, and to keep looking
at Cézanne until I knew what I was looking at. Being young, in New York and living on next to nothing (you could do that
in New York
in those days), that’s exactly what I did, for hours, weeks, days, years.
As a reviewer, I choose not to write about shows that I think
don’t have much value. In the shows I do write about, my task, as I see it, is
to try to elucidate what’s going on in the works of art for those who may have
less experience or may not be familiar with the issues at hand. I don’t take it
as my job to say whether a show is good or not because a show is, essentially,
private and transitory. If I write about it, it’s because I think it’s worth
seeing, and I give my reasons. There are good shows I don’t write about, but
that’s a function of scheduling.
This issue has come up in the context of public art, which
is not private, and is permanent. When I say a work is bad, or weak, or
unsuited for its site, it’s because I firmly believe it does nothing to
improve the quality of life of those who
have to see it. Over the long term, its effect will be negative, or at best
neutral, and that’s a sad thing for both the artists and those who have to see
it, day after day. I’ve seen enough work, including my own, in public places
where it shouldn’t be, to have a pretty clear idea what works and what doesn’t.