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Is There Good Art?

September 25, 2014

The past few posts, we've been talking about government and society, but now I'd like to shift the focus a little bit, to the arts. As I've said before, art is something that, by its nature, refuses to be framed by an artificial definition. Consequently, what is or is not art is a difficult question to venture to answer. But even more challenging than that is the question, "What is good art?"

Image in public domain, found at Wikimedia Commons, supplied by the Official White House Photostream

I think the question of good art comes down to the question of what the purpose of art is -- what it's set out to achieve -- as a piece that achieves that purpose well can be considered "good art". I find that there are largely two, not necessarily mutually exclusive goals of art: the aesthetic and the socio-psychological. And by these two distinct standards, we can attempt to distinguish a "good" art from a bad one in how it achieves these goals.

The simplest goal of art may be aesthetic pleasure. In music, visual arts, and in the performing arts, there are certain patterns that appeal to the human senses and the mind more than others. These may be recurring harmonies in music, coherent color schemes in the visual arts, or geometric balance that appear in paintings. But obviously, as these patterns appear attractive our minds, we may seek pleasure in observing and experiencing these patterns. This is aesthetics in its simplest form -- to seek patterns that appear more beautiful than others. When we say that a piece of art is beautiful, we are referring to its aesthetic characteristics. And when the aesthetics of a work is pleasing, the work has artistic value and can be thus considered "good art". In some cases, works are created solely or chiefly for the purpose of pleasuring the senses. Beautiful works of design and many abstract, geometric paintings can be aesthetically arousing in this manner.

But I'd like to dig a little deeper, beyond just the bare-minimum definition of aesthetics. Many times, art isn't created or performed solely for the purpose of giving aesthetic pleasure; it's an expression of emotions. I see this most evidently manifested in works of music, but from Shakespearian sonnets to the most abstract of modern art, each can be considered a testament to the condition of humanity, the dazzling and chaotic compound of ecstasy and sorrow. So as a subset of aesthetics, I see a paramount importance in recognizing that a purpose of many works of art is to convey and communicate emotions of the human experience. Therefore those works of art that serve as a faithful conduit to communicating what it is to be human can also be considered "good art". Many artworks not typically considered prestigious or conventional, such as jazz and rap in music, works such as those of Jackson Pollock, and many forms of dance can be interpreted to fall in this subset, and how well these works communicate their message of the human condition will, in this instance, determine whether or not a work is "good art".

A vast amount of artworks are created for their appeal to the emotions and the senses -- for their aesthetic characteristics -- but equally numerous are the works that are created as a commentary of the status quo of the society, culture, or tradition, with the socio-psychological repercussions in mind. For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, he remarks on the Puritan society's nature and perception of the ideas of sin and evil, and of the way in which the current society, both then and now, perceive social changes and insight. In Animal Farm, George Orwell paints a harsh critique of the Soviet social hierarchy at the time. Closer to the present, John Green, in The Fault in Our Stars, discusses the contrast between destiny and free will in life among other ideas, as well as presenting hauntingly beautiful passages that are aesthetically appealing as they are meaningful in examining life and the society. Especially during times of social instability in a community or in times of national conflict, these social commentaries arise in increasing quantities as writers and artists alike attempt to make their voice heard in a politically turbulent landscape. In these works of art, the logical measure of their goodness ought to be focused largely on their social impact and their effectiveness in communicating the central critique or message, the intention of the author.

I believe an important characteristic of such works of art with a message and clear intention is that they lead the audience to raise important questions. Many times, these art forms do not venture to provide an answer to its own riddle, but rather, settle at posing a question for the reader, the listener, and the viewer to contemplate. And in looking for the answer, the audience fulfills the purpose of the art's existence and completes it. Without the audience to appreciate the aesthetic beauty, to receive the expressions of emotion, to contemplate the questions posed, and to respond to the commentary and message through action, art loses its liveliness, its vitality. The purpose of art is not fulfilled in its mere existence, but only in the interaction between the creator, the work, and the audience.

The metaphorical ruler by which we should measure out the good art from the bad is not rigid and static nor uniform and standardized. One may find beauty and balance in a string of harmonies while another finds in the same tune not pleasure, but a dire expression of sorrow and loss. A critical observation to make in this train of thought is the minimization of the creator's role. In determining the value of a work of art, the audience is of larger importance than the author. And as such, the value of a work of art changes as its audience molds and shifts under the evolution of culture and tradition. The goodness of art is malleable to say the least, and subjective to a very high degree. But even as they are different and perceived so, art carries with it an inherent value in its collective existence as a human endeavor: to communicate and express the human experience. And I believe that when a work of art achieves this value with beauty and elegance, that can be called good art.