How to judge art: a beginner’s guide

Never mind the relativistic idea that all art has value - here's how to distinguish the great from the good.

Tiffany Jenkins

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At a recent debate about the value of art, a senior programmer from a major arts institution was asked by a member of the audience to say what he thought was the best work of the day: music, art, dance, whatever; just what is great. The programmer politely refused. And not only did he decline to answer the specific question; he also said there was no such thing as an outstanding work.

This is someone who is passionate about music, who does little else but listen to and talk about music; it’s his chosen profession. He is knowledgeable and discriminating. So you have to ask why he was so shy about answering the question of what is good and bad in a public forum.

I won’t name him; this isn’t a personal attack, but an attempt to address a cultural problem – the rise of a non-judgemental age in the arts world. Thousands of people exercise their own views about art every day, of course; they just prefer to keep those views to themselves.

Aesthetic judgement is in retreat, and has been for some time. It is seen as self-interested, as reflective more of one’s social position than of anything objective to do with art. Exercising judgement in public is seen as partial and imposing.

Of course, there are lots of lists and awards, but these tend to give rise to discussions of prizes and names rather than value or superiority. There is also still art commentary, but it tends to be descriptive and impenetrable. Indeed, both the prize-giving frenzy and abstruse commentary have risen to the fore in the absence of public critical engagement.

The problem is at its most stark in the discussion around arts funding. Whenever I suggest aesthetic assessment in relation to how we distribute funds, I usually get laughed at, before being told: ‘That is just going to favour who you know; that’s just jobs for the boys.’

The idea seems to be that it is impossible to separate social position and self-interest from deciding what is good and what is bad; that the ‘experts’ (experts are often put inside inverted commas) are just white old men securing a power of sorts for themselves.

This rot has been setting in for quite a while, for at least 30 years. Ideas about high and low culture, good and bad culture, and art for art’s sake have increasingly been questioned. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, a growing chorus within the cultural sector and academia challenged the consensus of the postwar period – the time when the Arts Council was set up – and argued against the idea that culture can and should exist autonomously from the state and society. The gallery, museum or concert hall could never be independent, the argument went.

Two scholars in particular have come to be very influential. First, Pierre Bourdieu, whose Distinction: A Social Critique of Taste argued that cultural value is not transcendent but rather is grounded in power and class. And second, John Berger, whose Ways of Seeing pointed out hidden ideologies within painting. Both were important works, and both had some good points, but their influence has generally been a negative one.

The vacating of judgement from art is a problem. One consequence is that it privatises art. By that, I mean it removes the consideration of art from the public sphere and turns it into something we do and think about alone. Of course, the experience of art is an intensely private activity, but our engagement with it does not start or end there; we also interact with art socially, as a public. Or at least, we ought to.

There is a diminishing significance attached to content, which springs from today’s lack of discrimination and differentiation in relation to art. As a consequence, we now have institutions which, desperate to justify themselves, try to find all sorts of extrinsic, non-content-related ends that they can claim to satisfy. Arts institutions claim to be contributing to the economy, to people’s wellbeing, to social cohesion, and so on – anything but simply providing great art.

In the process, these institutions actually undermine themselves, and art, too. For without a focus on content, without judgement, without discrimination, we cannot really value art. If the question of whether art is good or bad is just a matter of opinion, or our art preferences simply reflect our identity or social position, then art ceases to have a point. It is all things to all people; it is not unifying or powerful.

There are standards and ways to assess artworks. Working out if something is good is not a science, of course, but it can be done. It starts with looking, listening and, crucially, comparing. It is important to assess the quality of the work in relation to its tradition. This means drawing on knowledge of a particular form. Each artform will have particular questions that should be asked of it. One simple example: is this painter better than those who came before him? With his technical ability and skill, is he more successful at encapsulating an idea or sensation with a brushstroke?

We have to ask: how does the artist relate to, or potentially change, the canon of great work? Does he or she take the genre further – not just somewhere else, but somewhere interesting? This means that when we assess a piece we have to be knowledgeable, but also open to what is new and innovative. We must develop both expertise and sensitivity.

The most important question to ask is: does the artist communicate a truth that feels right? This is the toughest question to answer, in terms of working out what distinguishes the great from the just fine. Consider Picasso. His painting did not depict reality as it appeared to the ordinary eye, but rather as it felt. It was a truth, but not simply one that could be answered by the question: does that portrait look like the woman depicted in it?

So the two important points about judgement are that, firstly, you have to have some knowledge of what you are talking about, and secondly you must recognise that judgement needs to be exercised with others. It is essential to test one’s own view against other people’s views. Our views must be argued for and defended. Whether a work is good is something that is assessed not just in terms of the discipline, even though that is absolutely vital, but also within society itself, in the public realm.

Judgement is often presented and dismissed as just the word of one individual. But through exercising judgement, and discrimination, we engage with others. The power of judgement rests on a potential agreement with others. This helps to build up a common culture of what is considered valuable – and what should be disregarded. Of course, the power of judgement also rests on the possibility of disagreement. And that is something people are far too fearful of today. And yet agreement means nothing without the possibility of disagreement.

Without a culture of judgement and also engagement, we are less likely to recognise, cultivate and shape new and important art. Something quite wonderful could come and go, but never be brought to anyone’s attention, because we are too scared to judge it, discuss it, offer it up as Great Art. If this happens, we all lose out.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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