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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Evaluating Art

Good Proportion--the relationships of mass and space to color and texture.
In previous discourses this past week, I've already dealt with the difficulties in defining art. I said, in its simplest terms, art is: "creative communication." Obviously we can (and I did) add a good deal of elaboration beyond that, but in essence, for something to be termed "art" it must communicate creatively. Now, beyond that, art may be classified as good, bad, or indifferent with about a zillion and a half gradations in between each of those benchmarks. Yet, regardless of the benchmark, if a piece communicates creatively it still should be considered art. However, if you had difficulty defining art, defining "good" art or "bad' art, or even "indifferent" (mediocre) art, doubles or quadruples the complexities involved.
Scale--Though the perspective may not be perfect, the scale is. Chairs in the foreground are larger than those in the rear but their scale is appropriate according to their placement from the picture plane (foreground) to the rear wall in Vincent van Gogh's Café Alcazar, 1888.
Some dumb critic or philosopher has phrased the ultimate cop-out solution to defining good art: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." First of all "beauty" is only one component of art and, as discussed a few days ago, not all art even at that. Second, there are simply too may beholders with at least one eye (usually two) for such an assertion to have any value in judging the positive qualities of art (or lack thereof). Therefore, what we're desperately in need of are universal values in art. But, before we go galloping off like Don Quixote in search of something as ephemeral as "universal values" we need to channel our search into specific areas of creative design in which to applies these values.
Unity--Wassily Kandinsky achieves unity in his White II (1923) composition
through his persistent use of 45-degree diagonals juxtaposed on or near one
another against the still more powerful unifying element of a flat (originally) white surface.
Most people knowing anything at all about art are aware of what's called the Basic Elements of Design (BEDs)--line, color, space, shape, texture, and sometimes, time (as in the case of video or film). Beyond that, there is a second level which I delve into much more deeply in my book, Art Think (available above, right). I've neither the time, space, nor inclination to do more than just list them here. Get my book or any good dictionary for more details. This second, more complex, level I call the Complex Elements of Design (CEDs), which rely heavily, on the BEDs for their basic vocabulary. They include: proportion, scale, unity, balance, perspective, rhythm, pattern, and content. There are esoteric refinements to each of these elements apropos to art so if you're using a dictionary, be sensitive to those as you peruse your Merriam-Webster.
Balance--At first glance, the balance seems very nearly symmetrical (perfect balance).  However such perfect balance would be out of context, given the content of the painting. Instead the artist, Caspar David Friederich, balances masses and color values on either side of his maritime perpendicular which is almost, but not quite, perfectly centered in the composition, Stages of Life, 1835.
Good Art
Now, having touched on all this, we can go in search of those qualities making for "good proportions," or "good scale," and "fine unity" etc. Where do we begin such a search? Well (unlike the BEDs), not in the dictionary. Such determinations tend to be instinctive. And how does the would-be artist develop such instincts? It's simple, by drinking in lots and lots of art from whatever source is convenient and in whatever quantities are practical. This is where art history comes into play. This instinctual development is the sum and substance of art appreciation and without some knowledge of art history, art appreciation is virtually impossible (or at least, extremely difficult).
Perspective--Even in the most abstract, conceptual manifestations, perspective can be an integral element in the presentation of a work of art, in this case imposed upon the viewer by the deliberately constrained shallow viewing area at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in the Fransje Killaars Installation Colors-No-Figures 1.
Yet this "drinking in" must involve more than just looking at enormous quantities of art. Simply getting "drunk" on art may, in fact, be counterproductive if doing so does not also involve "savoring" each piece and forming personal judgments guided by the CEDs listed above. Moreover, you should also consider the fact that a given work's placement in a museum, or art history textbook is based upon the values of some "art expert" or writer decades, even centuries ago—values that are not now, nor were they ever, etched in stone, set concrete, or predicated on any hard set of aesthetic values. That's not to say the judgments out of the past lack validity; nor should they necessarily be questioned automatically. They are simply valuable suggestions based upon informed opinion—a point of departure, if you will, as you develop your own personal evaluative instincts.
Rhythm--Probably the most compelling compositional structure in Samuel F.B. Morse's Old House of Representatives, 1822-23, is the rhythmic repetition of the columns and architectural elements of the half dome. Here we see a visual rhythm but not a metric rhythm. The size and space between each column is different as they "march" from
background to middle-ground on the far right.
Mediocre Art 
Pattern--Alma Thomas uses tiny swatches
of pigment to create her patterns, which in
turn, contribute to the visually textured
pattern of vertical lines. Her Iris, Tulips,
Jonquils, and Crocuses (1964) employs
all five of the BEDs in creating rhythmic
The same CEDs apply. You may even encounter examples of mediocre art in museums and art textbooks. In fact, mounting a search for such examples in such venues is something of a "fun" exercise once you've reliably developed your evaluative instincts. Unfortunately, you need not go to such extremes to encounter excellent examples of mediocre art. Mediocre simply means that the work has both good and bad qualities in something approximating equal amounts. Probably half or more of all art produced falls easily into this category. Why is that? Because many, if not most, artist do not make any attempt to consciously apply the CEDs as they plan their work. Of course, if their complex design instincts are finely honed, conscious application of the CEDs is a moot point; but highly developed conceptual design instincts are relatively rare among artists. However, good design can (and often does) happen by accident. Sadly, the same is also true of poor CED applications, and given the law of averages, the two are usually about equal—mediocre art.

Content--The content of a painting can sometimes be so overwhelming as to virtually subjugate all other CEDs, as here in Pieter van Mierevelt;s Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer, 1617. In non-representational art, however, the other CEDs combine to become the content.
Bad Art
Surprisingly, "bad" art is not as commonplace as you might imagine, probably because of the prevalence of so much mediocre art. It's almost like artists have to go out of their way to create "bad" art, which, at times, has been done (often with hilarious results). But just as the law of averages dictates that maybe half the time the artist will accidentally make "good" design decisions while the other half of the time making "bad" decisions, there is a very good chance most of the decisions made by the inexperienced artists will not be well conceived. Yet, even if a rookie artist does not have highly defined and refined design instincts, the understanding of, and the very act of conscious consideration of each of the CEDs during the planning and design stages will often bend the law of averages in the artist's favor, producing far more pleasing and effective creative communication than if, through simple ignorance or laziness, the artist fails to consider their importance.
A group critique--show and tell with an edge.
So, with all of this in mind, how do you separate personal bias regarding your own work from more universal values? The answer to that is likewise simple—by involving others. The more others, the more universal those judgments will be, provided those "others" have as their intent the building, reinforcement, and refinement of good instinctive design principles in themselves and others. Whether formally (in a classroom), or informally through casual encounters over a period of time, this is where the critique comes into play.

Critiquing art requires insight, honesty, and a certain degree of tact.


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