April 22, 2013

What Makes A Painting Good?


It's that time of year again.  Art schools and summer residency programs have sent off their admissions decisions to anxious applicants around the world.  A charmed few will receive the welcomed validation of an acceptance letter while others will be reminded just how personal the rejection from an impersonal form letter can feel.

Inherent in every admissions decision - whether for an artist residency, grad school program, juried show, etc. - is the implication that some artists are better than others.  And if artists are judged based on samples of their artwork, it would seem to follow that some art is better than other art.  You might disagree with this.  Perhaps rejection only means an artist was not right for the specific program they were applying for, not that they were worse than other applicants.  But it has to be fairly common that, within an applicant pool, there are more artists who do fit the criteria for admission than there are spots available to accommodate them.  In such cases you would assume that the intention of the admissions committee would be to pick the better artists, whether they would articulate it that way or not.

But the seemingly simple question what makes art good or bad turns out to be nearly impossible to answer.  Even narrowing things down to one specific medium - say painting - doesn't make things any easier.  Artist Wade Guyton's recent show at the Whitney Museum of American Art sparked a discussion on Jerry Saltz's Facebook page with over 800 comments debating whether or not Guyton's work could even be categorized as painting.  If we can't even agree on what a painting is, how could we ever hope to determine whether one painting is any better than another?  And who really cares?  Artists of this generation are generally savvy enough to know that art is subjective, so why get bogged down with trying to make such arbitrary distinctions?  Well, perhaps because most of us do tend to make those distinctions, whether we are conscious of it or not.  If we value certain artworks over others, we must have our reasons for doing so, right?

One of the biggest challenges to answering the question what makes a good painting is that as soon as you make any declarative statements on the matter you are essentially inviting others to prove you wrong (i.e. Clement Greenberg).  And they will prove you wrong, simply by pointing out that art is a social construct and therefore no absolute values exist by which it can be judged, blah blah blah.  Checkmate.  Except you'll still go around liking some art more than other art even if you can't articulate exactly why.

So is it all just a matter of taste?  The art world doesn't act that way.  There is a definite hierarchy that exists where people seem willing to defer to "top tier" institutions to assign value.  It is certainly easier to judge an artist based on their CV than it is to try and figure out if their work is any good on your own.  But top tier institutions are people, my friend.  They are made up of individuals who make judgement calls about the validity of the artists they represent or champion.  How do they separate the wheat from the chaff?

Raoul De Keyser, Recover, 2003, oil on canvas, 32 1/3 x 26 3/8 inches via David Zwirner Gallery

Instead of speculating on that last question, and possibly digressing into an institutional critique, let's redirect.  I'm an individual, how do I judge a painting?  Here's one example.  I think Raoul De Keyser is a good painter.  Why?  Well, I could talk about his strange but intriguing use of color, his subtle but brilliant compositional choices, or the understated confidence of his paint handling.  But if I'm honest, my appreciation for De Keyser's work has a lot to do with the fact that I was taught to appreciate it.  Let me explain.  It started when an art school professor assigned me a series of articles that praised De Keyser as a painter.  In a separate event, an artist I admire brought me to a De Keyser show at David Zwirner Gallery in New York and told me that the work was important.  After that, I started noticing De Keyser's name popping up in other articles and on blogs and on the lips of other artists.  That made me decide to study his paintings with more intensity, which in turn made me decide to write about them myself.  All of this together added up to me ultimately appreciating Raoul De Keyser as a painter.  Does that make his paintings good?  To me, it does.

Raoul De Keyser, Again, 2010, watercolor and charcoal on canvas mounted on wooden panel, 6 1/3 x 11 4/5 inches via David Zwirner Gallery

I chose De Kyeser as an example partly because his work is representative of a certain style of painting that complicates the categories of "good" and "bad."  If you like his work, you might describe it as purposely deskilled.  If you don't, you might argue that your three-year-old could do better.  When I said that I was taught to like De Keyser's paintings what I meant was that appreciating his work turned out to be a learned skill.  And part of the learning was realizing that the context of the work greatly influenced its meaning.  For example, I probably wouldn't have initially found them as interesting outside of the context of a magazine article or New York gallery.  It was the context that convinced me to look closer at the paintings, but it was the act of looking closer that caused me to appreciate them.  From there, my criteria for judging the paintings shifted as my knowledge about them grew and that actually says more about me than it does about whether De Keyser's paintings are good or bad.

Most of the panel discussions I have ever been to pose a very interesting question and then expend a good number of words not answering it.  I'm beginning to realize that this article is going to suffer a similar fate.  For whatever reason, I have always had a strong desire to try to answer the question posed in the title - or at least believe that it could be answered.  However, I'm beginning to wonder if the question itself might be flawed.  Values like "good" or "bad" are really just projections made by viewers when it comes to art, and maybe that's the answer I was looking for.  Perhaps your judgement of a painting reflects more about you than it does anything else.

1 comment:

Sam Bernal said...

Great article. The context of a piece of art is often as important as the work itself. A factor often ignored by the causal art fan.