What’s the difference between kinda-good and really-good art?

My fiancee and I were sitting at a coffee shop after spending a few hours at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. There are some largser-than-lifesize pastel portraits on the walls - I’m guessing the artist is likely a MassArt student because we’re near campus. The execution and ideas seem pretty solid to me, but the works are not presented as precious - some corners are starting to show wear from people accidentally brushing against them. Then, he asks me a simple, but actually not-so-simple question: what’s the difference between the art we see on the walls around us here, and the stuff back at the museum?

This piece uses some of the same techniques as the non-representational works in the museum, but it’s just a casual experiment and would not likely change the art world just yet.

This piece uses some of the same techniques as the non-representational works in the museum, but it’s just a casual experiment and would not likely change the art world just yet.

I loved this question. It’s so direct, and yet people often feel ashamed of asking something like this. What is good art? What makes one piece, presumably more worthy of being shown to the public, end up in the galleries, while another may never get exhibited, or only get a smaller venue? What makes good coffee shop art?

When we visit museum, there is an implied assumption that we know it’s valuable to do so, and the we know the difference between stuff in the museum, and the other, less important, stuff. And because we might appear less cultured for asking why stuff deserves to be in there, we might just pretend we know what we’re looking at, while secretly we’re bored.

I also came across different books that touch on the subject recently, as I search for ways to bring art into design practice - Art as Therapy, Playing to the Gallery, and Seven Days in the Art World all come to mind. Here’s my summary of what makes good art good, and kinda-good art different from the masterpieces.

What makes great art great?

For the purpose of this discussion, I will mix up the ideas of “museum quality”, “great art”, “important art” and “beautiful art” - because most folks asking this question likely care about a combination of these, and generally they make sense together.

Reasons behind choices
The artist will generally have a pretty solid reason for their choice of material, subject, and technique. Just like master craftsman can explain in detail the subtle variations in the tools they use to get a specific result - an artist would often go to great length to select just the right materials, and to develop their technique.

This reason is not always shared with the public, but it’s generally a safe assumption that the artist has put a lot of effort into figuring out what’s the right thing to use.

A history
One piece of art does not tell the whole story. As we look at one piece, our (or a curator’s) opinion of it is based on how the work developed over time. Picasso’s cubist work did not come from nowhere: he earlier made very realistic work, then moved into a Blue period, and finally arrived - through a progression - to some of his more abstract and even controversial pieces. Some modern art looks easy to reproduce because of its technique, but the history behind how the artist arrived to making the works, and the time in which they were made, make them meaningful and important.

First of its kind
Speaking of when something was made - being first to express a new idea visually can be important, too. Copying the look of Malevich’s Black Square would be a fairly easy task, but the revolutionary simplicity of the piece in 1923, and its controversial placement in the gallery - in the corner of the room, higher than other works, where a revered icon would normally be - made it (literally!) an iconic piece. Many collectors aspire to have the “first of its kind” artwork for major art movements and ideas, so the price and importance of such works goes up accordingly.

A photographer in his previous career, my fiancee once explained to me the difference he sees between a serious photographer, and a casual enthusiast. An enthusiast - or, really, anyone - can have an accidental snapshot that turns out beautiful and profound. What makes a professional different is the frequency with which these successes occur. They have both the technical ability, and the artistic judgement to consistently produce good work. From myself I would add that if making great work takes making a lot of bad work in between, that’s ok. The successful creatives are the ones who have the grit to continue on through the many failures, and have many successes as a result.

I understand “good art” in a similar way. Don’t just look for one masterpiece - look for a history of making many things, of comparable or increasing artistic merit.

Skill matters. Artists build up amazingly refined technique through hard work, and when it’s done well, it shows. Some artists also choose to use an intentionally “naive” technique or style, which may look like a child or amateur produced the piece. Some artists’ work looks so simple it might seem easy to make - one gesture, for example. But these things often come after years of experience with other styles, and a conscious choice to use the specific technique, rather than a lack of skill. There’s no one technique better than another, but for each piece, an artist’s command of the appropriate techniques to express their idea does determine how good a piece of art is.

A caveat to “good art”

Both nature, and nurture play a role for how good we might think an artwork might be. There are probably many great pieces that were made before their times, and did not meet recognition (yet!). The art market is self-reinforcing and unfair. (just look up anything by the Guerrilla Girls.) Any artist’s ability to attract and keep the attention of curators, galleries, and the general public depends on fashion, their access to resources, and just plain luck. But in general, I believe that the interconnected system of art critics, museums, schools, public events, commerce, and of course artists, does work. And the artworks that end up “at the top of the pile” show all or most of the qualities we just discussed.

Hopefully this helps make sense of things a bit. I know discussing this helped me to look at art in a bit more inquisitive way the next time I go to a museum. What about you?

Maria Matveevafifth-9