Greatness in Art

What makes a piece of art great?  This is a simple question, right?  Well, no, it’s not... 


Art is subjective.  Art comes in all shapes, forms, sizes, mediums, styles and dimensions.  So how can we tell the bad from the good from the great?


This is a question that has been asked so many times through art history and I feel more now than ever, especially because we are into the modern era (or postmodern, or post – postmodern or whatever classification the experts would say that we’re currently in.)  Modern art is so expansive, wild, weird and all across the board that it often leaves people wondering what the hell they’re even looking at.  But let’s remember that art is a reflection of life and the human experience.  Modern art is all of these things because modern life is all of these things.  The world is more dynamic than it’s ever been and art is a way of humanity expressing itself and make sense of things.  So with all this considered, how do we make sense of all this contemporary art and then find the greatness within that?


Art in the past (pre-renaissance, renaissance, and up into the 1900’s) was so much simpler to identify what’s good and then great.  The technical abilities were so much more of the equation.  Who could best handle the mediums and reproduce reality was the top of the pack and that made their art the greatest (Think Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Gustav Klimt, etc..).  But by now the production skills have been maxed out and with actual technology, paintings and drawings can literally be photo realistic.  With all that in place, it takes the ability to recreate realism out of the space of being the main parameter.  With contemporary art there is so much more.


So how do we judge greatness?


I feel that we judge it from a combination of our emotion, our mind and our soul.  But that’s difficult because again, art is subjective.  It’s an expression.  It communicates on conscious and subconscious levels.  Some art is cerebral while other art is emotive and other art is even deeper than that.


Here’s my approach.. 

  1. I start by asking myself if I feel that an art piece is successful.  It’s not about whether or not I like it, it’s about if the artist achieved what they were intending.  Did they accomplish success in what they set out to do?  Is it conveying the message that it’s trying to?

  2. I then consider the thoughts and feelings I get from experiencing the art.  Does this art make me feel sad, happy, excited, frightened, lost, found, up or down?  Does this piece trigger something in me?  Does it trigger something in other people?  Does this artwork move me?

  3. I then look at the bigger picture of the artwork in context of space, time, culture and the timeline of art history.  Is this piece connected to humanity and the human experience as a whole?  Does it speak to wide ranging concepts, reach across society, or approach deep essential meanings?  Does this artwork speak to the soul?

Artwork that stands up against all these metrics and stands out, I would say, can be judged as great.   Greatness involves depth.  It involves challenge, and struggle and development and beauty (in one form or another).  It displays a mastery of craft and concept.  Artwork comes in so many manifestations across so many disciplines.  Greatness in this work can be achieved by everyone but is only achieved at times by a small percentage of the whole.   So much of art is subjective, but I’m sure of one thing.  Greatness in art is only achieved by a conscious and unrelenting pursuit of one’s craft, abilities, practice and soul.  With that said, in my opinion the greatest art is the best of the best of the best of it all.