I like it – but is it good?

Nothing is as confusing as the topic of art and what makes it good or valuable. This is probably because a visceral, emotional communication is often judged and discussed on a purely intellectual level. And that brings up a great question right there: Is an intellectual more capable of discerning good art or enjoying it at a deeper level than one who responds with a gut instinct? If you like what you like because it makes you feel good, are you less an expert than one who stands at a gallery opening and, wine in hand, opines in droll terms.

My answer is no – but there is a caveat to that. What you feel in a painting is only partially reliant on its subject and colour. Yes, it may match your colour swatches and it may be your favourite flower, but to paraphrase Shakespeare, a rose is not a rose is not a rose. On the other hand, a stark canvas of blacks greys and taupe your designer says pulls all your elements of leather, glass, and steel together in austere perfection may well have you wanting to fall on a sword any given morning!

Art speaks to the psyche in subtle communication. It is neither over informative – dictating your sentiment nor devoid of feeling and Spock-like in its sophistication. Like braille for the sighted, it is a communication beyond our normal range and experience. It is rapport between the artist and the viewer. Now, an artist does not create with the viewer in mind.  When this does motivate the painter, the result is over emotional or over illustrative – too much information. However, the viewer is very much an element of the dynamic relationship that the artist anticipates. A work of art lives in the eyes of the viewer and is incomplete until that moment.

Paint brushes and canvas are only the physical tools that a true artist uses. The unseen tools include, humility, life experience, perspective, knowledge and subtlety. Let’s look at those five elements.

An artist understands that a painting is about love

Humility: An artist understands that a painting is about love. An artist paints – or creates in a chosen medium – because they love to paint. It is what they do. For all the canvases in corporate boardrooms, in homes, in galleries, on the studio walls, there will always be a stack of blank canvases leaning against each other on the floor. But an artist knows that each piece is a communication, something that rises up within them in the act of creation that wishes to be expressed and that the one who perceives and is moved by that communication, may be a scholar or a neophyte.

If acclaimed, an artist may well display arrogance or hauteur – they are, after all, human – but at the moment they stand before a fresh canvas, pick up a brush and allow creation to choose the first colour – all ego and personality has stepped aside and the flow of a deeper language proceeds.

Life Experience: Every human being views the world through the filters of their personal experience. It is no different for an artist and the benefit to the world of art and its inclusion in our living and working spaces is that we see an element of life from a slightly or vastly different perspective that either allows us to agree or challenges us to rethink our perspective on a subject as common as a tree or flower, as utilitarian as a room interior or as stark as a cube.

A painting that does not move the viewer in some way is a construction – not a creation.

A painting may make us feel euphoric, uneasy, sentimental or even angry. A painting that does not move the viewer in some way is a construction – not a creation – and offered by one who paints from the head. I think a viewer can tell when a painting is self serving. It may be illustrative and well crafted technically – but it will not move you. A painting of this nature will soon become tiresome, invisible and disposable with the next decorating trend. Even a commissioned work which may not come from a creative subject choice will inevitably be informed by the sensibility of the artist. A portrait by a passionate artist will tell much more of the character of its subject than the visual accuracy of face, hair and eyes.

Perspective: An artist has a viewpoint which is slightly different from life experience and that is a reflection of the times the artist lives in. The art from an historic period reflects the nature of those times. We are holistic beings and live and create our society informed by the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual persuasions of that time. Humans innately strive for harmony and will seek balance in their art, literature, and architecture.

In a particular school like baroque, impressionist, surrealist, or contemporary art, each context is at once the barometer of the times, but deeper within that – the evolution of this same perspective in its social epoch. An artist in their own lifespan will exhibit a personal exploration and evolution within a style. In a way an artist becomes an historian of the holism of his own time. Cubism emerged from postwar chaos and uncertainty. Today’s art will reflect high tech, high rise, high stress. Innate human yearning will be for art to harmonize that – nature, tranquility, serenity, sanctuary, sensuality.

The clarity of communication in art rests in the elements of space, scale, structure, balance, and the resolution of these.

Knowledge: Art is communication; it has a transmitter– the artist, and a receiver – the viewer. Like language it requires the basic elements of clarity in order to be comprehended. The clarity of communication in art rests in the elements of space, scale, structure, balance, and the resolution of these. These elements are as necessary to abstract art as they are to romanticism. The mind relates to patterns and symmetry and will feel dissatisfaction if the painting does not resolve or harmonize its expression.

Inspiration and raw talent become compelling works of art and true craft when they are articulated in a knowledgeable structure. Even if a canvas appears that someone has dumped out a bad dream, a knowledgeable artist will lead a viewer around and through a painting making a clear gesture toward communicating. The painting might not appeal to the viewer, but a response will have been evoked. In my opinion it takes a very talented and knowledgeable artist to break the laws of realism. Chaos on canvas is not the opposite of realism. A viewer’s visceral response will tell the difference.

Subtlety: Art is not an illustration, a photograph or an encyclopedia. It is an invitation, innuendo, a suggestion. It is an opening into the experience of an artist as they stood in front of a canvas and interpreted what they saw. The invitation is to the viewer to complete the picture – close the circle of communication. A piece of art that is compelling and endures in its appeal will allow us to participate in the experience.

A painting becomes interesting to us when all the dots are not connected. We experience the nature of a flower – its essence in colour, form and motion – how it leans against the vase, perhaps, how a lily snugs in with tulips and iris. How does a tangle of roots look as they wrench out of the earth by the weight of a tree falling in death? Is the detail complete and accurate? I hope not. If it were the painting wouldn’t need me. A good artist will lead you to a field of conclusions. The rest is up to you.

What makes a painting valuable? You do.