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Two Cents’ Worth | Opinion on ‘What Is (Good) Art?’

There are times when art seems to be laden with so many complications than it should be. Why can’t art just be something beautiful to look at? What is art? What makes something a work of art? So many questions, but always so many debates and no real answers.

Some debates are centered in the academic field, but can also easily apply to anyone’s experience with art. It does make my study of art history more varied and well, it keeps things interesting.

I’d like to add my own two cents’ worth of opinions to the various debates out there after having circled around others’ different opinions for a while now. It all came up again with The Art Assignment’s I Could Do That video that popped up on my Facebook wall a few weeks back.

I’m sure that most of us have heard “I can do that!” or loud exclamations of “How is that art??!!” or related sentiments in some context of art viewing or another. Of course, these kind of dramatics might annoy surrounding art lovers, but I think that there are some instances, especially in the realm of modern and contemporary art, when we feel unimpressed or dubious or disgusted even. To be honest, I have.

It always seems like there is an unsaid “rule” that you can’t disagree with what the experts say, that you can’t disagree on the artworks that have been put through the system and are finally hung on the pristine white walls of a gallery. If an artwork is shown at a respected gallery, it should be good, isn’t it? Surely the experts are right about this. If anything though, I’ve learnt that it’s good to challenge assumptions and establish your own opinions.

That doesn’t mean that I disagree with the points brought up in this video. I do agree that while artworks can look simplistic, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t take a high level of technical skill. (Although whether the level of technical skill of artists have decreased overtime is another story – according to whose standard?)

While I certainly agree that I could probably never create any of the art I see, I feel that these uttered sentiments express the simple point of dissatisfaction with the artwork in front of viewers. Who says I can’t dislike art by Michelangelo? Just because people spend hours queuing to see the Sistine Chapel doesn’t mean I have to! (Although that is another debate, HAHAHA.)

It’s also interesting to note how modern and contemporary are brought up in this video. In fact, don’t people always disagree over modern and contemporary artworks? You don’t often see people arguing over the artistic merits of Mona Lisa, don’t you? “I’ve got a ticket to the Lourve, and I’m going to shove my way to the front to get a good shot of her, dang it!” (Of course, you’re entitled to.)

Crowd Looking at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre

Victor Grigas (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International)

In my opinion, artworks of a long-gone past are so different from the artworks we see today that our responses can range from being amazed to disinterested. But one universal response that would never happen in this generation is to be shocked by it. This generally applies more to works of the modern era, since artists of historical periods never really painted in radical ways that scandalized the public at the time. As the times move on, things lose their initial shock value and people come up with ideas with higher shock value to bring something new to the table. Our eyes have become “jaded” that we don’t have an initial scandalized reaction anymore and can jump right into appreciating the work of art. It’s actually really interesting to read the public and art critics’s first reactions to some well-loved works today.

Going back to contemporary works, especially from the latter half of the 20th century onwards, I feel that there are two ways of looking at it. The first is that we, the current public, haven’t rode over the tide of shock, dubiousness, and other negative feelings toward new ways of art creation that we’re still not used to seeing or that is so far removed from the wealth of historical artworks that we accept as masterful, brilliant and the like.

One personal example of mine would be Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. It’s a well-loved and well-known painting for most people, yes, but I didn’t know of it till two years ago… But anyway, my initial reaction? I didn’t like it. It’s flat! And the couple looks weird! So on and so forth.

Gustav Klimt - The Kiss

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908, oil on canvas

Just a week ago, I chanced upon a video discussion of the piece on Khan Academy while digging around for topics for a Fine Arts presentation. I couldn’t believe it, but I’ve totally changed my mind about it now. It is gorgeous, and so sexy in the best subtlest way. It even feels a little intimate, as if I’m intruding in the couple’s private space. I guess that’s why my favorite kind of art is in the modern era, because we can learn about individual artworks and artists, and there is so much potential to view artworks in different ways from our first perception of it. It’s something that I feel historical art doesn’t give me, though they are of course masterful in different ways.

There is also the thing about so many new mediums of artworks today: artists first starting with more types of painting and printing techniques, then there were the readymades put forward by Marcel Duchamp (like the upside down urinal – I refuse to put it up on my blog, you can go here to view it instead), and now there are massive installations of various mixed media, video art and performance art, the latter two of which I’m still unsure about. With so many styles of art today, it’s even harder to place a “standard” on what’s good and what’s bad, or even how to define what makes up art.

The other way of looking at it, that I’m putting forth, is the possibility that we are dissatisfied with what there currently is, and there is a need for new styles of artworks to fill up the gap of what’s lacking today. It’s easy to think of the viewers’  negative responses to artists’ unseen-of radical ways of creating art, but what about the push that made artists decide to go against the norm and make a new kind of art that went against the standard? Most of the time, they were dissatisfied with artworks pegged against the standard of the academy (art schools) and sought new ways of expression. And so it goes, new modern art masters were born – Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Duchamp, and Warhol are popular examples.

In the art world today, I feel that there are some artists who choose to go for a method that works, that doesn’t express any real emotions or message, but just sells. I wouldn’t say that it’s completely representative of contemporary art today, but I would hope to see more art that is real and at the least, meaningful to the artist before we the viewers put our opinions on it.

How to determine what’s good art though? What really constitutes art today? While there were clear defined answers to such questions in eras past, such answers shatter in the face of the artworks we see today. I can’t and won’t provide an answer, since it’s largely debatable among everyone, but my opinion is that it’s purely subjective. Like what you like, dislike what you don’t like, but be open to what you see around you. I like art fairs for this reason, because it forces you to respond to the numerous artworks you see in the most honest way possible. Especially in Hong Kong’s art fairs, where there are about 10 people to 1 artwork (my perceived estimate, of course), there isn’t that much time to make up your mind about an artwork. If you like something, wait for your chance to take a photo, and then keep moving! You know an artwork is a favorite when it’s everywhere on Instagram ;)

That’s my way of looking and thinking about art now. I don’t like thinking that I have to agree with what the majority say about a certain artwork or artist, but I’m going to form my own informed opinions about the artworks I care about. On this note, I like to keep all the artworks featured on the blog works that I appreciate, or that at least provide a meaningful point of discussion. Duchamp’s Fountain – I’m just one of those annoying people who strongly dislike it, okay? And no, I would never have thought of doing that.

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