What’s Great Art?
If art is a form of communications to allow empathy- where the artist aims to convey an internal feeling, or concept that he has to the audience- then great art must be something where the message is conveyed with minimal distortion to as wide an audience as possible.
Since humans are subjective creatures, and we are all shaded by our environmental context, our culture, our upbringing and society. We cannot expect that reactions will be the same by all to a single piece of art. For example, the reactions of a Amazonian villager and a museum curator towards Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings will be quite different.
Everyone has their own cultural, societal, familial and individual cues (and fancies) – so does that mean that it’s all subjective? Yes- of course! Subjectiveness already begins when the artist starts to imagine or reinterpret a scene or event, and this subjectiveness carries over to the observer, who no doubt is different from the artist.
What I would term as great art, is something that appeal to (or engage) you, as well as your neighbor, and the fellow in the next cubicle. There are themes, concepts, emotions which are common to us all, and if we look closely at the really great works of Art, certain themes do repeat themselves over and over again. These themes appeal to a wide swath of people, and the greatness of such art pieces is how they unite large groups of people in the engagement of the work itself.
These universal themes may be emotions (such as joy, fear/anxiety , despair, or mystery/enigma), concepts (beauty, proportion/perspective) to history/factual accounts (such as humanitarian crisis/ refugee situation with a large global audience) and even natural laws (symmetry, numerical ratios in music scales, flexibility of time, forces of nature)
So, while an artist can produce work that engages a tiny slice of humanity, great works of art are the ones which communicate universal themes that are applicable worldwide. Different mixtures of themes can be used as well (such as our wonder at the technique and realism, and the concept of beauty, mystery and proportion in the Mona Lisa)
In a sense, I could be talking about cliches. Why do the same “types” of work always win awards? Because of the universal themes they embody. But the challenge is to reframe such universal themes into a new perspective, or perhaps combine themes in a new way, so that the cliche is avoided.
Micheal Davis, a photo editor makes a similar point here.
And of course readers of my site already know that I am a fan of everything is a remix.
What does this mean for artists? – Universality and Authenticity
So, if I were an artist looking to make great work – the most important start point is my message (in photographic terms this is called pre-visualisation). I will want to make my message one that has universal themes – and then try to make it unique.
Another word for this ‘uniqueness’ is authenticity. Why do some people criticize some art as derivative or copies, and hail others as incredible or breathtaking when the two are about similar messages? I believe the authenticity of the work is the key. If a piece of art is authentic, audience will know it, and place it on a higher standing than a copy. Another word for such a quality is style. A consistent personal style is what separates an artistic photograph with a message and a visually pleasing image (which has no significant content) put through a automated program, say, Instagram.
So here we end off with an juxtaposition (between individualism and universality) – where an Artist, to achieve great work, will need to express a consistent authenticity which makes him different from others, and employ this authenticity in the service of universal themes to unite people.