Home » How Does One Measure Great Art?

How Does One Measure Great Art?

On Friday, I blogged about an exhibition that I had gone to see. I gave it a hasty, dismissive review and got some interesting and passionate comments in return.

Abramovic/Ulay, Imponderabilia, 1977. Image: emanuelesbardella.com

The reason for my review was less about the actual exhibition itself – the art wasn’t, strictly speaking, bad – than about how frustrated I am with the witty conceptualism that appears to be trendy among young artists.

I want art that gives to me, not art that asks me to do all the work.

Janet Cardiff, Her Long Black Hair (an audio walk in Central Park, 2004.) Image: nycgovparks.org

Yoko Ono, Ceiling Painting (Yes Painting), 1966/1998. Image: tittenhurstlennon.com

A viewer gets a lot from seeing Picasso’s Guernica in person, regardless of whether you know about the subject matter. The sames goes for Anish Kapoor’s sculptures, Bruce Nauman’s installations, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle and great pieces by James Turrell, Yoko Ono, Gregor Schneider, Rodney Graham, Janet Cardiff and many, many others.

Too often, young art is no more than a conceptual joke that demands the viewer understand it. Who does that benefit? No one. The seriousness of art must not be underestimated. Art isn’t easy, it should be a great challenge, and for the best artists, it is.

Picasso’s Guernica. Image:artnewsblog.com

Great art is magical, it presents something unexpected, it is a visual manifestation of a feeling that it’s impossible to put into words. So I think that art that relies on an elaborate explanation is too easy. Artists should try taking that explanation away, and if it still stands as art, then they might be on to something.

In short, something may be well made, but if it doesn’t make me feel something more than what it is, then to me, it’s not great art.

Stay tuned for my upcoming article In Search of Excellence, a follow up to my piece On Art Schools, for The Mark News.

12 Responses to “How Does One Measure Great Art?”

  1. jeremy says:

    your not alone in your dissatisfaction with “witty conceptualism” – it has become a crutch. out of all the art in the world a very small percent of it would qualify as great. that is what make the greats so great. we can only strive for greatest not really expected it.

  2. Jason says:

    Hi Andrea,
    Perhaps the mediocrity is what helps you determine greatness. Art ‘should’ not do anything, but experientially, you are lucky when it does. Traditionally speaking, artists tend to view, assess and eventually reject the trends that flood through the art world. I assume ‘witty conceptualism’ will end its youthful reign on the hangman’s noose.

  3. ben says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that art is subjective, but personally I think that criticism (no matter what it’s critical of) owes more than just a topical understanding of the medium it’s criticizing. However, Great art requires more than just technical proficiency or a witty (sincere, great, profound, etc) idea on it’s own to survive not only criticism, but the test of time as an artwork.

    I was at the show, took some time to read the brochures, look at the work, talk to a couple of the artists. Not all of the art hits me, that could be an aesthetic decision as much as it’s about me not understanding the references that some of makes. The art may or may not be timeless, thing is that they are all young artists and only time will tell.

    I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the output of young artists to that of the people you have unless you’re ready to really assign a critique to the work that does them the service of an informed and sound opinion. We all have our opinions, but I think you owe your readership as well as the artists you put on a pedestal or the ones you vilify more than just an opinion.

  4. Adam says:

    “The reason for my review was less about the actual exhibition itself”

    “That’s interesting, Jayne. I did admire the handiwork of the beeswax toast, but hadn’t realized that the books were also handmade!”

    “I try to balance the blogging format (quick, snappy, daily postings) while fleshing out works at least a bit.”

    I agree that VoCa should “be more critical” but these statements – and the review itself – don’t suggest anything like the depth of thought, artfulness or “magical” qualities of the art VoCA seems to be advocating. What do you mean by “more critical”?

    “Quick and snappy” blogging is good and necessary to be sure. But to call this criticism is to do a disservice to the really considered and artful criticism that has been written, whether it be of the daily kind or longer form.

    I guess my question here is: critically, what is VoCA’s relationship to the work it is covering? There seems to be some confusion here.

    If VoCA is going to write negatively/voice an opinion about the work of the “young artists” showing at Red Bull Projects, shouldn’t it at least offer the respect of taking the time to really look at the work in question?

  5. EC says:

    Reviewing Marshall McLuhan’s lecture at Columbia University New York Fall 1973 entitled Art as Survival in the Electric Age may provide interesting insight into this discussion. Just a couple of quotes from this lecture: “one of the functions of the artist that is understood in recent decades is that it is above all, to prevent us from becoming adjust to our environments” and it ends “The job of the artist is to upset all the senses and thus to provide new vision and new powers of adjusting to new situations”.

  6. MW says:

    There is a difference between ‘witty conceptualism’ and ‘bad art’. To me three of the four pieces you posted above are ‘conceptual’ and creatively witty and successful art along those lines.

  7. Sweet Jump’n I couldnt have said it better.
    “I want art that gives to me, not art that asks me to do all the work.”

  8. Steve "economic downturn" Jobs says:

    you say witty conceptualism is a trend? does 40+ years of conceptualism and post-conceptualism constitute a trend?? the small grain of witty conceptualism has been going on for a long time. it is something serious, difficult, staunchly funny and sometimes even magical…

    could you possibly say that John Baldessarri is just going along with the bandwagon? People in the early 70’s called his stuff Ha-Ha art. just dig around for a few minutes and you’ll see there is more to the picture.

    Adam is on point. the bigger issue is how the coverage here assumes the position of criticism, when it doesn’t even begin to parse anything.

  9. Z says:

    It’s easier to take a stance on work by seasoned artists who have already proven themselves against the test of time (your examples Picasso, Cardiff, etc) but the real risk to a critic is to look at the work being produced today by young artists and take a critic stance. I applaud critics who choose to back young talents they believe in as opposed to dismissing the milieu they are working in.

  10. AC says:

    Z – I’m not sure how often you read VoCA but I spend a considerable amount of time choosing to back the young talents I believe in…

  11. AC says:


    It’s tough to distinguish between good and bad art. The way I see it, is that critics must develop a standard, or measure of what great art is, and see if the art they are looking at measures up. I would differentiate between art that uses humour in a profound way and witty conceptualism. I’ve been aware of Baldessari’s work for years, particularly his early video work of which I am a big fan. You can see his searching for the boundaries of what art is, in his work with the (then) relatively new medium of video. It’s raw, it’s funny but it’s very serious work.

  12. benny nemerofsky ramsay says:

    here, here, Andrea!

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