Quality or value? We can try to see an art work’s intrinsic quality and consider the emotional and aesthetic impact it has (that is, just how much we like looking at the work and value emotionally), while trying to ignore any art historical value or other art critical significance that may be attached to the work. Some art works have a critical interest that does nothing for the quality but can add big money value because they can be discussed endlessly by critics and amateurs like myself. Works that are strong in both aspects take out the highest money value, like Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”.
Being able to separate these aspects is now very hard to do for an artist like Andy Warhol. We can appreciate that there is something more in a painting by Andy Warhol; he does have a high level aesthetic sense and what the paintings are about can be intriguingly hard to pin down. When it is more obvious what they are about, they are less interesting.
What can we make of an artist like Mark Kostabi? He is certainly something less than Andy Warhol. It is unclear what is determining the final result, but there is nothing vague about the result. Whatever it is that determines the result, it doesn’t provide an emotional connection. His artwork production possibly has some novel contemporary aspect to it, which provides another negative for contemporary art. However, what is good artwork design, for music album covers for instance, doesn’t necessarily provide the long term quality of good art. The only interesting aspect about Kostabi’s work is how he shows that quality doesn’t have to be high for some collectors to buy the work. As in the case of Warhol, because the work can be discussed in some intellectual way seems to add to its value for collectors.
When artists start out on their journey we often see in their work a struggle to find their best way in the midst of the varying influences of modernism and contemporary art.
David Park expresses this best with great self-awareness in reference to a time when he apparently dumped a truckload of his abstract paintings: “During that time I was concerned with the big abstract ideals like vitality, energy, profundity… I still hold those ideals today, but I realize that those paintings practically never, even vaguely approximated my achievement of my aims. Quite the opposite: what the paintings told me was that I was a hard-working guy who was trying to be important” (quoted in R. Armstrong, David Park, exh.cat Whitney Museum of Art, 1988, p. 30).
David Park points to a hazard for the artist whereby he/she is in love with the idea of being an artist and produces art that is directed more by a notion of what art should be like rather than by paying attention to internal drivers and sentiment. For some artists these internal drivers and sentiment may be weak or even non-existent and that is one reason why we can see a lot of bad art.
Although we, as the audience, at least in part are only looking for a brief, interesting, and possibly moving experience, the serious artist is aiming higher and for more, and obviously looking at the work for a longer time. This might help to explain why we do not understand when an artist does not rate a large body of his/her work, and may attempt to destroy it, even though the works can be popular and rated highly with the audience. Just a few of the many examples are Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, and Gerhard Richter.
Even experienced artists can go wrong, including the likes of Henri Matisse and Camille Pissarro (well, a little bit wrong for these artists). Artists can consciously try to be up-to-date with what has the greatest fashionable cachet at the time, particularly under the influence of other artists, and briefly fail to fully appreciate the best elements in their own work; or they listen to buyers and critics who mainly want a certain kind of picture. Really good art is relatively rare, so it’s not going to come easily.
Borrowing and copying can be good for an artist as a learning and transitional phase as long as those internal drivers and sentiment keep determining the final result. Some artists stay at this point and produce valid results because of a sentiment driver connection. These artists can be underrated initially because of this aspect but what they borrow and copy is such a good fit with their own aesthetic, eventually the genuineness of their work can be seen. These works are mostly not rated as highly as the originators but provide very successful, satisfying and enjoyable art. (See post Kees van Dongen & Jean-Pierre Cassigneul.)
Good works of art can come about in different ways. Some artists do strange and unusual things, most of which can look appalling. Then occasionally, maybe only once, they hit upon a unique and great work. These artists are often amateurs, or work on the fringes, and are possibly popular locally. Another is the trained artist who works constantly and develops until some things come easily, and they seem to able to produce high quality work regularly almost at will.
Levels in Quality
There are artists who produce a lot of very attractive work. They have an unfailing, high level aesthetic and decorative sense. Two artists that I include in this category are Mary Fedden and Alecos Fassianos. Although I love to look at their work, one searches in their oeuvre for those works that are highlights of inspiration, creativity and effect (for the major works) which don’t seem to be there.
Thinking of Picasso and Matisse, they have both – a high level decorative sense that can produce a lot of very attractive work, and a high level inspirational drive that produces the iconic major works.
Also, we know there are some artists, after an early period of intense creativity and original work when they produce their best work, they then settle into living out a long life, producing work only in a lower category of highly attractive. Two artists I put in this category are Raoul Dufy and Marc Chagall.
An example of an artist who seems to have less decorative facility but who has produced some works at a higher level of effect is Yiannis Tsarouchis. A good example is his work “Young man with helmet (Portrait of Alain)”.
Firstly, one is struck by the quality of its execution. Every brushstroke seems just right and sufficient for its detail and expression. There is a real person and emotion in the work. Although literally it is a young man posed somewhat incongruously bare chested with a helmet, the prop of the helmet adds so much to its meaning. It shows a young man, vulnerable, fleshy, sensitive. Such men have fought fires or in armies throughout the ages. For me, it is an iconic expression of that opposition between the man and his role.
The Naive Artist
It seems appropriate to include here some discussion of naive artists. Their work is often an attempt to show past episodes and experiences in their life, and may initially look clumsy, but the sentiment element is so strong that it can compensate for this potential weakness. The ultimate quality of the work, however, still depends on the aesthetic talent of the artist.
What is intended as a criticism, when someone says of an artist’s work that their “child could have painted that”, the artist may express as an aspirational aim. The highly trained and sophisticated artist can aim to create works that look like that of the naif, because this artist wants to go past all the training and tap more directly into the emotions that connect directly with their sentiment. The artists wants to say something, and has a strong urge to express this and it doesn’t matter whether or not it is original. It may be original, but that is not the issue with regards the quality. It is the strong belief that is the main point. This applies to anyone in any field and the drive for communication.
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