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Quills & Queues: What makes fine art fine?

A recent column has provoked a lot of conversation about what makes good art. Some say that good art is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and in the case of personal taste and private collecting, this is quite right; no matter how many “experts” suggest that you buy something purely because of the implied long term value or based on some aesthetic criteria in the abstract, there is little reason for a collector at a modest scale to purchase a work of art unless they at least like it, and ideally love it.

Living in a home full of paintings, sculptures and other works that do not speak to you personally is a hollow experience, regardless of the financial or aesthetic value of a collection in the eyes of the world. Buying art you don’t want to festoon your walls can make a small fortune out of a large one, and can cause you to ultimately become a victim of fashion and of other people’s ideas of taste.

Being in a position to buy the “best of everything” is a rare occurrence, and those works of art by DeKooning, Cezanne, Lichtenstein or Rembrandt that do gain consensus as being “the best” are most often bought by oligarchs, billionaires, sheikhs or large institutions. Most small collectors end up being able to, perhaps, scrape together enough cash to buy a souvenir of larger, more important works in the form of, perhaps, a handmade print — of which there are thousands floating around by name artists such as Miro and Chagall — that is not necessarily good just because someone who is known to be great manufactured it.

According to a dealer friend who is now very ancient and was acquainted with Paul Rosenberg, Picasso’s art dealer for many years, the Spaniard himself would often say that there were many, many bad Picassos and only a few great ones. I would imagine that a lot of artists feel and have felt this way.

So what makes fine art fine?

Message is key. If an artwork simply has no context or any substantial content as a result of that context, it would be difficult to understand why it was good. Legacy is important; value is based in history. Jackson Pollock would not have been Jackson Pollock without Thomas Hart Benton, and Rothko’s soft, rectangular imagery would not have come along had he not first traveled through Expressionism and Surrealism.

Even Marcel Duchamp — whose revolutionary artistic processes a recent contributor to this paper hilariously attempted to use as a comparative justification for the local public art travesty that is Susan Zoccola’s “Threshold” — spent a great deal of time doing portraiture, making cartoons and dabbling in Cubism before making his 1917 “Fountain” a landmark of 20th Century art.

Composition is critical, whether a work be abstract or realistic, figurative or conceptual. Elements such as shape, color, line and texture are barometers of visual value, and these things cannot be ignored in evaluating cultural criteria. Much like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s assertion that opinion is an entitlement, but facts are not, people can choose whatever they “like” artistically, but they don’t get to postulate that what they have chosen is in good taste.

Taste is an evolutionary process borne of consensus. Titian will be Titian forever, and deserves to be.

The other big consideration is technical skill. How does an artist take what’s in their head and make it exist in reality? What is the quality of their technique?

A refined and masterful application of technique will add legitimate value to an artwork that might otherwise be less compelling. When technical skill is evolved over time and as a result of many mistakes, the capacity of an artist to make work that is reliably better expands, the overall body of work improves, and the chance of a physical artwork being excruciatingly different from the original concept as conceived by the artist diminishes.

Effective execution is a major defining aspect of what makes for a great artist. More often than not, working artists approach their work just like a ditch digger would approach the digging of a ditch. Preciousness, lack of product, easily hurt feelings and the affectation of rarity are all hallmarks of the amateur artist, and the amateur in general.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.