Evaluating art can be tricky. I don’t want to discourage anyone or hurt anyone by talking carelessly about a work they love or a work they crafted. When going through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron has this exercise about one’s monster hall of fame. In short, write about the people that hurt you, what they did or said, and why it hurt. Most of the people in my monster hall of fame weren’t actually monsters of people. They were simply careless with their words and opinions. When we talk about art, when we think about art, when we discuss art, it can be difficult . . . and hard . . . and hurtful. But it can also be beautiful, and connecting, and life-giving, and so much more. I find it more and more important to develop my vocabulary about art, so that when I engage in a discussion in art, I can do so in a kind and generous way while still presenting my observations and opinion. So how? How can we do this?
Can we say one artist is better than another? Or that one musician produces better music than another? I would say yes, we can. How do we talk about art and whether it’s ‘good’ or not? It’s important to separate preference and quality. I prefer the works of Van Gogh, but Manet was technically the better painter. I prefer Johnny Cash, but Yoyo Ma is technically the better musician. It can be helpful to define some parameters, to have a rubric with which to evaluate the art we're viewing or creating or experiencing. So when you read or hear me say good art, you know what I mean. When I say that this artwork is good, I mean something specific. It does not mean that I prefer it, or I like it. Some of the best artwork I’ve seen, I don’t actually like. It does not mean I prefer it (even though I might). I mean something else. Needless to say, not everyone agrees with my definition of what good art is. However, I’m going to provide you with a working definition to help you think about and experience art differently. The definition I give s might rub you the wrong way. Some say that this definition of is too strict, too constraining, and that it is not very generous. Please understand that when I say good art, I mean the best art. My work more often than not does not live up to this definition; I use this as a rubric for which to evaluate myself as well as art that I view.
Consider the quote: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” This definition was first presented to me in a watercolor class, and it has stuck with me since then. There is some debate over who to attribute this quote to: some say that it is Saint Francis of Assisi, and some say the quote belongs to a man by the name Louis Nizer. Either way, it is an excellent quote. You won’t find it in my bibliography for this reason.
A contemporary artist by the name of Shae Hembrey summarizes this quote excellently in a Ted Talk in which he discusses what great art is, and he very simply summarizes it in this beautiful alliteration: head, heart, and hand. These three words will guide our understanding of art.
HEAD. Is the art well thought out? Good art should have well formulated ideas behind it. The artist Hembrey, who I mentioned earlier, talks about the Grandma Test. The Grandma Test is very simple: if Hembrey couldn’t explain the art he was working on to his eighty-year-old grandmother in five minutes, then he needed to continue ironing out his ideas. I was once talking to a friend of mine who’s a great teacher--the best of the best--and he said that if you can’t explain a subject to a five year old, then you don’t truly understand that subject. It’s the same idea as the Grandma test. Are people outside your generation able to grasp what you are trying to say? Let’s attempt to apply this idea by looking at the artist Jackson Pollock. I’m picking Pollock for a very specific reason, and that is because the ideas behind Pollock’s work are very clear. I don’t actually like Pollock. I don’t prefer his aesthetic, but with that being said, I can still recognize that he has a well formulated idea or HEAD behind his work. Pollock’s main idea, his main obsession that consumed his artwork is actually a very simple one: art in motion, (The Art of Rivalry, Smee). “On the canvas was not a picture, but an event,” Harold Rosenberg says in his article entitled “The American Action Painters”. When we look at Pollock’s work, we can see this action Rosenberg is talking about. Pollock splashed, dribbled, dripped, and flung paint onto his canvases. His paint not only depicts the motion of painting, but also the action which Pollock performed to make the mark on the canvas.
HEART. Does the work evoke an emotional response? There needs to be emotion behind the work, or it needs to evoke an emotion. To look at heart, we turn to a famous artist who wrote extensively on how he wished to convey emotion through his paintings: Vincent Van Gogh. We are very fortunate to know a great deal of what was going on in Van Gogh’s creative mind through the letter he wrote to his brother Theo. Of his own work, Van Gogh writes, “I want to make drawings that will touch people. Either in figure, or in landscape, I would like to express not something sentimentally melancholy, but sincere sorrow” (Van Gogh’s Letters, 45). In a later letter he writes, “There is something infinite about painting – I can’t quite explain it to you – but particularly for the expression of moods it is so wonderful. In colors there are hidden aspects of harmony or contrasts that cooperate automatically and don’t take sides,” (56). This expression of mood and the thought behind a painting are often the most celebrated aspects of art, but yet there is more to art than head and heart.
HAND. This the last of the three qualifiers that I’ve given. Is it well made? Is it well crafted? Is there a demonstration of skill in the artwork? A great example of head, heart, and hand comes from one of my favorite artists, Kathe Kollwitz. Kollwitz led a dimensional life: she was not only an artist but also a mother and a wife. She worked alongside her husband, who was a doctor, as a helper during a very turbulent time in Germany’s history. She lived from 1867-1945, living through revolutions, rebellions, and World Wars. She first hand experienced a great loss: her young son Peter was killed at the beginning of the First World War. We see this pain Kollwitz experienced from losing her son expressed in her art. In her etchings especially, her grief is carved into the viewers eyes. We see here that she has a well-formulated idea, the loss of a child is an overwhelming grief. We see the emotion behind the work clearly, and we also see that it is well-made (Kollwitz masterfully has depicted the human form).
When I discuss art, I use this rubric. I change it slightly from Saint Francis (or whoever). Okay art has one of the parameters: it’s either got the head or the heart or the hand. Good art will check two of the boxes. Maybe it’s well thought out and well crafted, but lacks any emotion. Then, there’s great art. The really great stuff that will get all three. This art will have great emotion, great workmanship, and great ideas.
Gogh, Vincent van, et al. Van Gogh's Letters: the Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings and Words, 1875-1890. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2010.
Hembrey, Shea. “How I Became 100 Artists.” TED2011. TED2011, Mar. 2011.
Kollwitz, Kathe. Woman with Dead Child. 1903.
Lunday, Elizabeth, and Mario Zucca. Secret Lives of Great Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You about Master Painter and Sculptors. Quirk Books, 2008.
Pollock , Jackson. Watery Paths. 1947.
Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Actions Painters.” Art News, Dec. 1952.
Van Gogh , Vincent. Wheatfield with Crows . 1890, Van Gogh Museum.