Thursday, September 27, 2007

Quality and what is great art?

I am intrigued by the nature of quality. What makes art art and how do we recognize it? In a graduate school seminar years ago, we spent several days on the topic. One of the arguments is that great art has an innate quality about it that is recognizable and timeless. For instance, the Venus of Willendorf, though thousands of years old and created by a member of a culture long gone, is viewed as great art because it has that quality. By this argument, all great work is recognizable regardless of time or culture.

I then have to ask: was the Venus of Willendorf even considered great in its time? Is it only considered great because it survived?

In contrast, I look at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which caused near riots when it debuted at the beginning of the century and many experts regarded as garbage. When the ballet was performed just a year later, it was regarded as a masterpiece. Cezanne’s paintings were perceived by his contemporaries as horrible. Only Pissarro recognized his genius. As time passed, Cezanne’s genius was recognized and the quality of his work is now never questioned.

My wife and I even have this discussion when it comes to popular music. She appreciates and accepts as quality work those done by the finest vocalists and works with fine melodies. I, in contrast, care less for the quality of the vocals. For instance, as my wife puts it, Neil Young and Bob Dylan are great songwriters, but someone else should sing the songs. I see the quality of the songs and appreciate the visceralness (not a word) of their expression. Their voices, though far from perfect, bring something to their music.

By my wife’s definition, presentation is the most important aspect of quality. The elements, for instance line, form and color in painting, when done well, represent quality. I place a higher value in content and expressiveness. For instance, a local big fish in a small pond academic poet, Robert Stewart at UMKC, composes technically perfect poetry with precise meter and word choice. I find his work, however, as expressive as cardboard.

Which brings me back to the nature of quality. What work is great and what about it makes it great? The only answer that has carried through time is the great works are the ones that critics and experts (mostly males of Northern European descent) have placed in the canon. The other catch all measure of quality is the Strom Thurman “I may not know art, but I know what is good,“ argument. If I don’t like it then it can’t be good.

On a personal note, I ponder my own work. I look at each work and wonder about the. I hope to produce quality work, but am I? I recognize some of the works are weaker. Still, is my work any good? And does it matter? As I post my work, I will revisit this inanswerable question from time to time.

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