About That Good Art Article at NPR…

February 27, 2014 in rant, Writing

So, there’s an NPR article making the rounds right now. It purports to be about whether the quality of art is primarily responsible for the popularity of art. Leaving aside that I don’t think the methodology of the study addresses the question the article seems to be claiming it does, this is a subject that makes my bones itch.

That’s because I’m not at all sure we can have anything like an objective standard of “good” for something as subjective as art. I strongly suspect that we can draw a line between bad and competent, but once you’ve crossed over into competent, I think that things go very very fuzzy.

First off, what constitutes good? For example, in writing, is great prose ultimately the true measure of good? Or is it something else entirely. Good or great pacing is also a skill. So is good or great character, or world, or story, or simply the ability to evoke emotional response. I have read things with very meh prose that are still amazingly excellent works do to other aspects of art and craft and vice-versa.

Also, who gets to decide what constitutes good? That’s a huge question, both in terms of expertise and of culture. There are things that I as a professional writer might judge to be bad prose because of my own personal context when I read it, while an inexpert or early reader might find the very same prose amazing because the writer is doing important things with simple structure and words.

On another axis, there are things that I may find deeply moving or fun because I’m a middle-aged, cis-gendered, white, straight, liberal, atheist guy from the midwest. Those same thing could be frankly appalling to someone who doesn’t share my cultural biases.

Audience matters, and good for me is almost certainly not good for everyone. While I absolutely want experts deciding whether a bridge design is sound, experts deciding on esthetics is a dicier proposition. Posit for a moment that “good” is actually a democratic proposition, in which case it may be that good for the many who are not experts is better than good for the few who are.

Mind you, I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but every time I see someone trying to make objective decisions about something as subjective as whether art is good I get a little bit itchy. I’m not at all sure these questions have answers that aren’t entirely situational, and I’m skeptical of arguments that say that they do.