"The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it...Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications." - Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
We today have so many things being created and presented as art, so much music being recorded and produced, that it is often hard to figure out what is good art and bad art, and what is simply a difference in taste. There is such a vast difference between one person to the next with respect to what is appreciated and enjoyed in music, visual art or literature, that it would potentially be useless for me to speculate on what bad art is. Instead, I will make a suggestion for how to discern between the good and the bad, between what is truly creative and what is merely pretending.
In the above quote by Tolstoy, he offers an opinion that I think is a worthwhile guideline for discerning between good and bad art. Does a painting move you? Does a piece of music bring you to another place emotionally or mentally? Is your thinking impacted by the novel or poem you read? Those are good starting points for deciding if something is good art. If what you experienced was also the intended consequence of its creator, then it would likely fall into the category of good art.
But what if none of those things happen? What if you hear a symphony, read a book, or watch a movie, and you feel nothing, or think nothing? Is it necessarily bad art? Not always, particularly if a work has stood the test of time, and is widely considered to be good art. Case in point: in What is Art?, Tolstoy spends a great deal of time complaining about Wagner's operas, and about how terrible and unartistic they are. Today Wagner's Ring Cycle is widely acknowledged to be a great work of art. I myself read Moby Dick, generally considered a great American novel, and was bored out of my mind. Does this lack of a connection with a work mean they are not good art? Probably not. These examples are more likely just matters of taste, of what one person likes or dislikes. Tolstoy apparently had a very strong dislike of Wagner's operas, so he allowed that to affect his judgment as to what was good and what was not; I found Melville's story overly-detailed about things seemingly unnecessary to the story, though I admit I did not understand what he was trying to communicate going into the story.
Lack of understanding of a work does not mean something is bad though. I still felt some of the monotony of being on a ship, the excitement when a whale was seen, and I can now skin and de-blubber a whale on a moments notice. But lack of understanding of a work of art, or even an entire art form, necessitates learning about the piece or style before making a judgment, not forming an opinion before understanding. Something that applies not only to art, but to people as well. If we make a judgment about a person before actually understanding them or getting to know them, we will have our view of them colored by our opinion of the person, whether or not it is a right view of who they are.
A great example of a work of art that delves into the depths of a person's thinking, into their soul, is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Last night, after reading through the first quarter of the book – a book about a man who commits a double-murder, and how he deals with the guilt associated with the crime – I finished reading and for a few minutes I felt dirty, like I was a terrible person for killing those two women, as though Dostoyevsky had written about things I had actually done. I knew, of course, that I have never killed anyone, but that I felt the guilt and sickness of this man created by the author speaks to the incredible work of art he created. That I was transported to 19th century Russia and experienced the horror of the murder of two innocent people and the after-effects on the killer tells of the value of the art. This is what good art should do. It should immerse you in it, take you to a place away from where you are, or challenge your perceptions; art should make you feel something new, and better you as a person.
This is perhaps not a definitive definition of good art, but it is, I believe, an important quality that art should have: it should communicate and transfer some sort of change to the audience. Whether a vague emotion is expressed, such as joy or sorrow, or more specific, as the guilt of a murderer immediately after the crime or the excitement of a whaler having spotted a whale, good art, art that expresses to the observer what is intended by the creator, is worth consuming and exploring. It brings to us entire new worlds filled with wonder to be explored, whether the novels of Russian authors, the music of free jazz innovators, or the art of impressionist painters; all of it has value. All of it can present a glimpse into the creator, a reflection of that which is greater than itself, and bring greater understanding of the world around us.
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I am a freelance trombonist, composer, and private lesson instructor in the St. Paul, MN area.