What is good art?

Having had an interest in art for many years, this is not the first time the question “is that good art?” has crossed my mind.

A Legend Is Born

I recently went to Málaga, Spain, to visit some friends who live there. Unbeknown to many, Málaga is in fact, the town where Pablo Picasso was born and raised. It was lovely to see indications of the great artist around town; a cardboard cutout in front of a restaurant, a statue in the plaza and shops bearing his name.

While I was in town, I visited the house he grew up in, as well as the Museo Picasso Málaga. Host to a collection of Picasso’s original works, the museum provides visitors with an intimate insight to his practice. Paintings, sketches and other artefacts were donated to the museum by Picasso’s daughter-in-law and grandson, in keeping with the artist’s wishes to give something back to his hometown.

Now I have to admit, I am not the biggest enthusiast of Picasso’s art. Of course, I recognise his skill, talents and his ownership of being one of the founding figures of the cubism movement, however I do not connect with a lot of his artwork. Therefore, while walking around the museum listening to the audio guide analyse the artist’s technique, that much-disputed question crept into my head. As unwanted as it was, I could not exorcise it from my mind and it remained with me during the rest of my visit. The digestion of every new piece that I feasted my eyes upon was tainted by the thought — is this actually “good”?

The Mystery of a Masterpiece

One could look at an earlier painting, for example Olga Khokhlova in a Mantilla (1917), and see clearly the artistic style and execution of technique that is evocative of Spanish realism. Those who do not know Picasso’s work intimately might not recognise this as one of his, but would agree that it is from the hands of a skilled artist.

If you were to take a more modern piece such as Head of a Man with Zig-Zigs in Pink and Green (1965), which is also lesser known, it is also unlikely to be recognised as one of his. In stark contrast to Picasso’s realistic paintings, would this be celebrated as something significant and would people give it a second glance if they did not know it was painted by Picasso? I can honestly say that I would not and had there not been a long description about the brushstrokes and composition of the piece, I probably would have walked straight on.

What is good art?

I often wonder to what extent we think something is good, just because we are told it is so, or we know it is painted by a famous artist. Picasso is legendary because he did something different: he broke from the traditional and accepted style of his time, and pushed boundaries with a new development and movement.

Being different does not necessarily mean it is good.

The term “good” art obviously cannot be ascertained as, due to being entirely subjective, the definition differs depending on the audience. While I find many pieces by Picasso exceptional, impressive and inspiring, I found it interesting to evaluate whether we try to search for expertise in all of his artwork just because it bears his name.

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