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What is "good" art?

No doubt you have heard people say things like: "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like!" Often the subtext of such a statement has to do with what is and isn't art. You might have a very clear idea about what you think art is and is not. Or what constitutes "good" art or "bad" art.

Drawing done by 7 year old artist

For me that line of demarcation is pretty rubbery, if, in fact it exists at all. If you have started reading in order to find out the definitive answer according to me, sorry, I'll have to disappoint you. We all know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or in other words, art is subjective. And whilst you are free to like what you like and not what you don't, there is actually no real definition of good and bad art.


Recently, I heard someone bemoan the fact that people just didn't know the difference between real "artists" and "hobbyists". I am not sure that I do, either. Actually, I don't think there is one. As I often tell my students, if you make art, you are an artist. If you approach your art practice as a business, then you are a professional, but that doesn't make your art better than that made by someone who is not. If you don't believe me, watch the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year: often the winners are "amateurs". Perhaps for you, "good" art can only refer to something that is rendered to appear like the original, or is "realistic". Really? If that was the case, we should all be satisfied with happy snaps taken on our phones. No, art is something more than that. And what makes it appealing as art goes beyond technical brilliance. That's why kids' art is so appealing to me. And what is known as "outsider art" - art created by untrained individuals, often institutionalised due to poor mental or physical health, or imprisonment. All those artists are working from some inner spark or emotion, some primal prompt that makes them want to make art. As Hopper says, there are some things that just can't be articulated satisfactorily with words.


I sometimes work with artists who are experiencing a disability. They all have their limitations, of course, but they also each have a superpower when it comes to making art. For some, it is an intuitive understanding of colour, for others it is a knack for interesting compositions, patterns or texture.

Sometimes their "disability" means that their line work is fresh and nuanced, dripping with the quality that many of us have to work very hard to create. These people make awesome art, as can be seen in their current exhibition Dancing Colours.

Their art holds a magic that can be missing from technically brilliant work. I know I have walked past many a painting that is brilliantly rendered, but lacks any life or energy. It fails to hold any interest for me, despite being a very good rendering of whatever it is supposed to be. Equally, my mixed media sculptures have been dismissed as "kitsch" and "not fine art" by people who supposedly know what's what. Whatever. But that same "not fine art" has largely been what has got me short listed in notable national and international exhibitions and garnered as many positive comments as the 2D art I make. Granted it doesn't often sell, largely because of its scale or weight, but again, is "good" art only that which sells? And beyond all of that, I love making it. It is worth bearing in mind that any artist you can name from Leonardo to Picasso and everyone before or since is only noteworthy as an artist because they broke the rules. They went beyond what had always been acceptable as "good" art before and were often criticised as a consequence. Even artists we now consider to be masters like the French Impressionists (e.g Monet and Renoir) were Avant Guard and copped a lot of flack for the outrageous way they laid down paint.


MacArthur Park, shortlisted for Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize, 2009.

The fact is, anyone can learn the technically "correct" way of going about things, including art. I have even had to "unlearn" them to improve my work. One of my favourite watercolourists, Shirley Trevena, is untrained; never learning the "rules" that might have made her work like everyone else's and lacking in life and vitality. So yes, I'm saying that anyone can be an artist, if they tap into that which words cannot articulate. It is not about being touched by the hand of god, or being particularly brilliant at representing things realistically. It is not about studying art at Uni, or winning competitions, or making lots of money. None of those things distinguish your art as "good" or "bad". Remember, Van Gogh only sold one artwork in his lifetime, and then it was a kind of barter for services rendered. So make it. Don't be afraid to make "bad art". As Nike likes to say, "just do it". If you think it is good, well, then, it is.

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