Yes, this is an overwhelming and often unpopular task, but something that I've been concerned with for some time now: forming objective criteria for analyzing and judging art, at least as objective as we can get given that we can't possibly step outside of ourselves and our condition as humans. I'm not trying to build an exact science out of the analysis, comparison, and understanding of art, and I don't believe it will ever be one - thankfully. But, in my previous experience teaching art, I often find myself striving for some kind of criteria to analyze and describe the work, which wasn't entirely "wishy washy". How to you teach an art student? How do you give them value for their money without qualitative tools and without teaching critical thinking? How do you or they know what is necessary for them to learn? Like explaining such an unstructured field, creating universal criteria is an equally massive task. But, I believe it is worthwhile and I believe it can be done. Why, you might ask, can you do this when so many others before have tried and ... well, not failed, but not quite succeeded? Historical perspective.
I have the benefit of a great accumulation of history, science, philosophy, art, and it's all at my finger tips. And I was lucky enough (part luck, part hard work) to attain - and continue to build on - an education providing the ability to tackle and process such a task and to have been born in an age where I have the internet, and the ability to sort through the mountains of data that it provides. I'm approaching this first from the perspective of a painter and teacher, secondly from the perspective of philosophy, third from a scientific perspective, and fourth from an art historical angle. Yes, this is a task which speaks of and demands great confidence, but don't mis-understand me. I don't believe I am greater than those who have tackled it before, only in the right time, place, surrounded by the right people, and given the right resources. I'm not the first to propose this. I'm not inventing the wheel. I'm simply trying to synthesize and streamline other approaches into a more objective and clear system. So, on that note, let us go straight to the foundations.
Before I begin I feel it's necessary to define the term "Art" so that we all know what I'm talking about here. When I refer to "Art" I am referring to two definitions. I'm speaking of the original meaning of "ars" in ancient Rome, or "tekhni" in Greek, passed down from at least ancient Greece: which is synonymous with skill, beauty, emotion (the concept being only part of the whole) and is the basis for Odd Nerdrum's definition of Kitsch as well as the definition of Art used by many of the contemporary realist movements. And I'm speaking also of the contemporary definition of "Art" which is primarily the concept.
What is the purpose of Art? This is largely debatable. But most answers you will hear have something to do with a desire to feel connected - with each other, with a deity, or to leave something of ourselves behind when we die. Most answers seem to have a common root in communication. And if we look at the origins of Art: cave and rock paintings 40,000 years ago, small sculptures like "Venus of Willendorf", or even early installation art: Stonehenge (I'm half serious). We can easily conclude that some kind of communication is intended, for these are all symbols or signifiers of something.
Building on the assumption that the shared primary purpose (among many others which might vary from culture to culture) of Art is communication, we come immediately to an impasse. Because each individual person has different experiences in life, they have different contexts and meanings for things. Thus, even the best communication is imperfect. It is impossible to understand exactly the intention of someone else and exactly what they mean. But perhaps this is the reason why Art is so necessary and powerful. Through it we can find other means, or multiple means of communicating. Culture gives us an additional context for meaning, but as culture changes from one geographic area to another, and as it changes over time, first subtleties are lost, and then more and more becomes incomprehensible. So culture is shifting, and context is shifting... does that mean that meaning is constantly shifting? Yes and no.
There is something that we universally share, regardless of where or when we were born, regardless of our gender or language, or ethnicity. We are all human. We have basic needs and desires. We have a common human nature that has not fundamentally changed in tens of thousands of years. We all understand, or have an overlapping understanding of food, sex, death, fear, anger, love, comfort, happiness, longing. When we visit a foreign country where we don't speak the language, the first things we understand revolve around these elements. My first experience of communication in France was at the farmer's market, selecting the perfect tomatoes. (And they were amazing tomatoes). The woman standing beside me tried a sample and the pure pleasure was evident on her face. Sure, this is still western culture. But the same is true for those newly discovered tribes in Brazil or southeast Asia, who, at the time of their discovery, hadn't had contact with any other cultures for thousands of years. Yet, they share the same basic understandings. If we come across a bear in the forest standing on its hind legs and roaring, we all recognize that this is a sign of danger. Of course emotions are more complicated than such basic instinctual understanding. But emotions are first based upon instinct and then altered from experiential input. We are genetically predisposed to these universals, and though we are a very flexible species and our actions can be altered and programed by culture and individual experience, our deepest desires, fears, and passions are shared and universal to humanity.
So, here is where I begin my search for objective criteria. Without context. Genetics are an expression of the laws of nature and physics, and as objectively as is humanly possible, we can measure, quantify, and describe them. And as nearly objectively, we can study, quantify, and empirically describe attributes and universal qualities of human nature and the human experience - many of which we share with mammals. I won't go into the science, but it is sufficient here to point out that it exists. Though genetics may change over a very, very, long time; for our purposes concerning Art, on a human scale - on a mammalian scale, these things are applicably constant and stable.
Of course, it begins to get tricky when we move to Art, because by the very nature of communication, we require at least two people. We require community and culture at least on a basic level. But any anthropologist will tell you that cultures are built upon the foundations of human nature and their interaction with the particular environment in which they live. Form follows function first. And then, form may vary and evolve - based on the initial function. So, if we try to stay aware of our own cultural and individual biases and dogmas, which distort our perception (not always in a bad way) then we can understand some of the basic elements of human nature and of culture, and for our purposes, communication.
Because of human need, there seem to be several purposes for communication. The obvious is, of course, conveying meaning. But we also require other needs of communication, for instance the well-being we receive from simply feeling connected with someone. Communication seems to serve the purpose of both providing information and various kinds of emotional gratification. This nuanced line between the two seems to be where Art lies, in the poetry of our common connection. Strip away all context, and that which is left, is the thing that is Art. What I'm proposing here is similar to the idea of New Criticism, which I've only very recently discovered.
Context, by definition, is something on the outside, imposed upon the subject. The universal human experience is something on the inside. It is the subject of communication. Everything has context, but we cannot judge something based upon its context. The relationship is analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You cannot simultaneously measure both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle. What I'm getting at is that context is relative to the perspective of the viewer, whether the viewer is in the same culture or time period as the artist. Further, there is the question of what context is relevant. Is what the artist had for breakfast relevant? So, context is entirely dependent upon the knowledge of the viewer and is projected upon the actual piece. I'm not saying understanding the context intended by the artist (as far as we can understand intention) is meaningless. I'm simply saying that context cannot stand on its own. It requires something to refer to for meaning to take place, and the value of the context is absolutely dependent upon the communicative efficacy of the work itself.
The question: "How well does the work communicate" can be clarified to ask "How well does it speak to our shared experience. How deeply and clearly does it fulfill the needs that we require of communication"? Thus, the most objective means of judging the success of an artwork is by judging how well it communicates to our shared human qualities, in the language that we all intuitively understand to the deepest core of our being. How well does it connect us? It is difficult to ask both for depth and clarity... depth entails nuance, and clarity requires specificity. So we have to develop some basic guidelines, or principles by which we can gauge a particular work's success in fulfilling our emotional and intellectual needs.
I think we can break it down into three basic principles: skill, emotion, and content. The emotional component and the content are obvious, as they directly fulfill our needs vis a vis communication. Skill, is more of an indirect but absolutely necessary principle. Some degree of skill is necessary to convey meaning and create emotional resonance. But the more nuanced the meaning, the more nuanced the emotive content, the more skill is necessary to convey it. This is not a quality judgment. Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son" is a very successful piece with two primary emotional meanings: disgust and empathy. We don't need to know Greco-Roman mythology to feel the impact of this painting. We need no context other than the fact that we are human, that we are alive. What we recognize is another human being, twisted and tortured by experiences and powers beyond his control. Somehow the madness in the eyes of Saturn can seduce us to imagine that we, ourselves, are unwillingly compelled to do something that we so revile, that we so deeply detest, that it twists our physical body to an almost unimaginable extent. Almost. This tension between compulsion, disgust, and empathic understanding is a powerfully harmonic combination. The technical skill is more than sufficient to enable the exact balance of expression and recognizable form/symbolism. The brilliance comes in the specific balance of all these elements. If you compare it to Rubens' painting of Saturn with the same title, we may find ourselves amazed by his skill and subtlety. But the empathy is not quite there. The skill is moving and beautiful in its own right, but the emotional/psychological content (as conveyed by the facial expression and posture, among other compositional elements) contains only a single note: disgust, and therefore is less successful. Notice I said: less successful. This piece is still highly successful in terms of unifying our three criteria in an effective combination. But it is not as successful as Goya. It's not very accurate to say good or bad, what we require is a relative scale.
Yes, cultural elements: narrative meaning, iconic meaning, subtle complexities of context in society and the life story of the artist can and do enrich and add to the value and the power of the piece. Culture and education can contribute subtlety and nuance, and often the greatest works do this as well. But context alone is insufficient and is ever shifting like the sand. Context can only communicate so much, and it is very poor at fulfilling the emotional component of communication. Thus, it must be built upon a strong root, to hold fast to the stone beneath the sand that is our common human bedrock. The greatest works communicate on many levels, but the fundamental level is to communicate our fundamental selves. The esoteric is not entirely without value, but it is secondary.
Something like Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death to the Mind of Someone Living" has a great deal of meaning and remarkably, some small degree of emotional resonance, held within its context. However, though this work is influential and historically important, it's communicative ability will be short lived even if it is physically preserved for thousands of years. The time will come when much of the context surrounding is forgotten, only a fraction being recorded in history, and then it will be just a dead shark. A symbol of perhaps terror, consumption, and our own mortality. A certain amount of logic might lead one to conclude, that as the work of the random acts of evolution: Nature or God - this is Art. But further than that, all subtlety is lost and this will not be the only object inspiring these question in our minds. So, relative to our time it is very successful in fulfilling mostly the conceptual portion of our communicative need to a small, esoteric group, but compared to many other pieces, and given the span of history, it disappears into mediocrity.
I don't speak of historical relevance, nor of influence. These are values placed upon the context of a piece and are not addressed here. This is not a criteria for judging the context, but the physical object or the experiential element (in the case of theater or music) of the piece itself. Of course the clarity of comparison varies according to the nature of the pieces compared. It is more difficult to compare Rothko with Peter Bruegel that it is Bruegel with Bosch, but in terms of basic principles it is possible. I'm not saying this is an absolute separation. There are indeed overlaps. Like all dichotomies, this is merely a useful tool for analysis.
So now, perhaps we can compare a few fundamentals, but it begs the questions: is this meaningful, is this relevant? Why? My answer is to say: because communication is a human necessity. We are social creatures and we need the fulfillment emotionally and psychologically, and we need the content both psychologically and practically. Comparison gives us clarity, obviously in the making and understanding of Art, but also in understanding ourselves and each other. Rational comparison is the basis of the scientific method. Refusing comparison, in the short term may be easy and immediately practical, but in the long term it drives us further apart by creating a chasm between our perceptions and understanding of each other and ourselves; thus fostering misunderstandings both minor and major. By extension, communication and Art are the foundation of social interaction and therefore civilization. Comparison helps to strengthen the stone upon which it was built, and quite simply, enrich each individual human experience. The value comes not in the fact that we can compare these works, but as a point of departure. The value lies in what we can learn from such comparisons about the work, the nature of communication, and ourselves. We can begin to build an understanding of the relationship of these elements.
These criteria: skill, emotion, content - seem to be as stable and objective as we can get (until someone smarter, or with more information comes along to clarify this difficult subject - and if you're out there and reading this, please fill me in!) Culture changes, contexts shift, and our perceptions can be colored and blurred by learned behavior and life experiences. But the roots of human experience and human nature are the same, and as long as humanity as we know it is around, these criteria will hold. Human art is about human communication, so, we cannot make any claims about ultimate "truth". But the work itself, in order to be the most successful, should first have the qualities within itself - devoid of context - and speak to each person who experiences the work. It must fulfill their impulse for communication, it must stir their longing and speak to them. It must show us that we are not alone.