The Search for Good Art and Good Taste (aka Everyone’s a Critic)

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I recently saw a post from editor and literary agent, Arley Sorg, about the realities of rejection. As someone familiar with both sides of rejection, Arley said:

“The truth is, rejection doesn’t actually matter, and it can’t/shouldn’t be used to measure quality. Even though we know this our brains, for many, it doesn’t change the sting, the heartache. Most writers want/need that external validation – that proof that they are ‘good’. I can only decided what’s ‘good’ to me, and to folks whose taste lines up with mine.”

That post resonated with a lot of the kinds of conversations we have over on George Saunders’ ‘Story Club’ – about how writing (and, to a greater extent, revising) is just the articulation and refinement of an author’s taste – their preference. What stories we choose to write, what words we use, in what order, what words we delete, what words we replace them with – it’s all a manifestation of our preference. So, it makes sense that when readers, critics, agents, and editors reject those words, they’re not making an objective assessment on the quality or value of the work, they’re simply saying ‘your preference does not align with my preference’.

It’s just a matter of taste.

And that got me thinking (especially since I have spent recent months finishing, revising, and submitting short stories and novels for the endless lines of rejection), does that mean that there is no such thing as good art? That there is only art I like (and think others will like)?

[That doesn’t quite ring true to me. I have this very strong sense that there is such a thing as good art (and by extension, bad art). It’s like what they say about pornography: you may not be able to strictly define it, but you’ll know it when you see it.]

red blue and yellow abstract painting
Image by Jene Stephaniuk via Unsplash

Also, if art appreciation is just a matter of taste, is there such a thing as good taste?

Most of the time when we tell someone they have good taste, we’re giving a mirror compliment, where the person we are really praising is ourselves: “He’s got such great taste in movies” (which perfectly mirrors my own excellent taste in movies), “She has excellent taste in men” (and only ever dates the kind of men I would date ) *eye roll*

two women talking each other
Image by Chan via Unsplash

“You’ve got such great taste in fashion!”
“Oh, thanks! You too!”

Which leads us to the question, “Is some ‘good’ taste more reliable than others?”

In this day and age where everyone has an opinion and the opportunity to broadcast said opinion to the masses (with FULL CAPSLOCK and lots of emojis šŸ’„šŸ’„šŸ’„), the old adage ‘Everyone’s a critic’ seems truer now than ever. So, which critics do we trust? Whose taste do we believe? Surely we can be a little less superficial and break out of the ‘good taste’ echo chamber to find something almost objectively good.…right?

In a perfect (or at least perfectly structured) world, good taste would align with good art. There would be something objective about the ‘good art’ whereby appreciation of it would signal presence of ‘the former ‘good taste’.

When we appreciate art – not in the ‘oh, isn’t that lovely’ way, but the more specific and precise way of qualifying the value of it – we’re essentially scoring it. Not unlike our primary school teachers grading our latest creative writing piece or found object monstrosity, we’re applying a subconscious rubric that moves the beads up and down the abacus: prose is too insipid, brushstrokes are not bold enough, structure is too flimsy, etc, etc. All of them normative judgements that may not accord with other assessments, yes; but perhaps, while the bead movement is different for most, the rows on which the beads hang are not?

Is there a useful, concise set of metrics that art can be score against? And, are some of those metrics able to be more objectively assessed than others?

brown abaca
Image by Crissy Jarvis via Unsplash

When I think of good art, I think of art that is:

  1. TECHNICALLY BRILLIANT: demonstrates a mastery of the form at the macro ‘story’ level and micro ‘line’ level. Elevates the craft and demonstrates an understanding, respect, and manipulation of the medium. Judging technical mastery is like judging a diving competition – level of difficulty and level of execution.

    Synonyms: Accomplished. Elevated. Finessed. Assured. Nuanced
    Antonyms: Simple. Poorly executed. Flawed. Hesitant. Heavy-handed.

  2. SURPRISING: delivers something that no-one else has, or (in the best case) can. Subverts expectations. Triggers reflection on an intellectual level. When I think of ‘surprising’ art, I think of Tony Hawk creating the Madonna – doing something no one had thought of, let alone landed.

    Synonyms: Unexpected. Clever. Original. Boundary-defying. Bold. Imaginative. Layered.
    Antonyms: Safe. Banal. Commonplace. Beige. Predictable. Obvious. One-Dimensional.

  3. TRANSFORMATIVE: awakens something in the audience. Triggers a change at the emotional/spiritual level. Reflects a truth about humanity and/or the world that opens our eyes to new awareness, understanding, and empathy. Admonishes us, heals us, lifts us, sees us. Kafka said it best when he wrote: “An axe to break the frozen sea within us.”

    I struggle to put synonyms and antonyms against this dimension. I think this is the dimension that separates good art from great art. The thing that differentiates between liking a work and *loving* a work. Transformative art haunts you…

With the first two dimensions, there are (somewhat) objective ways to measure success – particularly by way of comparison. If you read a thousand books or stare at a thousand paintings, or watch a thousand movies, you get pretty good at noticing the nuts and bolts when they’re done right and when they’re done wrong.

Expertise is helpful in this regard: When people don’t have a lot of experience with or exposure to a particular artform, they tend to judge it by simpler metrics – Does it look/sound/taste good? Do I like it? When people have substantial expertise in an artform, they can layer that initial judgement with a) the capacity to compare it against a broader range of pieces, b) an ability spot subtle differences and nuance, c) an appreciation of how difficult it is to execute, and d) a recognition of how it speaks to the respect and elevation of the craft.

It’s kind of like magpies: They all look the same to me, but the magpie on the branch knows how to tell all the others apart.

It’s also like the Archibald Prize: The winner of the big prize has never won the Packing Room Prize.

(L) Archibald Prize Winner 2022 | (R) Archibald Packing Room Prize Winner 2022

Judging from the centre of a thing is very different to judging from the periphery.

But, I digress.

So, if we can (sometimes, mostly?) trust the experts on what makes ‘good art’ by way of Technical Brilliance and Surprise, and not just ‘nice/interesting/beautiful art’ (and recognise that distinction as mostly an intellectual one), can we also trust them to better asses Transformation?

Here I feel more comfortable with saying no. It’s not that experts can’t assess transformation, it’s just that they’re no better placed to do it than anyone else.

Transformation can be on the small scale or the large scale, and transformation en mass is no more valuable than transformation at the individual level. One is not better than the other: It’s like dropping a feather and a hammer on the moon – they both hit the ground at the same time. The revolutionary zeitgeist hammer will get more recognition and awards, sure, but it won’t necessarily be better art. So, in this sense, the assessment is more subjective and deeply personal. Good art affects you, great art changes you. But only you are in a position to make that call.

We’ve all had those experiences, right? Seen a movie, read a book, stared at a painting, and felt something important irrevocably change within us? It’s like what Tobias Wolff wrote: “We need to feel ourselves acted upon by a story, outraged, exposed, in danger of heartbreak and change. These are the stories that endure in our memories, to the point where they take on the nature of memory itself.”

Style "Surrealism" - WikiArt.org | Mc escher art, Escher art, Mc escher
MC Escher ‘Reptiles’

As someone who strives to create good art, and aspires to create great art, I find these dimensions helpful. They let me identify the things I can control in my writing (technical mastery, originality, etc) and the things I can’t (how it will affect the person reading my work, how it will change/contribute to the zeitgeist).

I think it also shines a light on why artists have such an uneasy relationship with (what is often constant) rejection. When it comes from the experts (editors, awards judges, luminaries of the field, etc), it seems like an assessment of failure against the first two dimensions; and when it comes from the audience (in the form of poor sales and/or bad reviews), it seems like an assessment of failure against the third.

But what this rejection fails to account for (to come full circle back to Arley’s post that triggered all of this musing), is that while art’s value can (maybe?) be assessed using these three dimensions, its appreciation utilises an often more heavily-weighted and highly subjective fourth dimension: aesthetics.

Aesthetics, not just a way to score teams on Lego Masters, is a “branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste” (thanks Wikipedia). It’s an attempt to understand why we like what we like, why we find some art ‘pleasing’ and others not so much. Essentially, why we all have different tastes – even among the ‘great’ works of art; because something can be brilliant and still not ‘work for me’. You can present to me a technically brilliant, flawless, wholly-original, surprising, and transformative pop ballad and, while I might appreciate it, I’ll still prefer the messy, somewhat tropey, three-chord punk cover of an old classic. I can beg you to read Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’, and you can scowl at me for interrupting your third reading of ‘My Sister’s Alien Lover’ (or whatnot).

And the crazy thing? When I state that preference, some people will say I have no taste in music and books, and some will say I have great taste.

So, to all the artists out there, I say: Keep striving to make good art, have faith in your own aesthetic, and don’t let the rejections get you down.

And to all the critics and gatekeepers: Keep refining your ideas about what defines good art and stay open to broadening your tastes.

This is the sign you've been looking for neon signage
Image by Austin Chan via Unsplash

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