Is Art Subjective? Is There Good and Bad Art?

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Have you ever looked at a popular art piece and wondered, “Is it me or is this really crap?” It turns out that people are not always confident about what they think. Art is intimidating but is art subjective?

An emotional reaction to a traditional skills-based work of art is subjective. The craft and process of making traditional art is objective. Appreciation of abstract and conceptual art without any representational or skills-based boundaries is purely subjective.

In this article, I’ll explore the idea of subjectivity in art and how to tell if someone’s critique can be objective. Before we start, we have to agree on what we mean by art in the first place.

Let’s get going

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What is Art Anyway?

You can’t decide if art is subjective until you define what art really is. The best place to start is the Oxford English dictionary

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Oxford English Dictionary

Seems straight forward so why is it so controversial? Maybe it’s because the meaning of art has now been expanded by some to include ideas and concepts that exclude creative skills.

What happens if an artist creates something they consider to be a great piece of art and no else one agrees? Is it great art without a broad consensus? On the flip side is it great art if popular opinion agrees, but the creator doesn’t?

Is someone an artist just because they think they are? Or is it a term that must be given by others?

Art is a tricky word to pin down. I’m always confused by actors who consider themselves artists. Do they create a roll or interpret it? Where does that leave the writer? Can there be two artists involved in the same work? If so, is the director an artist too?

Will the real artist please stand up!

The same goes for music, surely the composer is the artist and the musician is the performer. If the player didn’t write the song, they’re skillful technicians and entertainers but how are they artists if they didn’t create the music?

What about those classic songs that a singer ‘owns’ because their voice is so unique it’s incomparable? If no one else can sing the same way, so is that a type of art?

Then what about Jazz? Surely that’s creative enough to be considered art, isn’t it?

It’s a rabbit hole!

For the sake of this post and to prevent me from going mad. I will take the dictionary definition as my reference point.

Is Art Always Subjective?

If I am going to use the dictionary to explain art why not use it to define subjectivity:

“The quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”

Oxford English Dictionary

If that’s the case, all art is a personal opinion, it’s all subjective. Different people react in different ways to everything we see around us.

If a dozen people are asked their opinions about a particular piece of art we can expect a dozen different answers. Each person will form their opinions based on personal experience and their perspective on life. We interpret the world independently and in our own unique ways.

People in an art exhibition, all with their own subjective opinions
Everyone’s a critic

If art can be interpreted differently by each viewer, the artist’s intention is irrelevant. Once the art is in the public domain it is open to judgment and criticism, fair or otherwise and the creator is sidelined.

Without any objective criteria acting as a benchmark by which to judge, it’s a free-for-all for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to state their case. We may not be equal intellectually but we are equal emotionally, and if art is truly subjective our emotional response is all we have to go by.

That implies that all criticism must have equal merit. Each viewer has a subjective response and is an expert in their own way.

That’s the logical conclusion, but I think there are objective truths and they can’t be ignored.

What is Objective About Art?

The truth is, that art can be objective whether we like it or not. There are objective criteria we can all use to judge art.

The most obvious objective criterion for judging artwork is whether it accurately represents the subject or not. Most art is representational and that gives the viewer a grounding from which to base their opinion.

  • Does the subject look real?
  • Does the composition work?
  • Is the color palette harmonious?

The viewer may not be aware there are certain aesthetic rules that universally please the eye. We can judge whether a painting is beautiful or ugly and be oblivious to the objective qualities of color theory.

Color receptors in the eye physically determine what we can see, and how we react to color combinations are instinctive.

It’s difficult to understand why the rule of thirds works in composition, yet we instinctively react with a thumbs down if those rules are ignored.

This post goes into more detail: How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Guide for Beginners

All rules are there to be broken, but only those with a mastery of the rules get away with it breaking them.

A work of art also has objective meaning in relation to the art that preceded it. Critics can trace art through history and find themes, styles, and cultural influences that put works of art into context.

Artists have an objective insight the general public can’t always see. If you accept that art is as much about the craft as it is about the meaning, there are objective criteria we can use to judge quality. A good draftsman can tell if a line is drawn accurately the moment he or she sees it.

Portraiture highlights the absurdity of suggesting that objectivity has no place in art. It doesn’t matter that the composition is masterful and the color palette is sublime if the face is unrecognizable.

A portrait has to look like the sitter if the intention is to capture a likeness.

The technical skill of the painter is objective, the ugliness of the sitter is subjective!

Do Art Experts Have Subjective or Objective Opinions?

I’m always wary of self-proclaimed art experts because they all bring along their own baggage. Yet people listen to their opinions as factual.

Some people need an expert opinion in order to validate their own tastes. Why? Because art makes them feel insecure.

art expert in an art exhibition
Art experts: Do we need them?

I remember taking my art to an open exhibition where an eminent member of a prestigious London Society was on hand to pontificate on any artistic work brought in by the public.

I turned up and straight off the bat, he suggested in his patronizing presumptive way that I should refrain from copying my work out of books. I was somewhat taken aback. My artwork was 100% my own but he was so loaded with his own preconceived ideas and prejudices, he couldn’t see beyond them.

To cut a long story short, I looked at his work and realized that his draftsmanship was inferior to many of his peers and my artwork may have represented something beyond his skill set. His reaction displayed his own insecurities.

Far from being an expert, he was a reactionary, and as emotionally subjective as the rest of us and his opinion was important only because he was a gatekeeper for submissions to join the society.

So is there any point in an expert opinion? I can think of a few areas where we can bow to art expertise.

An expert in the field can say with authority how much an artist is financially worth, they can study and explain the history and movements within the art world, and have the knowledge to break down the techniques an artist has used.

But when it comes to matters of taste, which are entirely subjective and highly personal, experts should be treated as being no more authoritative than anyone else.

How Do We Form Our Subjective Opinions About Art?

We can’t escape our own experiences of life and how it affects our subjective opinions about art. We are exposed to many different opinions, critiques, and judgments, and like it or not, we absorb them.

For example, only yesterday I was selling a print to a young woman with her friends in tow. My customer loved my lion print but wanted her friends to agree. They both preferred one of a Siamese cat.

Instead of choosing the lion print, she bought the cat. She dismissed her own personal preference and was entirely influenced by her friends’ opinions.

Human beings seek consensus and validation. We are social animals and need the approval of others. Being the only dissenter in the crowd is not a position many people choose to take. We tend to go along with the accepted wisdom.

Read this Post: What is Subject Matter in Art? – Is it Important?

If all experts agree that Mona Lisa is an incredible painting, then we believe them. It takes a strong mind to stand up against the orthodoxy and disagree.

Personally, I have never rated Van Gogh, I suspect that those who love his work are inspired by his tortured life and that has influenced how they look at his work. Would they be so enamored if they saw his work, unattributed, in a local art show? I doubt it.

Starry Night painting by Vincent Van Gogh
Starry Night painting by Vincent Van Gogh

We tune in to art through the media, reading about art, listening to arts programs, or even flicking through Instagram. They reinforce cultural norms and that begs the question, where does our subjective cultural bias end and our individual taste begin?

I think I’m probably like most of us in as much as my childhood passions have heavily influenced my appreciation of art as an adult. I loved and still love wildlife and I gravitate towards anything to do with the natural world. That includes my tastes in art and my favorite artists.

This is related: How Do Artists Get Their Ideas? 5 Tips For Inspiration

When you consider that most wildlife art is representational, it’s little wonder that realism captures my imagination. I’ve been shaped by my upbringing and experiences.

Why Subjectivity in Art Makes Life Interesting

The subjectivity of art appreciation gives us all something to discuss. If nothing else we can argue our point of view and compare our thoughts with someone else. Talking about art is like talking about food or sport, in the end, it goes nowhere but what harm does it do?

Since everyone has their own opinion, it is difficult for anyone to say definitively “this thing is better than the other”. I don’t suppose anyone ever loved a painting by being persuaded.

Perhaps the only people who learn to love a painting are those lucky few who discover they have a valuable painting they’d dismissed as junk, and only then just before they put it up for sale.

Just as music can define a personality type, so can art. It’s a device to gain some vague insight into another person’s mind. We all judge each other and judging our friends’ taste in art can be put to good use by helping us form subjective opinions about them. Why not? It’s fun

And then there is the controversy surrounding abstract art. It’s hard to be objective about something that doesn’t look like anything, so you’re left with your own experience and thoughts to dissect and argue about forever.

Good taste is as subjective as it gets.

Is There Good and Bad Art?

If you accept that all art is subjective the concept of good or bad, and right and wrong, is meaningless.

In the real world, some people get to decide what is good and bad art. There’s only one problem, they are the art establishment with a vested interest in promoting celebrity over talent. That’s why most contemporary art is garbage.

Why don’t art colleges teach traditional skills to their students? What is it about the art elite that they despise craft so much? They would have you believe that painting has reached a dead end and that it’s all been done before. What a load of codswallop.

These are my conclusions: Is Art School Worth it? Is it a Waste of Money?

Anything that reflects life around us today is brand new. Now has never been seen before. Capturing today is the nostalgia of tomorrow. This time and place is unique and can never be experienced in exactly the same way ever again.

It takes years to learn how to paint well, it takes a focused mindset and dedication to master your art. So why is it undervalued by the establishment?

Well, one reason comes to mind straight away. Art tutors have one thing almost universally in common; that’s right, they couldn’t paint a front door. How can they justify their positions if they can’t even draw a straight line?

So they concoct a pseudo-intellectual art world with its own language and culture to bamboozle the young and naive. They teach them to forgo all that hackneyed talented stuff, urge them to borrow a king’s ransom in tuition fees, and embrace free expression.

And what is that free expression other than a euphemism for being untutored? They sit back and extol the virtues of endless experimentation with no structure and no limitations, and take a hefty fee for all the hard work, they themselves, are not prepared to do.

And who will pass their art degrees with flying colors? Those students who conform to their tutor’s prejudice of course. So much for expanding the mind and free will.

To add insult to injury, the top galleries take over and promote this pretentious garbage to fool potential rich clients to buy into this farce as an investment opportunity. What a world.

Is there good and bad art? You bet there is.

Is Art Subjective? Final Thoughts

Art is subjective in that the viewer experiences different thoughts and emotions related to it. However, if you accept that art has an established set of rules for creating something that’s attractive, moving, and stimulating, it must follow that it must contain some objective criteria.

It all comes down to how you interpret art. If you accept that art is not just an idea, but a process that requires a skillful application, then art can be viewed objectively. The feeling it invokes is subjective.

If you believe that any idea and concept can be considered art without the need for any learned skill, then everything is subjective.

Speaking personally I cannot appreciate art without an anchor point. It has to be representational at some level, and possess a masterly execution if I am to understand and respect what the artist was trying to achieve.

In my world art is not purely subjective.

Rhino pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Heat and Dust’ by Kevin Hayler

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Is art subjective is there good and bad art
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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