Monday, March 12, 2012

Reasons Why Art Need Not Be Controversial In Order To Be Good

Always a topic of debate among artists is what makes good art. Recently, I have come across several opinions of artists and critics who share the theory that art must be controversial in order to be good. These people often refer to artists such as Andy Warhol in proving their point.

Recently, the finance blogger at Reuters, Felix Salmon, relied on this premise in his article: The Commodification of Gerhard Richter. Gerhard Richter is a world famous German artist (not to be confused with Daniel Richter) who has been painting since the 1950s, thriving in a wide variety of styles and subjects. Salmon's article discusses the market demands for Gerhard Richter's art and how his paintings have become commodities that now sell for millions of dollars each. But it seems the main argument of his article is that, despite its monetary value, Richter's art only holds mediocre artistic value because it is not controversial.

While Salmon's commodification analysis is sound, I disagree with his premise that good art must stir up controversy.

In making his analysis, he compares Richter to Picasso and Warhol, concluding Richter will never be in their league because Richter's work is non-controversial. Granted, Richter has painted many sentimental portraits and landscapes. Salmon makes a valid point that all of Richter's most expensive paintings could be considered "wall pleasers" (such as his colorful squeegee paintings or soothing candles), but that characteristic also applies to the work of Warhol, Van Gogh, Klimt, and Monet, to name a few. The market is a different beast from artistic merit. In determining whether Richter is as "important" an artist as Warhol, we need not review which of Richter's paintings sell for the most money.

Money aside, as it's Salmon's premise that good art must be controversial, he fails to account for Richter's portraits of the murdered nurses, the bombers, the German cityscapes after the war, and the fact that Richter never pigeonholed himself into one style. Richter also continued to stand by painting when most other artists abandoned it and declared it to be dead c.1968, as conceptualism took over. From this perspective, Richter's art can be considered controversial. Nevertheless, I don't think his level of controversy is what makes his art good. In Richter's abstract paintings, for example, he mastered the complex subtleties in layers of paint, proving that painting is intellective and more than just optical enjoyment.

Anyone today can stir controversy and subsequently label it "art". Good art is more than mere controversy.

So then what makes good art? I wish there was a concrete answer. Then I could employ it into my own creations. But if I am to express an opinion, I would say that art is measured by its level of conflict.

The difference between controversy and conflict is the difference between the "what" and the "how". A person who is not an artist will look at a work of art and ask "what is it?" Salmon does this and concludes that Richter's paintings are just colorful abstractions. Or sentimental images of candles. But an artist looks at a work of art and asks "how did he do it?" Artists intuit how the person made decisions, the thought process, why he chose the subject matter, the physical process, the layers, the illusions, the expression, the relationships, the contrasts, etc. All of this is related to conflict. It's the originality of the artist's decisions, process, and application to resolve the conflict that makes art good.