Anyone who considers themselves an artist- whether a singer, painter, poet, writer, sculptor, photographer, designer, or otherwise- has to discover what differentiates great art from average art. As creators, we must study the masterpieces past and present to inform our own artistic journey; every artist, no matter how revolutionary, can point to other works that influenced and informed their own style. We are shaped by our predecessors, our most valuable teachers.
I am primarily interested in creative writing, but I desperately want to understand the mark of great work in many domains of art: visual, musical, poetic, and photographic. To this end, I scour the Arts, Books, Fiction, and Fashion sections of the New Yorker and the New York Times, hungry to comprehend what makes art great.
In years past, I have struggled, along with many others, to see the difference between great modern art and amateur attempts at modern art. Two years ago I visited the Modern Museum of Art in New York City, and I walked away feeling less than impressed; couldn’t I too create a wall of monochrome green canvases? Couldn’t I also paint the “@” sign on the wall and call it monumental? It occurred to me that the only thing separating great art from average art was the repute of the artist in question. I reasoned that once a person reaches a certain artistic standing, they can call anything they do to a canvas or a wall or a box of paper clips “art” and sell it for substantial sums. As if their hands were the surrogate hands of God, and whatever their hands rendered was worthy of purchase and admiration.
In recent months and weeks I have been trying to overcome this seemingly juvenile, unenlightened view of modern art in favor of a true artistic understanding. I regret to say that, after hours and hours reading and browsing art from the most selective newspapers and journals, I still can’t pick out a great work from a mediocre one. All green canvases look like green canvases to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a deep appreciation for certain pieces of modern art. I could stand captivated for minutes on end in front of Salvador Dalí’s work, for example. I simply have my preferences; certain pieces capture my attention and others don’t.
For a time, I considered myself a failure as an emerging artist for not seeing the complexity and depth of all artwork considered masterful. I assumed that the greatest writers and artists in the world had a sixth sense that I did not. How could I be a true creator myself if I did not appreciate everything considered great in the art world?
And then I realized something, reading a book on the writing life called Still Writing by Dani Shapiro: critics give mixed reviews. Critics have different tastes. Not all “great” works of writing and art are beloved by all high-profile critics, and not all reviews of “great” works are positive. That I didn’t embrace this fact sooner is rather silly, but after years of being made to think that certain books and artworks are objectively masterpieces, I thought there was a formula for the “objective masterpiece” that caused works to be universally revered by critics. Not so.
Around the same time, I read an article about a different book analyzing the origin and science of human preferences and tastes. The author examined just about every study conducted about human preferences in relation to genes, childhood, gender, race, ethnicity, hometown, etc., but could not find a reliable trend between identifiers and preferences. There is no formulaic coffee-lover, no gene to guarantee a love of dogs as opposed to cats. The science of preference is chaotic, infinitely faceted, and inexplicable.
With these two truths in mind, I have decided to approach art a different way. Instead of using the canonical opinion of what art is “great” and what art is not, I will simply listen, observe, and read each piece and see how it affects me personally. If I think it is beautiful, then for me it is so. If I think it is muddled and unintelligible, dull and boring, then for me it is so. This is how I will shape my own artistic visions, projects, and preferences. Not by absorbing the positive critiques in the New Yorker.
I hope that this approach to art, and especially writing, will leave me with a stronger personal foundation for writing my own pieces and creating my own art. I want to be inspired by the things I truly like, not the things I believe I should like. I believe this is the only way to keep the artistic fire lit.
And, in the future, I must remember: to hell with the critics. They have personal preferences, too. If I can affect others, make them experience beauty, emotion, and keep them up at night, then I have succeeded, regardless of whether or not I have created a “masterpiece”.