Is great art obvious?

Deep Thought Thursday: Is great art obvious?

Michelangelo's Pieta
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498-99. St. Peter's Basilica.

Does it hit you over the head?
Do you have to spend time with it to understand its greatness?
While we're at it . . . What is great art?

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19 thoughts on “Is great art obvious?”

  1. I think great art is definitely obvious, but obviously relative to your experiences.The greater the number of experiences, the more you bring as audience to a work – philosophically and emotionally. The simplicity…the “aha” moment that hits you like a wet fish in the face where complex ideas become simple…gets the “check check” vote in my art books!

  2. Great art is obvious. Well, usually.
    What is great art?
    One ethereal definition:
    A masterpiece is endlessly rewarding to look at.

  3. Great art is obvious only sometimes and then only to the observer who thinks the piece they are looking at is great. As Janice said, it must relate to the observer’s experiences. For me, the Pieta is a technical marvel but otherwise does not touch any emotional chord.
    On the other hand, sometimes it is the depth of a piece, which admittedly will take time to reveal to the observer, which makes a piece great.
    On the third hand, does my definition of “Great Art” match anyone’s else? Must it? Does culture define “Greatness” and should it? Or is “Greatness” a personal reflection? I know there are those who claim that greatness is only achievable if a majority of the observers agree. If that’s the case, why is anything written by Charles Dickens considered “classic?” (If you can’t tell, I do not like Dickens works.)

  4. Yes, it is obvious. That’s why everyone can appreciate great art whether they are art educated or not. It jumps out at you if it is well done. Not so great art is obvious also. So only post your great art.

  5. If great are were obvious, then somebody is/was terribly wrong about any artist that wasn’t “discovered” until after their death. If contemporaries of the artist were wrong, then great art is not obvious. If we’re wrong, then great art becomes rather individualized and essentially meaningless.
    Of course, it all depends on the definition of great art and whether or not that definition is constant over time.

  6. While recently looking at some ancient Asian art – quite unfamiliar territory for me- I was struck by how some pieces were visually interesting, some I admired technically (how DID the artist create this??), but some entralled me and gave me goosebumps. I can’t necessarily define the “goosebump factor” – which for me is also “I can’t stop looking at it” or “no matter how long/often I look at it I am still overwhelmed” – but that is my own definition of great art.

  7. That’s a good question. I believe to some degree it is because technically it contains the basic elements that make an art piece work/of high quality. But I truly believe it is largely subjective because of ‘taste’. If a person is an art collector and is somewhat educated when it comes to art of various styles and mediums, they may perhaps be able to say that it is a great work of art but not their ‘taste’. However I believe that most often people will equate taste to quality and will not recognize a great work of art because it does not fit their taste.

  8. As was pointed out above, great art is often discovered in retrospect as it is in present day.
    I believe that “great art” is defined by its impact on culture – No matter how great the work is technically, aesthetically, emotionally, the translation of a work is the most immediate provocation ie; does it affect the audience?
    Our historical trek through art already tells us there is more to art than just an individual’s experience, so taste, attitude, cultural distinctions and personal views cannot define art – they define one experience in thousands, millions if you’re lucky.
    However, there have been art works that have radically transformed political, social and economic views, had serious and relevant impact on social reform, spiritual understanding and awareness – and have continued to do so, earning them the timelessness that the artist was seeking in the first place.
    For an artwork to survive in the social consciousness for four hundred years is to define great art – by that definition, it won’t be obvious until the impact on society can be measured.

    1. By your definition, then, a work considered to be great art at some point in time can later become un-great once its impact has become negligible. As well, “social consciousness” is not universal. I think you are defining “social icon” which to me is a different entity all together and is, anyway, society/culturally defined. So apparently we don’t necessarily even agree on the definition of “great.”
      Which, of course, Alyson knew would drive this topic. 😉

    2. Zian Silverwolf

      Many works are only considered “great” for the timespan of a fashion or trend in the market and then do not appreciate in value or interest after they have been forgotten, and then turn up 40 years later and are prized for their historical value. Think Van Gogh. There’s a massive grey area in what the importance of art is for art’s sake, so in cultural terms, it’s about cultural impact. Not everyone is going to agree that Sydney Nolan contributed great art, but its impact on our culture in Australia is unmistakable. What is a culture without the arts?
      No culture is universal, therefore a social consciousness is based per culture/society. Consciousness being a state of awareness, not an icon. As you correctly pointed out, an icon is a completely different thing. My words accurately stated my meaning.

  9. One of Edvard Munch’s four renditions of “The Scream” will be sold by Sotheby’s on May 2. It is expected to sell for at least $80,000. The radio commentator offered that he would never want to own that painting, let alone pay a penny for it. This cathartic piece portrays an extreme emotion we hope to only experience vicariously through Munch’s portrayal. It is also an insight to the cultural history of Scandinavia. We appreciate the Greek tragedies for the same reasons.
    Every era of history and every culture produces “great art”. We revere it for different reasons: It is exquisite technically–could we ever do that? It connects to our emotion–I know what that feels like. We can see ourselves present in the painting. It has beauty of color, or balance, or movement. Art is a communication from one human to another. Great art communicates with many.
    I just finished reading “The Outlier-The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. I keep thinking about his chapter on practice and opportunity. He says, “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours. ‘It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.'” (quoting neurologist Daniel Levitin) I started adding up all the drawing time of my childhood, workshops, college major, MFA. Not there yet. We will not all produce “great art” but we can still communicate with our fellow human beings what we know, enjoy, and believe.

    1. That is an amazing book and that same chapter struck me as well. I had a momentary urge to go and try to count up my hours but then decided not to waste the time that could be used making art.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Meltemi: It’s too bad when that happens. I think the greatest art eventually finds its way into public collections, but there is no guarantee it will even be seen there. Museums are pressed for space and usually have most of their art in storage. MOST.

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