What do we look for in art? How do we evaluate it? How do we know what’s great? These questions drive us at Artifact. The answers dictate what people actually “see” when they look at an artwork. Do we see the artist’s reputation, or their inspirations? Their skill, or their context? What are we looking for when we look at art?
There are so many different lenses through which people examine & evaluate artworks, but attempts at any sort of unified theory typically either boil down to the platitudinous “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” or sprawling academic texts involving Marxist analysis of labour value. Both of these have their place — but neither does much to explain the value system of the art world to outsiders. And of course there is a value system at play, which is why collectors bid on Warhols instead of your aunt’s horse paintings. What makes one better, more valuable, or more artistic?
This is only a first entry into our survey of different ways we look at art & what we hope to find there, and we hope to take you through this journey where we break down some theory, some history, and maybe, if it’s cool with you, some philosophy. But first, let’s map out the big three.
#1: Intrinsic Merit
For centuries, great art has been thought to have an intrinsic quality to it that makes it special. No one needs to explain a Rembrandt in order for a viewer to uncover its beauty: his works are visually stunning and express mastery over both oil paints and visual composition. However, this concept of mastery and technique being equivalent to value fell apart in the modern era due to a convergence of factors.
This unified, coherent vision of what made something great was dismantled by several ideological trends that can be loosely grouped into the concept of Postmodernism. To be overly simplistic (note: never try to be simplistic about postmodernism, you will be wrong as I’m about to be) Postmodernism represents the move from a single, unified, “modern” vision of progress into a fractured understanding in which there is no single correct reality.
What once seemed objective became subjective when faced with alternatives. In the art world, a major force was the dawn of appreciation for non-Western cultural traditions. Accepting that there was value and beauty in visual languages that had no interest in Western formal perfection was a radical departure, and required a total revision of what beautiful or “good” art could be.
Not coincidentally, the use of African and South American techniques and styles by the Cubists also began the explosive rise of abstracted and abstract art. New forms of art didn’t require mastery to be hailed as great: a radical departure that necessitated an entirely new way of looking at art. In the words of David Carrier in his article “On the Possibility of Aesthetic Atheism,” we then entered into the realm of “aesthetic relativism” — the idea that something’s aesthetic value was something that could and did change, based on the perceptions of society or of an individual viewer. (35)
This revealed the flaws in the notion of intrinsic merit. It relies on a single point, objective point of view to understand the global diversity of artists and their creations, limiting the ability for exploration — and even ugliness — in art. In lieu of intrinsic merit, many people have aspired to the notion that art’s value lies in the eyes of the viewer. When a viewer connects with art, it becomes valuable to them, and thus value is utterly subjective and constantly being determined and re-determined by the reactions it engenders. This is the process that fascinates & inspires us at Artifact.
#2: Market value
Unfortunately, while the idea of approaching art in their own context or by our own personal metrics is inspiring, it is also unapproachable for many people. To walk into a museum with no guidance as to how to evaluate what’s in front of you is daunting.
Similarly, people want an overall structure to understand something to create, if nothing else, a baseline, or to determine that their opinions are “correct.” The other refuge for this desire to know one’s tastes are “good” is the critic — but for many, the interpretations and analysis of an art critic is hardly more comprehensible than the work on its own. (Carrier, 35)
In this age where intrinsic value is highly in doubt and fine art can include things that are reproducible or even factory-made, purposefully identical to kitsch & lowbrow work, and often not even created by the hand of the artist (as with one of the most profitable artists of our time, Jeff Koons), it can be a struggle to identify what, exactly, separates the great works from the chaff.
In the absence of a better alternative, many people have turned to the market to be the determining voice of art’s value. Without a constant source of aesthetic value, and with a highly commodified art market where artworks become investment pieces, thinkers such as David Beech see people considering that art “is, always has been, or has recently become nothing but a commodity.” (Art and Value, 1).
Obviously this system has a lot to offer: it’s straightforward, easy to understand, and comfortingly material. However, there is simultaneously so much that’s lost by this analysis, wherein taste and quality are determined exclusively by the very wealthy, and an artist might be lost forever due to their simple inability to schmooze. While money is an integral part of keeping the art world afloat and allowing artists to pursue their craft, we feel it profoundly limits art to see its value as a single number, rather than a lived experience. So what else is possible?
#3: The artist’s perspective
Let’s return to that initial concept of replacing universal value with personal value. Consider Ben Shahn’s moving defense of the value of art in his 1955 essay “Art as Positive Value;” comparing two artists, he writes that
Obviously the two painters are not united in manner, or by surface quality of paint, or by forms that can be copied or imitated. But in value they are deeply united, because each was intent upon revealing something of his own experience. In those who come to know either painting new understanding and emotional scope are engendered; the highly personal attributes of the artist become a universal good. (30)
When an artist shares something from his soul in a way that other people can understand, the artist’s personal world can create wide-ranging value in the souls of viewers. This personal connection with the artist is, ideally, where subjective value comes from.
But of course the old problems arise: How do you create that connection in a way that’s accessible to a variety of people? And is there any way to quantify it?
There might be objections raised to the second question, in the vein that the purpose of such unique connections is that they shouldn’t be quantified or socially determined. This argument is valid, but while numbers should never be the beginning and end of one’s experience of an artwork, they provide a useful entry point for people unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with the profoundly subjective nature of art.
We created Artifact to make this personal connection as approachable as possible, and to make it easier for both creators and appreciators to create that bond. That’s why we let artists house their understanding of their artwork in one permanent profile where they can speak once and be heard a million times, and why our artwork profiles are attached to an interactive encyclopedia so that even the most highbrow art concepts can be understood with a click.
Artwork is not just a vehicle for wealth — it’s one of our primary human tools for personal expression & human connection. We can never stop prioritizing the human side of art, or its true value will be lost. Welcome to Artifact: your new art world ecosystem, bringing art to everyone.
Join the movement and be a part of our next-gen, global art ecosystem. Your new world of art awaits you @ www.artifact.global