21 Charactertistics of Great Art
John Spacey, updated on
The characteristics of great art include the technical skill, mastery, originality, emotion impact, conceptual depth, beauty and authenticity of a work. Beyond this, great art communicates something that viewers find remarkable and unforgettable in a way that only occurs at a time and place -- never to be repeated.
ExpressionArt is pure creative expression that says something about the human experience.
CreativityGreat art is non-obvious and unique in a way that's valuable as opposed to random.
BeautyGreat art creates a powerful emotional impression in the audience such as beauty or some other aesthetic.
Art MovementsGreat art leads to inspire other art. Likewise, great art is often inspired by other artists of its time. This leads to a phenomenon known as art movements whereby the great artists of an age influence each other to create a characteristic style. Copying this style in a later age is considered a poor practice such that art movements have a time and place that is never repeated.
NarrativeArt often tells a story using composition, symbolism, figures, characters, scenes, tone and other artistic techniques. This narrative is often rich in allegory and detail such that art invites the viewer to interpret and wonder.
SymbolismThe visual representation of abstract concepts, emotions or ideas.
CompositionComposition is how the elements in an artwork are laid out. This includes technical aspects such as balance and perspective and vanishing point. A great artwork will use composition in a creative way as an element of expression.
Color CompositionThe use of color for expressive effect. This is not to suggest that great art is always colorful -- earthy or dark colors are often used to great effect.
Painterly QualitiesPainterly qualities are brushwork and textures whereby an artist makes no attempt to hide the medium of their work but rather emphasizes it. Not all great art has painterly qualities but it is an example of the confidence and authenticity that is characteristic of unusually valuable art.
Negative SpaceSome artists make use of negative space in composition to create an effect such as visual dominance.
YugenYugen is the Japanese aesthetic of mystery that states that things can be more attractive when they are ambiguous, uncertain and non-obvious. This aesthetic is common in Western art but yugen is the only word that captures the concept well.
Wabi-SabiAnother Japanese aesthetic often translated the beauty of imperfection. A better translation is perhaps "the elegance of unfinished imperfection."
ImaginationGreat art typically differs from reality whereby even realism may offer some imaginative interpretation of the world.
StyleStyle is the distinctive character that shines through in the work of an artist. This can change with time such as the remarkable artistic periods of Pablo Picasso. For example, his blue period between 1901 and 1904 when Picasso painted essentially monochromatic paintings in shades of blue.
Subject MatterSubject matter that is new or that is interpreted in some unique way. For example, The Scream, a 1893 work by Edvard Munch which he described as a "scream passing through nature" that he sensed while painting a sunset. Considered an inspiration for Expressionism, perhaps the 20th century's most important art movement.
Conceptual DepthThought-provoking works that attract and retain attention whereby people feel they just can't walk away.
Avant-gardeA typical path for a great artist is to master conventional art and then break the rules in some way that captures the imagination of a generation of artists.
Naive ArtIt is very rare but some artists have broken the rules in a valuable way without ever learning them. This is known as naive art where an artist with no formal training or immersion in the art world produces something brilliant.
RecognitionIn a pragmatic sense, great art is art that is recognized as such by the art world. In the 19th century, there was much attempt to standardize and institutionalize art under the French academies such as the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Art broke free of this and ever since, great art is usually that which plays some role in successfully challenging the orthodoxy of its day. For example, Pablo Picasso's 1907 work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon below is arguably the first cubist painting which deconstructs reality in a stylistic way that captured the imagination of a generation of artists.
InspirationWhile great art is original and authentic it never occurs in a vacuum and is inspired by elements of culture and the work of other artists. For example, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (above) was inspired by The Opening of the Fifth Seal by El Greco dated 1608-1614 -- a remarkably strange and modern looking work for its day.
HeritageHeritage is value that is passed down from the past. Great art becomes heritage if it is preserved and offered to the public. This becomes a common reference and experience that we can all use to build up culture.Next read: Styles of Art
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