Weighing of the heart, taken from the book of the dead. Anubis weighing a heart against Maat's feather of truth.

This post probably needs a disclaimer. Much of my formal education was in science and engineering. So the following thoughts are heavily framed in that light.

The last time I was thinking about ‘art’, I landed on a very broad definition:

“Art is just the physical manifestation of things we can imagine. The ability to convey to others what exists only in our imaginations.”

So if art is creating things that exist in our imaginations, what makes some ‘art’ good? Why is some art purchased, collected and put on display in galleries? Why is other art disposed, destroyed and forgotten?

Take street art for example. These days you don’t have to go very far to find a story outlining the destruction of a Banksy mural. Sometimes demolished by a property developer, others defaced by a rival. This sort of news is often followed by calls to preserve Banksy’s work, remove the whole wall and display it in a gallery.

Yet, every day council workers head out in their trucks, armed with buckets of grey paint and erase countless hours of street art. No one writes a newspaper article, and you don’t notice any protests or dismay.

All these thoughts started to condense when I was wandering around Sydney with family. I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind having a little bit of a look around the Museum of Contemporary Art. My sister-in-law rolled her eyes.

“Ugh! I’m not a fan of contemporary art, that modern stuff is kinda crap. I much prefer the classics.”

But even the classics would have once been modern art, I explained. You have the privilege of viewing it through the filter of history. Plenty of time has elapsed and much of the bad modern art of yesteryear has been lost and forgotten. Contemporary art hasn’t been whittled away yet, you often wade through a sea of work before hitting on something decent. This sort of stuff has only just been created, and as a society we haven’t yet worked out what best reflects our era.

So if good art is something that is collected and protected from the ravages of time, we can let that bit equal qa. And if art is ‘the physical manifestation of an imagination’, we can break that down into terms as well. We can let the quality of an imagined concept equal qc and the quality of execution (the process of creating a physical thing) equal qe. Ending up with:

qa = qc x qe

So good art, or something that is preserved for an extended period of time is at least:

Wait. You mean, you can slide past with just being average? Or even overcompensate a lack of skill in one domain? Yeah, being at least average in both elements seems exceedingly rare.

It is still far from empirical, but this multiplication effect goes to some length to explain the huge variance in art. Why some people will roll their eyes at a piece, while others will enjoy it.

Plus, everyone has their own slightly different internal measures for the quality of a concept and execution. Something that would be heavily influenced by those around them and the era in which they live. Even the skillset of a viewer would have an impact on how they measure the execution of an artwork. Different people would assess some skills as more difficult than others.

I think I need to read up on social psychology, as I suspect that will hold some clues into how a society embraces cultural change. How different cherished concepts percolate while others are rejected? Oh and how the museum gatekeepers - the curators, influence this cultural change? Not to mention funding, how does all that fit into shaping the ‘good art’ of an era?