Triumph or trash: who decides what makes good art?

Who decides what makes a piece of art valuable or beautiful? What is the process of judging quality in contemporary art? And who validates these judgments?

These issues were explored today in the first broadcast in a new series of Reith Lectures by Grayson Perry’s alter ego Clare. Perry has positioned himself as a mediator in the art world – popular with the public but still an artist’s artist. His lecture Democracy Has Bad Taste was the type of engaging, charismatically delivered and thought provoking talk that we have come to expect from the artist. He examined various barometers for assessing the quality of a piece of artwork, such as public opinion, notions of beauty and art historical significance – all of which are problematic because of their subjectivity.

Grayson Perry Rkellyphoto

Grayson Perry in front of The Vanity of Small Differences. Photograph by Richard Kelly, via The World of Horse Bones.

The market, he said, is the only quantifiable measure of monetary worth and therefore, quality. Perry goes on to elucidate the process by which contemporary art is given the seal of approval and an all-important price tag by the Sotheby’s auctioneer. This process starts in the inner circle of influential people, a closed assembly consisting of the artist, the critic, the dealer, the academy and the curator. The conversations and correspondence of these big players build opinions and judgments, dropping pebbles in the water that cause ripples about reputation all around the world.

Validation from these people, particularly the curators who possess most weight and influence, leads to a ‘lovely consensus’ as Perry puts it.  He suggests that the push and pull between these forces is ‘self correcting’ – the academy frowns upon art that is too brash and populist, the critic scorns work that is too lowbrow.

‘In the end, if enough of the right people think it’s good, that’s all there is to it.’

For me, the crux of the matter is who actually are the right people? And what is the path to becoming one? Is the journey helped along by a certain degree of privilege, and if so, why is this still the case? It seems that the juries who decide what makes good art and the people that attend the private views are largely from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

In his talk, Perry points out that the public is the least important influencing factor in a long line of influencing factors when it comes to identifying ‘good’ art. So why should they visit an exhibition showcasing painted dots and dead sharks solely because a certain group of ‘experts’ with vested interests tell them it’s a big deal?

The public in this country are a diverse and intelligent composite of many unique voices, values and perspectives but many of these ‘ordinary’ people find it difficult to navigate a path into contemporary art.

As an audience member points out:

‘A lot of people that I talk to, they like music and film, they go into an art galley and get really cross. There is an element where they think that someone is talking the micky out of them.’

I’m not surprised. They pay £15 to stare at a rotting cow’s head with little or no explanation and museums promote controversial artists relentlessly because more crowds mean more funding.


Gallery or Aquarium? All this confusion is Duchamp’s fault. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hurst. Image collage by DrawOn

‘It is quite tricky sometimes to get into the position where you can start to understand because you can intellectually engage with something.’ Perry states

Yes it is ‘tricky’ to engage with ideas if no one is helping you, if they are unfamiliar because you have grown up without access to them or if nobody wants you to understand them. I think this is a problem which has been contrived, constructive and perpetuated by the art establishment for many years using money, language and euro-centrism/class-ism, in order to prohibit access.

The ‘International Art English’ that Perry jokes about is the first barrier to access for most people. Language is the great British tool for making judgments. People consciously and subconsciously make decision about class, intelligence and culture based on the way another person writes and speaks. IAE functions as a way of sending out a message to a specific group of people: if you don’t readily understand this, then it is not for you.

The non-fluent in this kind of language might feel a bit uneducated and they might, they think you might need to understand this in order to pass judgment. I just want to tell you now, you don’t.’

So why don’t museums, galleries and the ‘inner circle’ reinforce this message?

Triumph of Trash? Image collage by DrawOn.

Triumph or Trash? Image collage by DrawOn.

And if art is for everyone, then why is a large proportion of it hanging in the houses of rich people and not in public museums? Some of Perry’s pots have sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds so it follows that they must be quality works of art. Not pots for poor people. Does this mean that quality art in 2013 is a commodity, seeking approval from one target market – the hedge fund billionaires? Are brand-name artist churning out mechanically reproduced assets for the wealthy?

The problem of beauty is another barrier:

‘In the art world sometimes it can feel as if to judge something on its beauty, on its aesthetic merits, is as if you’re buying into something politically incorrect, into sexism, into racism, colonialism, class privilege. It almost feels it’s loaded, because where does our idea of beauty come from?’

Of course notions of taste and notions of beauty are socio-political constructs – and most frequently Eurocentric ones. The Greeks had a strong influence on the development of aesthetics in the west particularly regarding physical beauty. Subsequently, after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment in 1790, aesthetics began focusing on the concept of beauty in nature and in art. So in the western tradition aesthetics and beauty are tied up with the enlightenment and this informs notions of beauty to this day.

Every year, I am delighted at the popularity of the Portrait Prize at The National Portrait Gallery. I attribute this to the fact that the exhibition is intellectually and emotionally accessible. There’s no stack of chairs hung upside down requiring to be read as an allegory for human suffering, no convoluted concepts for visitors to unpack. Visitors do not need to be political or have a PhD in order to ‘get’ the work they are looking at. The human face is something we all as humans – regardless of race, gender and class – have known intimately since childhood.

‘Anybody can have a life in the arts. A transvestite potter from Essex, the mafia has even let me in!’

It is true that anyone can have a life working in the arts, especially if they are well-off enough to work for free for a few of years and, according to statistics, it helps to be white too. Many institutions are standing with arms wide open at their entrances, beckoning the underprivileged, minority groups and marginalised people to come in because they want wider audiences – and more money.  When the same minority groups set their sights on becoming part of the inner circle of judges and juries, the doors slam shut quicker than you can say, ‘a vapid instrumentalisation of aesthetic vocabulary.’

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