I want to talk about the issue of quality because I think this is one of the most burning issues around art – how do we tell if something is good? And who tells us that it’s good? That’s perhaps even more important. And of course now, in the art world as it is, does it really matter? And I want to talk about what are the criteria by which we judge art made today.
There’s no easy answer for this one because many of the methods of judging are very problematic and many of the criteria used to assess art are conflicting. We have financial value, popularity, art historical significance, or aesthetic sophistication. All these things could be at odds with each other
Now my job, day in day out, is to make aesthetic judgments around such things. And the discomfort around it is that it’s a subjective problem, so it’s very tricky. I’m skeptical of the idea that you can find an empirical way of judging quality, particularly in art. We’ve had attempts at it over history. The Greeks had their golden ratio. The painter William Hogarth, he had his Serpentine “line of beauty” that he used to put into his paintings thinking this was a sort of way of ensuring that it would be a beautiful thing. But my favourite one was the “Venetian secret”, when Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy of Art in about 1796, was hoaxed. Someone said they had found a Venetian secret, which was that Titian and a lot of the Venetian painters had this formula for painting the ideal beautiful painting. And someone brought this old letter to West and he started painting paintings in this formula and he was mocked hideously for this. But I can feel some sympathy for him in a way…
Above image: Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry delivered “Playing to the Gallery” for the 2013 BBC Reith lecture series.