Why do we think some paintings are good, and others not so much? Why do we like what we like? Is it all just personal preference, or can we legitimately say that one painting is, objectively and for everyone, better than another?
These are hard questions. They were probably somewhat easier back when art was based more in craft, and in fact “art” simply meant craft of surpassing skill. Skill isn’t that hard to recognize, and it’s certainly possible to say that one painting is more skillfully painted than another. But is a skillfully painted picture necessarily better, in some absolute sense, than one of lesser craft? I very much doubt it.
The craft of painting never attained a higher level of perfection than it did in the great painting Academies of the 19th century, but sadly the work of the Academiciens, revered in its day, has not held up so well over time. Much of it seems rather cloying and sentimental to us now. Whereas work painted at around the same period by painters of lesser technique continues to live on and inspire us. Think Cezanne, the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and their followers.
So craft skill is out. Note that I don’t think this means craft is completely unimportant – obviously, the painters I just mentioned took it quite seriously indeed – but just that it can’t be the only determinant of what makes one painting better than another. Better craft does not necessarily equal better painting.
Unfortunately this gets us no closer to answering the questions posed above.
Maybe there is no absolute scale of values. Maybe the canon is basically just a random group of historical talents whose apotheosis is sheer convention, and we could substitute another group just as well. Is it possible that our liking for Cezanne, Picasso, Piero, etc, was learned or even conditioned? That is to say, we were told so often during our impressionable years that these were great painters that we simply came to believe it?
Somehow I doubt that too, and I’ll back up my doubt with an anecdote.
Many years ago, in the context of an extended European vacation, I made a day trip to Milan. Since there were several things I wanted to see while I was in the city, I had at most a couple of hours to spend in the Pinacoteca di Brera, the main public gallery there. It was an absurdly short time to spend in a place with so many amazing paintings. (Heck, I could have spent the entire two hours in front of the Piero.) In order to see the small collection of paintings I had previously determined I absolutely could not afford to miss, I had to run past other paintings that, had the circumstances been different, I would have gone out of my way to see. Countless Modern and Renaissance masters … “Next time,” I thought. “Next time.” Not knowing when that next time would be, if ever.
And then I came to a small group of paintings that stopped me dead in my tracks. These paintings weren’t on my must-see list, and in fact I’d never heard of the painter before. There was nothing obviously arresting about them: small paintings of musty-looking bottles and generic Italian landscapes in muted tones. But they had some kind of curious, undefinable power. Ultimately I spent longer looking at those paintings than the ones I had come to see. When I finally did tear myself away I carefully made a note of the painter’s name so I could look him up later: it was, of course, Giorgio Morandi.
The point of the anecdote is of course that no one told me Morandi was important; he wasn’t on the curriculum of any of the art history survey courses I’d taken to that point, or mentioned in any of the books I’d read. So you can’t say in Morandi’s case that I was looking at his works because I’d been told to. Nor can you say I was looking at them because they were on the walls of a prestigious gallery, since there were many other works on the same walls I was regretfully bypassing as I checked off the paintings on my list. You can’t even say I looked at them because they resembled other paintings I’d been taught to like, since a Morandi doesn’t resemble anything but a Morandi. No, I think the only possible explanation is that I was looking at Morandi’s paintings because of some intrinsic quality or qualities they possessed. But that gets us no closer to understanding why I liked them (and still do, to this day).
If you’ve read this far you may be a bit disappointed to learn that I’m not actually going to answer the questions I posed at the beginning. In fact I don’t really think there is a definitive answer, or if there is one it’s probably complicated and far from universal in its application. What I am going to say though is that ultimately I prefer not having an answer. I think it’s a lot more productive to leave open ended the question of why we like what we like. Occasionally we’ll come across something that seems to give us a clue, a part of an explanation. But the full explanation continues to elude us, and so we keep looking.