What does artistic quality mean today, who judges it – and with what right?
by Dr. Richard Hiepe
Two basic facts
The question of finding objective criteria to gauge artistic quality has moved people ever since the first debates known to us took place about art and artistic judgements in the ancient world. Ever since then two facts have become increasingly evident, yet they have only led to sweeping consequences for art and artists in the present.
First, our experiences of art history and all our knowledge of art theory or philosophy (e.g. aesthetics) teach us that there are no hard and fast rules – in the sense of universally valid natural laws – for answering these kinds of questions; neither for what is or is not art nor for the question of setting out objective criteria to measure artistic quality.
Second, and concomitantly, human culture and civilisation has steadily accumulated a wealth of experiences and methods since ancient times for answering such questions, both of which enable us to arrive at balanced, proper and well founded judgements on art and quality. Although classical antiquity – for all its far more restricted horizons – bequeathed to us the names of some of its greatest artists, such as Phidias or Praxiteles, with an assertive finality that still resonates even now, today’s art lovers live and make their judgements in an ‘imaginary museum’ (André Malraux), an enormous hoard of art collections, literature and knowledge which constantly surrounds them with original artworks and reproductions from any conceivable period and nation, all carefully annotated with the findings of meticulously detailed and precise artistic research as well as an inexhaustible array of artistic judgements, recognised values and evaluations.
Our judgements in the field of older art history, on classic masters and their order of precedence – and the way such judgements are also expressed in the prices fetched on the art market – stand more or less on the same kind of safe ground as for example the judgements experts make on the value of old carpets, which now have an almost fixed order of precedence in arithmetical terms. The same holds true of contemporary visual art – though with a growing element of uncertainty the closer we move to the immediate present – at least for those movements and styles which refer to the classicism mentioned above or for that matter for modern styles which are perceived as being classical. [...]