What Makes Great Art Great? (Part 1)

Over the last six years, I’ve asked hundreds of artists how they define success through the unique Vision Questionnaire that the participants in my smARTist Telesummit fill out.

And as surprising as it was to me, an insignificant percentage defined success as producing great art. For the majority, it was an income number coming from their art – anywhere from $20,000 to $500,000 a year.

Maybe it’s because great art is associated with historical figures, museum retrospectives, and millions being thrown down on the auction block. Maybe great feels like shoes too big to fill.

Or it comes tagged with the age-old response that great is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., too subjective to pin down.

Or for women artists the persistent patriarchal overlay on great means it’s an exercise in futility, while for men great becomes a challenge that might best them even as they are doing their best.

What would change if great was not only definable, but also…achievable?

Daniel Grant, an arts writer and presenter at the smARTist Telesummit in 2011, once wrote, “I define an artist’s importance by three criteria.  How much he or she captures the soul of a moment, how much he or she influences subsequent generations of painters and how much he or she expresses an individual style.”

This begs the question can you be an important artist and not produce great art? For certainly great art is produced all the time without the artist being considered “important” in terms of Grant’s three criteria.

Even if you do not have a burning desire to produce great art, I know in your heart that you want your art to wow people, to cause a response significant enough that someone wants it no matter what.

And this only happens when, in the eyes of the beholder in that moment, your art is great.

I don’t remember the exact moment I realized that great art was easily identifiable. I know it was in a coaching session with one of my artist when I heard myself calmly and confidently define great art as if it was the single most obvious thing in the world.

Since then, I’ve looked carefully to see how well my definition stands up.

What I love the most about this definition is that it puts you in control. You do not have to “guess” what the soul of the moment is or how you will be perceived by the future, you simply have to fulfill one of three requirements.

If you fulfill all three, and you learn how to run a business and marketing campaign, the world will be your oyster.

Before Great You Need The Foundation

This part has been repeated so much I’m sure you can say it in your sleep. And even though it screams common sense, you’d be surprised at how many artists neglect these basics:

1. Skillful competence with your materials

2. Skillful competence with your execution of mark making, sculpting or crafting

3.  A signature, artistic fingerprint that is repeatedly recognizable as yours

4. Producing enough to meet the demand

With this foundation in the studio, and a similar foundation in the office, you can build a sustainable career without producing great art.

But if you yearn for more, try this.

In Great Art Complexity Rules, Even When It’s Simple

For most of my life, I’ve been told that one attribute of greatness is the ability to take something complex and make it simple, especially when dealing with intellectual concepts.

The result is that the complexity seems to disappear in the elegant light of a simple distillation. And we forget the layered, multi-faceted richness that gave birth to the satisfaction of what we can now understand.

I remember watching a movie of Picasso that started with him drawing a simple line on a piece of glass. It took less than two seconds, and yet that one line echoed like a giant bell with the layers and complexity of years of art making.

If you want to make great art, then work with one or more levels of complexity:

1. Complexity of technique

2. Complexity of subject matter

3. Complexity of message

When you have complexity, you hold the viewer longer. When you layer in technique and subject matter and message, you invite them inside their own brains and challenge them to expand.

And of course this works bests when you have challenged yourself to expand.


Now it’s your turn: Tell me about an artist you think is great, and if complexity plays a role, explain that to me.

24 Responses to “What Makes Great Art Great? (Part 1)”

  1. Carol says:

    Judy Chicago produces great art!

  2. Anselm Kiefer – I saw him because everytime I got to the High Museum – no matter why or what else is there – I always go an look at the Kiefer that is hanging there. One of my big treats to myself was buying a book of his artwork!!! I could look at that painting forever – it is so complicated, and yet so simple – with the layers and the textures

  3. Great art touches your soul!

  4. JT Harding says:

    William McGregor Paxton (June 22, 1869 – 1941)
    The genre of figures in complex interiors is his trademark. He exceeds all three criteria for greatness.

    • Ariane says:

      JT – I’d love to know how you think he “exceeds” the 3 criteria because I’m always up for revising, expanding thoughts around what is great art.

      • JT Harding says:

        To me, great art and great artist are inseparable. The other thing that makes great artists is that they borrow from the past to evolve a style. Paxton evolved the work of Vermeer to create a new kind of realism. Hensche evolved the work of Charles Hawthorne to create a colorist style. Maybe this falls under the category of influencing subsequent generations?

  5. John Singer Sargent for his richly subtle limited color palette and Pierre Bonnard for his subtly rich colorful palette.

    I love your levels of complexity. It really makes sense!

  6. Mark Tereau says:

    Syd Mead is one of my favorite artists because he could take me into the future and he told a story in his art. He came up with cool designs that really looked elegant.
    Robert McCall could create the adventure of life in space–past, present and future.
    Ralph McQuarrie was really good at creating the worlds, equipment and ships used in movies like Star Wars. He gave things a flavor and style all his own.
    When I look at art from those artists, I am a child in the candy store. I enjoy it so much.

  7. There are too many great artists to count. But my criteria for Great Art is it must have MAC. Mystery – there has to be some mystery to a great piece of art such as the Mona Lisa, why is she smiling like that? This attribute draws the viewer deeper into contemplation of the piece. Without mystery the art will fall out of style and will not stand the test of time. Attention – Art must grab the attention of the casual glance and across the room. It must engage the viewer and make it difficult to look away or be powerful enough to reengage the viewer by being unforgettable. Connection – The viewer must be able to find a personal connection to the art. This personal connection is the most powerful piece of the triad because it is what makes people want to possess the piece and purchase it, giving the artist the ability to fund their work and make more art.
    This is what I strive for in my work, is that complex enough?

    • Ariane says:

      Oh, Michelle, another triad… I love it! Tell me, how did MAC evolve? When did you become aware of your own definition of Great Art?

      Was it all at once, or did it emerge over time?

      • Ariane! You and your probing questions, I guess I asked for it. MAC evolved over time. Through my classes at college we never really talked about what made GREAT ART but we studied a ton of GREAT ART in Art History. It is one of those things you contemplate over time. I think I really got a grasp on GREAT ART when I worked at a gallery for many years. I was blessed with the chance to talk to artists who were creating GREAT ART. I also asked probing questions and was even able to get critiques from these artists I adored and admired. Those three criteria came up over and over again and they are not nut-shelled, but general criteria and to be truly GREAT the work must fulfill all three criteria.
        Mystery – doesn’t just have to be a part of the painting, it can also be the story behind the painting, the implied story presented or an obvious questions such as “How did the artist get that texture?” “How did he do that with just a pallet knife?” I found myself asking questions about pieces of art that were wonderful and intriguing to look at. – So Mystery is a must have criteria.
        Attention – I think this one is obvious for most people – in order to be looked at the piece must grab the attention of someone passing by or it is simply lost in the crowd. Attention grabbing in a room full of paintings is a pretty spectacular thing to pull off. I have seen it time and again, one piece in a show stands out and proves itself a piece of GREAT ART.
        Connection – This I found out gradually, at first it was something that I intuitively strived to create in my pieces. Art for me was communication and with communication, connection is all important. For me it goes beyond the subject matter, but the point I am trying to make, the emotion I am trying to invoke, or even the character I am trying to portray. It took me a while to realize that Connection is fundamental to all GREAT ART and you will find it in every awe inspiring piece. It is also the key to artwork selling – Art buying is a very personal thing – if there is not a Connection then the artwork fails to sell. This too is something I regularly saw at the gallery – when a person buys a piece of artwork, they often portray a possession of the piece that seems to come from clear down into their soul.

  8. The most compelling art moves me in a way that goes beyond what words can express. The first time it happened to me was in high school when my art teacher introduced me to the sublime works of JMW Turner. It just grabbed me on a deeper level that I never had access to before. I could not believe that so much emotion could be expressed with so little detail in the hands of a Master.

    Throughout my life I have admired many artists’ work~ but not all for the same reasons. I agree with Michelle that it must be engaging on some level and I have to feel a connection to it. Sometimes I respond to the technical skill of the artist, sometimes it is the accuracy of observation, or a capture of light that perfectly describes an exact time of day or evening.

    The most captivating quality of ALL art I am attracted to is the ability to SIMPLIFY (just as you said above Ariane).
    Only the most skilled artists can create art that expresses everything about its essence in just a sweep of a line or a broken edge of colour. It is the artist that can make this look EASY that always grabs my attention and respect.

    Creating good design is as much about editing to eliminate any distractions as it is about stating what is in front of you. Accomplished artists understand that a statement made clearly and simply has far more impact than art with a million other competing messages or elements. It is a basic concept yet so many artists are lured into painting every detail~ for me photography satisfies that need so I am free to explore in my paintings what it is about this subject that is so darn interesting!

  9. By the way Ariane, I am one of those people that downloads the Blue Stockings and does not interact but my reason is that they are normally on in the middle of the night for me, so this one about ‘rhythms’ was particularly poignant for my situation. ; D

    • Ariane says:

      Oh, Georgia, of course… for my tribe on the other side of the world, it would be. You just gave me one of the Qs I need to ask on the upcoming survey: what part of the world are you in?

      And then, design a way for you to interact at some level because I’d love to have your thoughts.

  10. Thank you Ariane, I would love to. Michelle I love your thoughts here, I totally agree with everything you said. ; D

    • Thank you Georgia, you described nicely how art can move you and how that connection can have some mystery to it, making it difficult to pin down the emotion in words. I’ll pass it on to the wordsmith Ariane to describe it in a way that can be understood in words. I think all things of beauty create that feeling whether it is from nature or man-made.

  11. I love the combination of the complexity 3-C’s with MAC. The 2 notions go together hand-in-hand. Complexity creates mystery which attracts attention IF the viewer can connect with the inherent message of the paintings. For me, the “connect” is THE element that makes a piece of work memorable but that connection is preceded by achieving the complexity and MA criteria without which a piece falls short of “great.” GREAT ideas! Will help me to continue on my journey!

    • Ariane says:

      Oh, Maryann, thanks for pulling the two together so elegantly. My fevered brain was trying so hard to integrate these and you did it in one sentence!

      What do you think, Michelle, does it work?

      “Complexity helps create the mystery that attracts attention so the viewer has the opportunity to experience and connect with the feeling message of the artwork.”

      The poet in me will probably fiddle with this endlessly.

      Anyone can jump in and save me from this affliction by editing it first :-)

  12. Kathy Chin says:

    I love the idea of MAC, but for me, simplicity resonates more than complexity. I understand complexity of technique, subject, and message, but when something is too complex my feeble mind gets overwhelmed and I move on. But the simplistic images that say a lot ( like the single line on the glass) gives rise to lots of questions (“how could the artist do that with one line,” “where did that simple line come from…it’s genius,” etc.)
    I’m also a photographer, and find that my final image is a lot less than what it was originally because I simplify.
    Michelle’s idea of MAC is superb and speaks also to what attracts clients.
    Thanks for the insights!

  13. Olaifa says:

    Comment’s author: ptirehema03/31/07 01:24:00 AM我不想跟你抬槓了因為爭議點不在於現象而在於對於本能失效的定義上至於阿宅吧那是台灣在亂用不過就算是日本 現在的用法也比以前寬廣了傳統定義就真的是對於漫畫與動畫模形熱中的人(嚴格定義的話 電玩是不算的 HG除外)可是現在幾乎只要是對於非日常生活的專門事物有愛好就可以算宅我個人的定義的話社交能力不健全 個性害羞 有點點反社會傾向專注在日常生活之外的事物上 就可以算是宅以你小玉那麼多的狀況來看你應該算宅–大英前陣子有在故宮展至於翠玉白菜人家故宮都說了是遷台的時候斷的該死的中共

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