How do we know what makes good art?

There’s good science and pseudo-science. There’s real art and pseudo-art or kitsch. Proper science that follows a rigorous method is arguably easier to discern than what makes good art. Our artistic taste is personal and subjective, but we nevertheless know beauty when we encounter it. So how do we know what makes good art? The existence of the Man Booker Prize for the literary arts and the UK Turner Prize for the visual arts suggests that our judgement of the arts is far from subjective, and there are a number features, or criteria that we might use to make an aesthetic judgement.

In his outstanding series of three 10-minute talks on BBC series ‘A Point of View’, Roger Scruton addresses these questions further, exploring the distinction between real art and pseudo-art or kitsch. The following text is taken from the BBC website:

Faking it 

‘Philosopher Roger Scruton reflects on the difference between original art that is genuine, sincere and truthful, but hard to achieve, and the easier but fake art that he says appeals to many critics today. He argues that original artists from Beethoven and Baudelaire to Picasso and Pound tower above those contemporary artists whose pieces push fake emotion – and who, by focusing on avoiding cliche, end up cliches themselves.’


‘Kitsch, he says, creates the fantasy of an emotion without the real cost of feeling it. He argues that in the twentieth century artists became preoccupied by what they perceived as the need to avoid kitsch and sentimentality. But it’s not so easy. Some try being outrageously avant-garde, which can lead to a different kind of fake: cliche. So a new genre emerged: pre-emptive kitsch. Artists embraced kitsch and produce it deliberately to present it as a sophisticated parody. But is it art?’

Art the real thing

‘In the last of his three talks on art Roger Scruton asks what constitutes real art, as opposed to cliche or kitsch. He says we must ignore the vast quantities of art produced as commodities to be sold, in contrast to symphonies or novels that cannot be owned in the same way as a painting or a sculpture. Real art has to have lasting appeal, he argues, and for that it needs three things: beauty, form and redemption. The production of such art, he says, takes immense hard work and attention to detail, but it can give meaning to our modern lives and show love in the midst of doubt and desolation.’

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