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Defining good art: a curator and an artist weigh in

Installation view of "The Monstrous Self" at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, March 2014.
Installation view of "The Monstrous Self" at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, March 2014.
Benjamin Sutton

It’s an age-old question: what makes art good art?

This question, of course, has many answers. It depends on the time period, the medium, the artist’s thought processes, and the viewer’s response.

What do you see as a good work of art? Is it a painting of historical accuracy created with references to Greek and Roman ideals? Is it a statement piece, like an overturned urinal? Perhaps good art to you is a designer handbag or flowing gown. Or maybe it’s simply an empty canvas. Each one of us has different definitions of the meaning of “good art” and that is why examiner is speaking with contemporary artist Sigrid Sarda and curator Benjamin Sutton, who recently showed at the SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, to hear their opinions:

Examiner: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term “art” as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” What is your definition of art?

Ben: “I hesitate to commit my definition of art to paper—or, in this case, pixels—because I'm sure that no matter how malleable and porous I make it, some artwork will come along soon and reveal my definition's limitations. Of course when that happens it will mostly be a sign that I've come across some exceptional art, rather than formulated a weak definition. In any case, for me art is any aesthetic experience—from Renaissance paintings and Mesopotamian bas-relief sculptures through Impressionist pastels, minimalist drawings, and participatory performances—that conveys an idea. It can be a very intellectual idea, it can be a more purely visual or narrative idea, it could even be a very boring idea, but if the thing, image, experience, environment, what-have-you is transmitting an idea, to me that qualifies as art.”

Examiner: Is there any way that art can be deemed unsatisfactory? Different people like different works of art. What is your definition of “good art”?

Ben: “ I think there are many very subjective criteria that can make something "good art." For me one marker of good art, beyond the basic criteria of technical competence, is something that expresses a familiar idea in a new or completely different manner.

I think, for instance, of the Impressionists and the Light and Space artists as both being very into these rather elemental investigations into color, light, and perception, and while I can appreciate how revolutionary the Impressionists were in their historical context—and I certainly love a beautiful Monet—for me spending a half-hour in a James Turrell installation is a really sublime and transformative experience.

Or, to flip the terms around, "good art" is often art that uses very familiar means to express a completely different idea. Duchamp's readymades might be the most obvious example of this, but another that has been very impactful for me is Valerie Hergarty, a really terrific artist whose work is rooted in historical paintings, sculptures, and furniture, but who takes these familiar and very charged objects and renders them in a decayed, rotten, overgrown, or otherwise destroyed manner to call into question the histories they represent. That, to me, is not just good but great art: It not only demonstrates incredible technical proficiency, but it is also bursting with ideas—from art historical references and historical research to formal concerns about how something can be both an image of a thing and a sculptural representation of that thing—and, as a bonus, has tremendous visual appeal.”

Sigrid: “When expression comes from within and is honest then you have good art. [Good art is] about transcendence; both the artist and viewer finding themselves in that state while either creating or looking. ”

Examiner: What specific works of art are you drawn to? Is there any work you are particularly averse to?

Sigrid: “It’s impossible to speak about a specific work - there have been so many influences over the years. Some are: Peter-Paul Rubens, Edward Kienholz, Joel-Peter Witkin, Medieval manuscripts, Religious polychromed figures, Incorruptible Bodies (saints), Walter Potter (anthropomorphic taxidermy), Jean Honore Fragonard (ecorche bodies), William DeKooning, Jake and Dinos Chapman.

What turns me off in art is being clever for the sake of cleverness.”

Ben: “ I am invariably attracted to very handmade, tactile, and colorful objects. This is something that guides me toward a lot of heavily impastoed paintings, unwieldy sculptures, collages, ceramics, and other very discernibly handcrafted objects. But being aware of this bias makes me always want to try harder when faced with other types of works, from minimalist sculpture (in spite of my extremely low tolerance for Donald Judd, I love others like Sol Lewitt, Fred Sandback and John McCracken), video and conceptual art, to performance and sound art.

I think recognizing our tendencies as viewers of art can make us more open to other types of work, and ultimately help us come around to the greatness of artworks we might otherwise have walked right past.”

Examiner: At the SPRING/BREAK show in March, Ben curated an installation titled “The Monstrous Self,” which included Sigrid’s wax work “Rule #34: Charm” front and center. The work is a life-size creation of a decomposing female who holds a cell phone in one hand and herself in her other. The work received varying reviews, from shock to morbid curiosity to awe; viewers also had mixed reactions, some staring openly, others quickly looking away, some shaking their heads in disbelief, others uncomfortably holding back giggles. Is this good art? Why make something with such shock value? What is the point to this particular piece of art?

Sigrid: “The physical part of my waxworks are reliquary and talisman based, using human remains (hair, bone etc). Combining that with sexuality or commentary on today’s standards and the realness of wax, there is a tendency for the public to react with a mixture of intrigue, fear, fascination, delight, repulsion, disgust...but never indifference. Exhibiting in Spring/Break has been no different.

Wax has been used for effigies and doll making. Using human remains in my work creates reliquaries/dolls, a peer group of sorts. It goes back to magical thinking, innocence and childhood.

I personally don't work towards an exhibition. “Rule #34: Charm” is part of the three Graces, all of which are based on human remains. Depending how the remains are handled (degraded, revered) will bring meaning to that particular grace.

I want people to recognize themselves in the work.”

Examiner: What made you want to create/curate art?

Ben: My interest in becoming a curator grew out of my interest in writing about art. Seeing so many shows and writing reviews, you're constantly looking for connections, patterns, and resonances between different works and different artists, which is a large part of what a curator does. The two activities inform each other very organically, at least in my experience, and I find both extremely challenging, rewarding, and exciting, albeit in different ways.

Sigrid: “It has never been a choice to become an artist. Communicating visually has been my way negotiating the world around me. It stems from personal experience. In first grade I was sexually abused and bullied at school. During that year I also won a poster contest and was given praise from classmates and teachers alike. I was raised with paintings and music and literature....I remember the Horizon series; looking at Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and falling in love. Venus would come up over and over again in my drawings. When I first laid eyes on the painting in person (20-something), I cried.

I don't think one chooses to become an artist- it chooses you!”

Benjamin Sutton is the news editor at artnet News. His next curatorial project, “Current: Gowanus,” will open at the Gowanus Loft on May 14. Sigrid Sarda’s ongoing projects include a residency at King’s College London-The Gordon Museum of Pathology and on file for waxworks at The Mutter Museum. For November, she is working on a recreation of The Black Dahlia’s murder scene in wax and human remains for NoirCon.

Let us know your own definition of “good art” and tell us about your favorite or least favorite works of art. Join the conversation – also on facebook and twitter!

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