What Makes Good Art?: 4 Theories for Judging Your Art

What Makes Art Good? Christine Nishiyama, Might Could Studios.

I often argue against labeling art—especially our own art—”Good” or “Bad”. I believe there’s something to be learned and gained from every piece of art we make, even if it’s just a release of mental blobbies.

But our judgment often creeps in anyways, so it’s worth digging into how we respond to our art.

4 Theories for Judging Art

Your response to your art stems from what you believe art is and what its overall purpose is. There are 4 main theories for judging whether a piece of art is successful: Imitationalism, Formalism, Instrumentalism, and Emotionalism.

Chances are, you already believe in one of these theories, even if you’ve never heard of them. Realizing which theory resonates most with you can help you make crucial decisions in your artmaking. Or perhaps you’ll find that you thought you believed one theory, but you actually believe another!

I purposefully did not include example artworks below, because I don’t want to influence which theory you are drawn to based on the pieces I chose. Try to really see which theory fits best with your true core beliefs!

Ok, let’s take a look at the four theories.

1. Imitationalism

Art is good when it imitates reality.

An Imitationalist artist focuses on mimicking and representing real life. In a successful piece of art, the textures, light, shadows, human proportions, and perspective are all highly realistic, as if you could reach out and touch them.

2. Formalism

Art is good when it masters the artistic elements and principles.

A Formalist artist focuses on an artwork’s form—the way it’s made and what it looks like. In a successful piece of art, the visual features are most important: line quality, color, composition, and other artistic elements and principles.

3. Instrumentalism

Art is good when it communicates a message.

An Instrumentalist artist focuses on context and message. A successful piece of art is an instrument to persuade the audience or provide commentary. It is often political, social, moral, or thought-provoking.

4. Emotionalism

Art is good when it evokes an emotional response.

An Emotionalist artist focuses on the expression of emotion. A successful piece of art communicates an emotion, but more importantly, it pulls out an emotional reaction from the viewer.

What Makes Good Art to You?

Personally, I’m a mix of Emotionalism + Formalism. I focus on the expression of my own emotions and moods and aim to evoke those same emotions in the viewer. However, my background is in Graphic Design, so I also have a strong love for the formal aspects of a piece of art, like composition, line, and color.

I am farthest away from Imitationalism, though it may be the most commonly held theory. I certainly believe it’s technically impressive when art can imitate reality, but I have no desire to do so myself, and my personal belief is that realism is not the most important aspect of an artwork.

To find which theory (or a mix of theories) fits you best, you’ll need to think about where your artmaking desires and your personal belief in what makes a piece of art good align.

What Theory Are You?

It’s important to remember there is no right or wrong theory. Art is subjective, and the judgment of whether an artwork is good or bad is a matter of personal opinion.

But realizing which theory you naturally gravitate to can help you recognize what you do or don’t like about your own work. When we can see more clearly why we believe our art is good or bad, we use that knowledge to nudge our art more in the good direction.

So which theory fits best with you?

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