I want to understand “quality”. What is it, and why is it relevant to artists?

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The one thing that unites all artists is their pursuit of establishing and implementing a personal work practice. For this, they need to understand their own quality criteria. Yet what does quality mean, and how does it relate to one’s work?

Quality in Everyday Life

When people discuss the quality of an everyday object, they usually think about the level of craft, as well as the care and attention that went into its creation. They also consider how well it fulfills its purpose: the durability of a battery, the sharpness of a knife blade, the stability of a chair. Objects rarely exist in, or emerge from a vacuum; most of them are the continuation of generational developments: consider the wheel, whose origins go back to before the Bronze Age. Quite obviously, humans had a lot of time to establish rather specific understandings of what makes a good wheel, and what doesn’t; that’s quality in everyday life: the sum total of valid expectations towards something whose purpose is clear.

Quality in the Arts

Art seems to have always accompanied humans – it might even have preceded our species’ consciousness. Seen this way, it makes sense to think of quality in art as equally (highly) evolved as that of everyday objects. For sure, every art historian will be able to judge how well a piece of art fits the quality criteria established over the last couple dozen millennia!

As we know, this isn’t true anymore. While guilds and art academies originally defined, taught and pursued strict ideas about artistic content and form, contemporary art is defined by a near-total openness in regards to what can be done, and how it can be done. This is a consequence of the changed roles and functions that artists have – from anonymous cave painters to anonymous producers of craft objects (in a world before mass production, everything was a craft object), to ordinary people using technologies to depict the world. The age-old artistic function of documenting the world visually has turned optional. As a result, contemporary artists can’t rely on any of the predefined quality ideals that were developed over centuries. Instead, they can (or rather: they have to) adapt and extend the vastness of previous canons and approaches – or ignore them.

Ambiguity and the People

This also has implications for the viewers of contemporary art: they might not be able to understand what they’re seeing and experiencing, why it could matter, or how to judge it. Opposite to everyday objects, the purpose of an artwork might not be clear to them. Maybe the piece means to criticize something. Maybe the piece wants to disturb. Maybe the piece wants nothing off them – yet their viewing expectations demand an aesthetically pleasing dialog. If viewers apply their preexisting value judgements, chances are they won’t “get” the artwork: the wide variety of contemporary artistic modes can make it unrealistic for the viewer’s expectations to meet the artist’s ideals. They might be entirely oblivious about the reference system that might give context to what’s in front of them. Outreach programs or basic dialogs can offer missing direction and explanations, but not everyone wants to subject themselves to explanations. Some people expect an artwork to speak for itself, yet are unable to see the complexities that it might contain. In addition, some art simply wants to remain obscure. Another frequent issue is the one of craft expectations: what’s made with obvious care and attention to detail, is often understood to matter more, and to be “better art”. At the same time, some people care about art especially for its power to subvert expectations; these people tend to then be bored by art that repeats what’s already been established – they might then miss the nuances of change in the art of those people who silently expand the canon.

Quality and the Market

Since an artwork’s qualities can be fleeting and misunderstood, it’s often not used as main metric for judgements. Many artists are acutely aware of a unique role reversal: instead of judging an artwork’s quality to derive its monetary value, some people rather want to know about an artwork’s price, in order to then derive its potential quality: in capitalism, the price of something strongly defines our expectations for it – this holds true for art as well, which can be frustrating: if the artist’s visibility is low, it will usually result in their work’s prices to be low just as well. It can take a lot of effort to experience a low-priced work of art, and see its actual qualities – especially if these qualities don’t meet our expectations about what art should be like.

Someone’s price level, awards, residencies or the number of solo shows are external metrics, and can strongly define the perception of an artist’s value: works are good because their price is high, or because they got awards, or because their creator received awards. Refine a sense of distrust when hearing about a work’s “quality”, especially when used by people in positions of power: professors, jurors, curators, art critics, collectors, fellow artists, gallerists, etc. Apply this distrust even when people discuss your work in positive ways: they might use the idea of quality to hide their actual intent.

Personal Choices

Contemporary artists have a lot of rather personal choices to make. They need to decide which media, processes, tools, aesthetics and content to use, and how to use them.

For each of these, they have to develop personal quality criteria. These can change over time – artists don’t need to stick to previous ones. To the contrary, the pursuit of quality ideals is so heavily ingrained in contemporary thinking of arts, that artists who “simply” follow one and the same recipe for years, are frequently frowned upon: certain people dislike or question the idea of formula-based art processes, although art historically, the application of such processes might be what defined Western art the strongest. Nevertheless, artists need high degrees of curiosity about their interests, and a willingness to express these interests through endless approximations, and often frustrating mistakes: no one can tell them what to do (how their personal choices might look like), yet people will only ever be interested in the consequences of exactly these choices: this is an unusual situation in today’s world.

One’s quality criteria include certain expected decisions of contemporary art: what to do, and how to go about it. They also include process-related decisions that can come unexpected to laypeople, and sometimes aren’t understood as important to the end result: which brushes to use, how to hold, use and clean them; how to mix colors; what palette and which canvas to use, and how to stretch and prime it; whether to work on an easel or the wall, or to paint on a table. While certain art schools offer specific and strict advice on how to pursue one’s artistic practice, their graduates ultimately have to decide on their own how to blend these guidelines into a contemporary art practice: their own artistic practice. If they simply stick to what they were taught, it will likely result in anachronistic works that recreate the spirit of a time that’s essentially past. In open-quality systems like art, you can’t rely on other people’s quality judgements – the likelihood of them pursuing exactly your goals is extremely low. They might be unable to comprehend your ideas, resulting in misguided feedback or advice. That’s why you need to develop and discover your own standards and ideas of excellence: your quality criteria. It can therefore be beneficial to find art schools that discuss meta-levels of art, instead of only giving explicit craft directions: how to think about art, how to pursue one’s curiosities, how to manifest and process. An ideal art school would combine meta with craft specifics.

Read the next chapter to understand how to find or establish quality in your art.

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