by Lee Down

If you attend Emily Carr University of Art + Design, one thing you might encounter is an art professor telling you it is never encouraged to judge what is good art and bad art. All art is art. It is an expression of human emotion and intent. Therefore, it is not right to speculate on whether or not it’s good. To do so is rather uneducated. Art is innovation and art styles can vary and change and are so vast. If you get its intention, it did its job and therefore, it is what it is. Art can’t be good or bad. But it can be beneficial.

Art Judged Negatively in History

There are many examples throughout history where art has been harshly criticized. There were established views of what constituted good art and to deviate from it brought with it heavy resistance by the establishment. This can be seen in the painting art world and in the performing arts world alike.


One of the most famous and widely used painting styles today is Impressionism. Yet, when it first began as a movement in the late 1800s, it was widely criticized as unfinished paintings. A rebellious group of impressionist painters, primarily in Paris, were seen as violating the rules of academic painting.

These early impressionist artists sought to paint in a different way to achieve an intense colour vibration, instead of painting realistic scenes. This style was often painted outside the studio, too, whereas even landscapes were often painted in studios previously. With the invention of paint in a tube in 1841, painters could take their work outdoors and plein air was born. Impressionists brought more attention to light and colour as a way to define a moment, often using loose brush strokes. And in doing so, they changed the art world as we know it. Impressionism is the most widely created form of art making in the world today and had the most impact on the development of modern art.


Art critics reacted quite negatively to Picasso’s introduction of Cubism and some were quite vicious, labelling him schizophrenic and satanic in the beginning. Carl Jung even weighed in suggesting there was something quite evil about Picasso’s work and that it didn’t belong in galleries. It’s quite funny now knowing what Picasso managed to accomplish and the success he enjoyed.

Picasso sought to introduce a new way of depicting the modern world. Cubists didn’t want to use perspective or graded shading. They didn’t want their work to look realistic. Instead, they felt what they were doing was showing the structure of things as they really are, not what they looked like. That sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? By flattening the image and applying more monochromatic style, you see the modern world as he sees it emphasized by the two-dimensionality of the canvas.

The benefit of Cubism on modern art is it opened up new possibilities for the visual treatment of reality. It was also a starting point for many other abstract styles that would later follow in the modern art movement.

art judged negatively in history

Rock & Roll

Now this is an artistic area that most of us can relate to and remember. Even in current times, mainstream music is met with criticism by many listeners. In particular, one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians and listeners is how auto-tune is often being used and thus, pure talent is in decline.

There have been issues of whether it is real music or just noise when Rock and Roll first came on the scene. Parents’ complained how it made youth move their hips when they danced and fundamentalists thought it was the devil’s music. Also, there was a fear of race mixing over this music. I remember in the seventies there being a lot of censorship issues and complaints that there were hidden satanic meanings in the lyrics or if records were played backwards.

There has been no shortage of controversy with rock and roll. Next came Rap and Hip Hop and more controversy. And yet, the beat goes on. And in its wake, it transformed society by encouraging young people to break cycles, increased the use of technology and influenced the civil rights movement that brought about positive changes for minorities and races.

Why is Art Often Controversial?

The most typical forms of art that have experienced controversy are music, painting, sculpture and photography. Everyone has different opinions about what constitutes art and what doesn’t. And they’re not quiet about their opinions either. We’ve certainly become accustomed to that heated exchange of opinions on social media, haven’t we?

People by nature are judgmental, even when they don’t intend to be. It’s in our nature. The more enlightened people might reserve judgment and be more open minded. But that initial judgment still occurs in our thought process and needs to be checked. And what are we checking for? Our bias, our history, our experience, our values, our personal taste, and our personal beliefs.

why is art often controversial

A critical thinker will recognize their own judgment and will question themselves. They’ll deepen their inquiry about the art subject matter. They’ll be curious about the artist, their thinking and their intent. But most people will simply react.

Quite often, it takes art critics who do a deeper analysis to engage us in conversation about art and music. We know about confirmation bias and how we gravitate to critics who support our views. Should we stop there? How much more important do you think it is to digest multiple critics of differing opinions in light of what you’ve come to see about our history with art?

Art is Innovation

This truth needs to be repeated, in spite of the fact that examples from history have already been mentioned and widely accepted. I know Cubism is still not everyone’s cup of tea but it paved the way for more abstract work. Abstract is probably one of the most common artwork purchases made in the world today. And Impressionism is widely accepted, painted and bought and sold. Each of these areas of development brought about something new, including tools, techniques and styles.

Rock and Roll is a significant part of our cultural history and cultural norm now. Moving from traditional orchestra instruments to electric guitars, synthesizers and other non-traditional instruments and sounds, something new was created. It borrowed and stole from earlier sounds, songs and influences, too. And each generation has evolved, grown and created music for every musical taste, as well as bringing about social change.

What was once widely criticized is now widely accepted. And with each of these, there has been significant innovation in art styles, art techniques and art appreciation.

Art is Our History and Social Fabric

Many of us have been to a museum of some sort and taken in the history that is on display. We’re often amazed at what once was a normal way of life and appreciate what we have now that adds to our creature comforts. Art museums are rich in story telling, too, with paintings from hundreds of years ago, showing us not only differences in our art making, but also in our daily lives, politics and significant events throughout history.

Music and television have also added to this. Today’s generation of youth might get curious about classic black and white movies, or early television and the rock and roll movement. I see this on YouTube channels that do Reaction videos to comedy, music and sitcoms based upon suggestions from their viewing audience. It all tells a story about our cultural influences, our class systems that we still live within, and teaches us how we can break free to create a new way of life. It also expands our worldview and personal tastes.

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In Summary, Is There Good Art or Bad Art?

What was bad once, is good now, generally speaking, when it comes to art. Cheesy movies are a hit today with culture vultures. Culture vultures are people who love to consume artistic culture and experiences from our past and other cultures. Art that was once widely criticized as bad is now recognized as being major influences on the development of the modern art world and society at large. There have been new advances and new forms of art created from these once maligned art influences. So, is there bad art?

If art has moved you, elicited a response from you, whether it be emotional or intellectual, it has served a genuine purpose. It has created dialogue. It has shifted perceptions. And if it has been exceptional, it may have brought about change for the good of humanity, the good of art, and even the good for science and development. So, if you encounter something that rubs you the wrong way, realize it’s just outside your wheelhouse and not necessarily bad.

If you’re on social media seeing something, you don’t need to direct negative and toxic comments at the artist if you don’t like it. You can just scroll past. Better yet, click Like to show them you care about their courageousness to create, to make a statement, and to take part in something as challenging as art making. Who knows? Maybe they’re also making history.

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12 Replies to “Why There is No Such Thing as Good Art or Bad Art”

  1. There are no “good” or “bad” art *styles*, but within those styles is art that is executed well and art that is not well executed, and everything in between. If all art was good, then I could be an opera singer but that wouldn’t happen. Why? Because I CAN’T SING. The quality of my singing is BAD, even though singing as a form of human expression isn’t “bad” in of itself. Thus while humans expressing themselves isn’t bad, we all know some do it a helluva lot better than others, and that’s just the way it is.

    1. Just because you say you can’t sing right now, doesn’t mean to say that you can’t learn to sing. And while you might never be able to be an opera singer, doesn’t mean to say you couldn’t sing well enough for other genres.

      This article doesn’t claim to say that all art is executed well. Naturally, there is development of skills, techniques and execution. That goes without saying for the purposes of this article. What this article attempts to do is to deter the natural inclination some (or many) people have to negatively comment on something because of lack of skill or even, lack of taste.

      I still feel it is better to encourage art, whether it is to my taste or not. I still feel it is better to encourage an artist to keep at it rather than discourage them from pursuing it ever again. Too often, I have seen and heard feedback where artists have given up because of a lack of support, a lack of encouragement and no end to critical negative comments meant to disparage.

      Why is it that people feel it is okay to degrade people for trying something that other people talk themselves out of over something as simple as a lack of skill? I feel this has to change.

      The original Impressionists submitted their impressionist works to be juried for exhibitions and the consensus at that time was that their paintings were unfinished sketches. At the time, that’s how they were viewed by the establishment. Now, we recognize the brilliance of what they were doing. Then, they didn’t and tried to discourage it and disparaged it.

    2. I agree with you totally .
      Being an artist is a profession. Everybody can make art? No! Only an artist can make art.
      A student is not an artist , not just yet. Therefore, not every “artwork” is art.
      Being an artist is much more , than going to art school, learning to use different type of visual language. and creating something in that manner.
      When Van Gogh started to paint, he wasn’t an artist. He became one later on.

    3. I agree. If there was no good or bad art, why are we obsessed with giving out awards and prizes in art competitions? Why then do we have art competitions?
      Why do galleries judge artists? Why is all art rigorously judged for selection into any show, , venue, competition, gallery, etc.,etc?
      Humanity is obsessed with “good and bad”. It is what drives people to excel.

  2. Is pretty sure that Shakespeare had it right when one of his characters remarked, “There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”. If one argues about the quality of a particular piece or movement, then it would be well served to see if it stands the test of time. Perspectives change, and so does what may be considered Art.

    1. Does it stop being art, or does it just stop being in fashion? Otherwise, I absolutely love what you’re saying.

  3. Art lives in the beholder where it is completed by the beholder each time it is viewed. Schools of Art and styles are always a contemporary event. No need to label. Intersubjectivity is all there is optically. Experiencing and expressing Art is
    a simultaneous visceral phenomenon! The capacity to abstract (the verb, that is),
    and to become conscious of abstracting is the realm of aesthetic arousal ; an education in one’s personal development. The words “good” and “bad” are meaningless, dead level , abstractions that still plague artists and their world.

  4. I agree with the content in this article although there is something defining a person as an artist as not every one making a drawing or putting some painting on a canvas is an artist unless they decide to be one. Being a fine artist is a hard job, it is not easy. I agree that once an artist presents their work people should be respectful and not compare to other artists or art styles because every artwork is unique and every style comes from within and as mentioned above being an artist and creating is hard work.

  5. Lee, you are certainly earnest and have garnered a number of like minds to your opinion. However, as soon as you registered the title of this piece of writing, the conclusion was a fait-a -complis. Definitions of Art, Artist, Art Movement and Abstract/abstraction have been presented ad nauseam, by people of all walks of life within and without the Arts. All of these categories exist and will continue to exist and for as long as people believe what they read in books on art criticism and evaluation. Art Movement as a term has little value and even when a group of artists agreed on a common approach it was the divergence not the similarity that defined them. Art historians lumping together artists to prove a point or write a book has skewed the appreciation of art.
    As to good and bad, Picasso produced some 50,000 works in a variety of mediums of which about 100 are considered as worth keeping. That discussion is not about technique, material value as an investment or the superiority of one medium over another but cultural imperatives. Just what did Picasso, as one artist among millions, contribute that either defined or advanced, not just his time, but the course of civilisation? This has nothing to do with popularity or auction house prices. What the Impressionists and Cubists contributed was a freeing up of the restricted notions of human vision imposed by an ‘intelligencia’ that believed that imitation of the world and the extensive use of symbols was the height of creativity – a viewpoint still widely shared by the majority of people looking at art. Not all Impressionist or Cubist painting is worth keeping other than as an historical marker. Impression Sunrise is a dull painting compared to the ones executed at Giverny half a century later where the originally discussed ideas of painting light actually start to work. Pissarro was probably the more successful Impressionist painter.
    As to who is an artist? It doesn’t matter how you phrase the criteria or how you judge the work. Every piece of art is neither a beginning nor an end and ‘success’ can only be judged by the artist. If sections of the populace agree with the results of say, a competition, it says more about their need to have their values reinforced than it does about work in question.

    1. Thank you, Alan, for such a well thought out and expressed response to the article. I do confess, I did take some liberties to push my point of view. My inspiration to write this comes from constantly being bombarded by lame criticisms that I see posted in comments on social media in the group I run for artists to share their work, in addition to art we share on our other social channels. The negativity and thoughtless comments can really get tiresome after so many years of doing this. Your points are spot on and much appreciated to add to this conversation.

  6. I stumble on identifying any creative expression as art. There should be a new definition that would exclude judgement.

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