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The most important gift is good fortune. The second and equally important good is
sound judgement. The absence of the latter fatefully leads to the loss of the former
Demosthenes

 

Students in art classes, usually beginners with regard to the art that interests them, have for years been asking, directly and indirectly but always the same, a basic question concerning the kind and the content of artistic criteria to be applied when appraising the quality of a work of art, when expressing an opinion about it, and, finally, when enjoying it. Even though the core of the answer should logically also remain the same, emphasis on individual details of the same answer differ over time, so as to deal with the distortions and the perseverance of each dominant artistic practice and ideology.

Not many years ago, knowledge and information were fundamental in configuring artistic criteria. As was, most importantly, contact with the works of art. Today, however, it is a fact that information, briefing and communication supercede by far thinking, judgment and comparison. Twenty years ago, few people knew who Cartier-Bresson was and they were usually those who appreciated him. Today it is doubtful that there is anyone who has not heard of him, but probably only a few people know why they should appreciate him. At the same time, if in the past it was reasonable and appropriate for the knowledge of the experts to affect the judgement and the criteria of the ignorant, today the borders between knowledge and ignorance are dangerously confused, because there are so many experts who fail to convey their knowledge convincingly and so many ignorant people who do not concede their ignorance.

Configuring artistic criteria is harder today than in the past, but at the same time much more essential and probably more fascinating. Nevertheless, in order to bear fruits this procedure should obey four basic rules. Firstly, shaping the criteria should not aim at formulating a specific recipe, but at designing a general frame that will make appraising works of art more reliable, more genuine, but also relatively controllable. The quest for truth should perhaps exclude its discovery. Secondly, it should be obvious that it is a personal affair that has nothing to do with teams and fans. Each person’s relation with works of art is unique. Thirdly, it should not be influenced by dogmatic or historical approaches and readings that have as a starting point and content non-artistic questions, be it political, social, philosophical or scientific. After all, works of low artistic quality may have a strong historical or social importance. And fourthly the effort of this configuration should not cancel or downgrade the importance of the mystery that lies in each work and which reasonably resists its subjugation to absolute and restrictive criteria.

However, there may exist (at least) one steadfast and relatively safe artistic criterion, which everyone can use as a reference point, by going back to it for support and enlightenment. This is the personal museum of each and every one of us, which is continuously evolving (and contested) and is made up of works of the past that hold a special place within us. This museum is enriched progressively by works of art that upset or move us, but also by thoughts, ideas, experiences and observations we allow ourselves to be influenced by. It is as if every new work of art to be judged knocks at the door of our personal museum and asks for the consent of the works that shape and move us and are installed in our soul. We have nothing to do but to learn to listen to them and obey them.