Ask any artist this question, and you’ll soon learn there are numerous schools of thought.

There can’t be many more complicated or heavily contested arguments within the art world. The style of art you produce will undoubtedly influence your feelings here. An artist may feel their latest piece is “obviously” good, but what happens if the first ten people to view it all rank it poorly? Was the author of the piece wrong?

Browsing the pages of an online art gallery today, we will tend to skip past the ones that don’t have immediate appeal to us, and stop scrolling when we spot something that catches our eye. But what would happen if we took a deeper approach to assessing the value of each piece of art?

Let’s investigate a few of the Objective principles of reviewing art, and finish with a couple of subjective ones. Perhaps you’ll form your own opinion along the way.

Does Formalism Make Art Good?

Formalist analysis of a piece uses traditional elements of art, along with design principles, to assess the value of the piece. Formalists will focus their attention on the colors, lines, shapes, and textures that make up the look of a piece of artwork, without considering if the piece has been successful. This is intended to specifically avoid any kind of subjective analysis by focusing entirely on composition.

Formalism has become a popular method of artist assessment in recent times, as the rise of abstract and expressionist works based solely on line, shape, and color to create a pleasing composition.

Does Emotionalism Make Art Good?

Emotionalism emphasizes an artwork’s expressive qualities, so those who are determining the value of artworks in this way will do their best to tap into how the artwork makes them feel – the communication between the piece and themselves as the viewer. This method of art analysis is unique because no concern is given to how an observer might be first attracted to the artwork in question.

How does an artwork captivate and stir emotion in its viewer? This can vary from person to person, but what matters is that the artwork successfully evokes certain moods or ideas in those looking at his piece, irrespective of its composition, the context of the piece, or even its narrative – if it has one at all.

Does Imitationalism Make Art Good?

This type of analysis, also known as mimetic theory, suggests that artwork is at its best when it imitates life. The more realistic a piece of art, the better according to imitationalism – if you can see the piece at a distance and confuse it for viewing out of a window, rather than a simple painting, this would be close to perfection.

Creating realistic textures, shadows, and lighting effects are essential to successful imitationalism.

Does Instrumentalism Make Art Good?

The final objective view we will examine is Instrumentalism, which doesn’t concern itself with the composition of the piece at all – only its context. Those who value instrumentalism believe that the best artworks are those which convey messages, perhaps even shaping the way we view our everyday lives.

There is a brilliant example of this in John Heartfield’s “Have no fear – He’s a Vegetarian” from 1936, which was intended to help others to recognize his view that Adolf Hitler, currently still working his way up through the corridors of power, needed to be taken seriously – this wasn’t just another harmless politician. As we know today, Heartfield was right. I wonder how many who saw this artwork before the second world war were also able to grasp the danger the world was facing?

Subjective Viewpoints from Professional Artists

Whilst all of the above views are common subjects studied at art school, experience teaches us things that the classroom cannot. With that in mind, I searched for several alternative points of view given by real artists. Here is what I found:

Brian Goss of Brian Goss Fine Art, San Francisco

“Art that is unique in conception, and well-executed”;

A short but sweet start to the debate from well-respected artist Brian Goss. Notice that he doesn’t refer to any of the previously mentioned analysis methods, and makes judgments purely from his own perspective.


Cheryl Haines of Haines Gallery, San Francisco

“Clear intentions, unwavering dedication, a demonstration of patience and perseverance, along with the self-awareness to show that you are creating for yourself and nobody else”;

I feel there is a hint of instrumentalism expressed as part of Cheryl’s view, but perhaps that is just my own interpretation. Others may feel that emotionalism is being shown here too, which is a view I would find it hard to disagree with.

Jack Hanley of Jack Hanley Gallery, New York

“I like something where the intensity of the experiences of the person come through. Maybe somebody is turned on by the nature of their materials, a psychological issue, or any other kind of narrative.

Maybe some people have greater, more intense experiences than others. On a grander scale, what makes art good is how extraordinary and profound the components of their experiences are. Some artists are maybe better at tapping into their own idiosyncrasies and conveying them to others”.

There’s much to digest here, but I won’t provide my own analysis of Jack’s comments – consider them yourself, think about how they relate to the more objective analysis methods discussed earlier, and perhaps even apply his thoughts to your own work. Who knows what direction this could lead your art in next.