Words about art: Maurice de Vlaminck

In a new regular feature, Arts Editor Fran Lowe attempts to explore and explain some famous quotations about the nature of art. First, it’s the turn of French Fauvist Maurice de Vlaminck.

“Good painting is like good cooking: it can be tasted, but not explained.”

Maurice de Vlaminck was a French Fauvist painter of the early Twentieth Century, and his words here strike a chord with anyone who has ever wondered why one artwork is considered a masterpiece, while another is not. What makes a piece of art ‘good’ is a challenging question, differing from piece to piece; as de Vlaminck says, it is exceedingly difficult to express in words.

Vincent Van Gogh's Chair, enormously famous, but how 'good'?

Vincent Van Gogh’s Chair, enormously famous, but how ‘good’?

De Vlaminck himself was strongly influenced by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, such as Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh, renowned as one of the greatest artists of all time, is still sometimes criticised in popular culture for his rough, some say child-like style- is there really that much skill in some of his work? Van Gogh is an apt artist to choose as an example when discussing what it is that makes art ‘good,’ as his works are amongst the highest-selling pieces in the world, and yet to look at them, some seem a little ‘rough and ready,’ for want of a better term.

So, is it popular fame that makes a piece of art ‘good’? Does something have to sell well to be ‘good’? I disagree. Van Gogh’s work, for instance, may not offer a realistic depiction of its subject, and it will never be mistaken for a photograph, and yet it never fails to move me. Van Gogh’s often daring choices of colours, distinct and bold brushstrokes and rough but beautiful style sticks in the memory.

The reason that good art is so difficult to describe is because ‘good’ is such a subjective term. ‘Good’ can be different for different people, or even for the same person under different circumstances. Often art is judged as ‘good’ if it stirs a response in the viewer, be it emotionally moving or genuinely entertaining, even enjoyable. However, something that is technically very skillful that so happens not to move a person to tears would also be ‘good,’ just under different criteria. ‘Good’ is perhaps too broad a term to define so easily.

'My Bed' by Tracey Emin, one of the most controversial pieces of art in recent years.

‘My Bed’ by Tracey Emin, one of the most controversial pieces of art in recent years.

What’s more, Vlaminck seems to be pointing out that it is difficult to know who should judge good art from bad art. There are of course official competitions and councils (for example the BP Portrait Award, taking submissions now), but why should the opinion of the general public not also be important? Surely it depends on whether the artist is aiming to please the critics or the masses. At times critical reception and popular opinion may align, whereas at others they do not, leading to there being some pieces of art that are critically acclaimed, while much of the general public doesn’t regard it as ‘good’. One such ‘Marmite’ piece that springs to mind is Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed,’ (which certainly meets the financial criteria for ‘good,’ selling last summer for a little over £2.5 million) with some seeing it as a groundbreaking display of the effects of depression in the modern world, while others just see it as an unmade bed; whether or not it is ‘good’ remains contentious.

I hope I have unpacked the term ‘good’ in relation to art a little. What I can conclude from this is that really, there is no such thing as simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in art. What it is that we like or don’t like about a piece, or respect, or remember, or are intrigued by, is not something that can be put easily into words. I think what Maurice de Vlaminck expresses here is that it is not for us to judge what someone else might find ‘good’ in a piece of work, and perhaps that we should always be sure to keep a more open mind about our definitions of art.



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