What is a Great Work of Art?

In my art class, I employ a system of art valuation based on five criteria, here mentioned in order of importance: CONCEPT, COMPOSITION, DRAWING, COLOR and TECHNIQUE. This system is derived from the book “Great Works of Art and What Makes Them Great” by American sculptor Frederick W. Ruckstull. Ruckstull’s “standard of measurements” consists of six criteria, which he calls “elements”, the third of which is EXPRESSION. This particular element is, in my opinion, too vague an evaluator and even redundant, since the aim of any artistic execution is, in fact, to be expressive. The author himself mentions that “the highest standard of art valuation is Power of Expression”. The other five, when used skillfully and creatively by an artist, can indeed make a work of high expressive value, which in turn, determines its greatness, whether this artwork is famous or not. In other words, a great work of art can come from any artist, regardless of fame and recognition.

Every time one of the student’s painting is finished, we freely discuss how each of the five criteria has been particularly met for that work and suggest ways of improvement. Some interesting ideas emerge in these discussions, especially when it comes to CONCEPT, the most important standard of measurement. Briefly, concept is the idea behind the creation of a work of art, and its of paramount importance in achieving the most powerful expression. Michelangelo’s conceptualization of the “Creation of Man” in the Sistine Chapel and Leonardo’s conceptualization of the “Last Supper” in Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan make these pictures surpass all other renditions of the same subjects, before or afterwards.

The second standard of measurement, COMPOSITION, is also of supreme importance. It involves not only the correct arrangement of lines, shapes and values, but also the selection beforehand of what is relevant for the concept to be rightfully expressed. These first two criteria, CONCEPT and COMPOSITION are the intellectual elements in the system, in other words, they happen in the mind of the artist before the work itself has begun.

DRAWING, COLOR and TECHNIQUE are the craft elements that all artists should master in order to create good art. Though not crucial in making a particular artwork “great”, they are very important, in much the same way that a furniture maker must be able to use his tools with dexterity to create a functional chair, whether a plain or a beautifully designed one. A beautifully conceived image rendered ugly is so pitiful, yet we see it so often these days.

For students seeking to understand and learn the best practices for representational art, the “standard of measurements” can be of great benefit, as it provides a broad and precise framework to guide the artist in the creation and execution of a work of art. .

My students can freely and honestly use the “standard of measurements” in judging my own work. In fact, it’s fun and I value their input.

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