What makes a great work of art? How do you separate the best from the base? What makes an artwork worth $110.5 million such as a recent piece sold by the artist Basquiat? And what work is worthless?
This question was brought into sharp focus at this year’s Archibald Prize when Mitch Cairns portrait of his wife took out the $100,000 prize. Other well-known artists such as Tim Storrier and John Olsen harshly criticised the winner.
Carins’ work certainly wasn’t my favourite this year – though he didn’t deserve the grubbing he got.
For me, the standout works were the overlooked ones. This colossal work by Marcus Wills of Thomas M Wright was extraordinary. It reminded me of works of Saint Sebastian – a martyrdom was looming. I also loved the juxtaposition of this protagonist with domestic elements sitting meekly around him – a metaphorical bull in a china shop. This leads me to one of my key points about what makes a great work of art…
Great art tells a story
The thing about great art is it speaks to the person looking at it. It can tell a different story to different people but it needs to say something. It doesn’t have to be a great story, it doesn’t even have to be an interesting story and it doesn’t have to be what the artist is trying to say. What is important is that the artwork does something to you, makes you feel something. The story might be that there is no story it still says something.
Great art is true to the artist
What I love about Vincent Namatjira’s work is that it’s clearly his work. There’s no mistaking his style and his craft. No one is ever going to confuse his artwork for someone else’s and this is what makes great artworks great. The artist is revealing his or herself in the work. Great artwork is work that is identifiable, that carries the scars of the artist, their very being is written across it.
Great art stays with you
The final thing about great art is that it doesn’t leave you, it hangs around in your mind and you see the real world through the artist’s eyes.
Noel McKenna, who was shortlisted for the Wynne prize this year, creates moments that stay with you. They have an uncanny knack for locking in your mind and influencing the way you see the things around you, they help you reconsider everyday objects or ask you to take another look at something or someone you pass by every day. Great art gives you a new set of lenses to see the world – and that is what makes great artwork great.
Forget the popularity of the artist, forget the price tag that hangs off it. Great artwork is great because it does something to you, leaves you with more than before you saw it – and for me, that makes art priceless.