Can we define good art?

Issue section: 

Bob Light’s powerful tribute to John Berger (February SR) contained the claim, “There is no objective way to define what good art…is.” This raises interesting questions.

Clearly the merits of works of art cannot be measured in the same “objective” way as a person’s age or height. But societies (and individuals — including Berger and Light) do make aesthetic judgements and it is a mistake to imagine that these are purely subjective, individual or arbitrary.

On the contrary these judgments are the outcome of complex social processes and made on the basis of criteria that develop historically. Naturalism is one such criterion; beauty, emotional expression, social realism, originality and critique are others — with different criteria predominating at different times, for ultimately social reasons.

What Marxism is able to add to this is that good or great art powerfully reflects and responds to social relations, especially changing social relations. This is not the same as judging art by its political message because art by conservatives and reactionaries is sometimes able to yield profound insight into developing social relations (Balzac and T S Eliot are examples of this), but it is a distinctively historical materialist approach to the question.

John Molyneux