How to make a masterpiece

Faculty of Philosophy

Art is part of all our lives. But if you’ve ever tried putting paintbrush to paper, or slipped on a pair of ballet shoes, you’ll know that it’s not easy to make it.

Because most of us can draw a face, or shuffle awkwardly and call it dancing, but few of us will paint sunflowers as well as Van Gogh or tap dance like Fred Astaire. But why not? What makes good art good?

Dr James Grant, Philosophy tutor at Exeter College, is using the tools of philosophy to explore that very question.

Looking at artworks across the spectrum—from performance to sculpture to oil painting—he’s exploring what differentiates the doodles from the Dali.

“I want to see if there is an overarching theory of what features make an artwork good,” he says.

And, taking inspiration from Aristotle, he’s come up with a novel argument.

Dr Grant argues that good art exhibits “excellences”.

“Excellences” are attributes that demonstrate high levels of thought, character, and perception. Two key excellences are imaginativeness and good craftsmanship.

So if your artwork is highly creative, and includes a high level of skill, chances are it’ll be a good one.

This might all sound obvious—but Dr Grant’s theory contributes to big debates in philosophy.

He hopes to show that art is not just instrumentally valuable—valuable because it serves a purpose, like making us feel good—but intrinsically valuable—good in its own right.

“I think this provides a new argument for the intrinsic value of art,” he says.

Iwao Kobayashi | Flickr

The Sagrada Familia Cathedral

So what is an example of a good artwork that has these excellences?

“I find Chinese jade sculptures very interesting,” Dr. Grant says. “Jade is extremely hard to work with, so there’s incredible skill behind these pieces.

“Another example would be Gaudí’s architecture. Not everybody likes it, but it’s imaginative. The Sagrada Familia cathedral is a pretty dramatic manifestation of imaginative thinking.”

Dr Grant hopes that, by thinking about art in this way, we might start to appreciate beauty, and art, differently.

“Many people talk about art as if it’s valuable only because we get pleasure from it. I’m arguing that, when you appreciate and enjoy a good work of art, it’s also true that you get pleasure from it because it’s valuable,” he says.

So that’s all there is to it. If you hone your skills, and think creatively, you too could make art to rival Rembrandt. Better get practising. 

Bethany White (DPhil in History)