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What makes some art valuable enough to hang in museums? In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll look at different ways we can figure out the value of art beyond the number on the price tag, and we’ll examine how culture, society, history, and storytelling influence how we evaluate artwork.

Introduction: What Is "Good" Art? 00:00
Art & Beauty 00:57
Art & Innovation 02:09
Art & Lore: The Mona Lisa 04:27
Art Criticism 05:48
Clement Greenberg 07:26
Art & Museums 08:31
Review & Credits 10:23

Image Descriptions:


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CC Kids:
What makes an artwork good?

Like, how come Rosa Bonheur’s horse painting  made it into The Metropolitan Museum of Art,   but not the artwork I made in the third grade  that my teacher called “A great report, Sarah”? That special something that makes art  “valuable” can be pretty hard to pin down.

It can shift based on who’s  viewing it, their culture,   or the time periods that the  artist and the viewer come from. We’re constantly changing our minds  about what kind of art is “good.” And when we hone in on the different ways art  has been assigned value across time and place,   we start to get a clearer picture of why some  stuff is considered “art” and some isn’t. Including my third-grade masterpiece.

Hi! I'm Sarah Urist Green, and this  is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] You might think an artwork’s value is determined  by how much someone is willing to pay for it. But there are actually a lot of ways to slice it.

We’ll get into dollars and  cents in a later episode. Well, really just dollars, art can be expensive. For today, we’ll look at the  non-monetary aspects of art,   which are often what help us tell art apart  from all the other stuff that’s not art.

Things like its message, how it fits  into history, or how it makes us feel. I don’t feel too much about my toaster,   but I do feel a ton about this  little bird sculpture my dad made. Now these kinds of value  markers can be hard to measure.

But we can ask ourselves particular questions to  consider how the art world might value a work. Like, we can ask, “Is this beautiful?” Thinking about how notions of beauty and  taste shape art is called aesthetics. And of course, different people are  going to find different things beautiful.

But those opinions don’t exist in a vacuum:   they’re shaped by the shifting standards  and trends of their culture and time period. Take the Coyolxauhqui monolith  and Michelangelo’s David. They both were made in styles  considered beautiful at the time   and places they were created, even  though they look really different.

Sometimes, art isn’t meant to be beautiful,  but to accomplish something else entirely. In that case, we can ask ourselves  different questions like,   “Is the work innovative?” or “Does it  show something from a new perspective?” Take this photo by Dorothea Lange. It was captured in California, in 1942,  and depicts two young Japanese-American   children waiting on the bus that  will take them to an internment camp.

Lange rose to prominence in the 1930s  while photographing migrant workers   and others affected by the Great Depression. She was contracted by the U. S. government to  capture the struggles of the country’s rural poor.

It was then that she took one of her  most famous photos, “Migrant Mother.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor,  the government turned to Lange again. This time to document the forced removal  and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. This image recalls the same hardship  and struggle of Lange’s earlier work.

Two children, their faces tinged with fear,   stand in front of their parents  as they await an uncertain future. The identification tags hanging  from their collars emphasize the   humiliation and dehumanization many  Japanese Americans faced at the time. It can hardly be called beautiful,  but Lange wasn’t aiming for beauty.

She wanted her images to reflect the  reality that American citizens were facing. To invoke the same sympathy for Japanese Americans  that her earlier work had for migrant workers. But the government wasn’t happy with  the way she chose to depict the removal.

Many of Lange’s photos, including this one, were  censored and kept from public view for decades. Today Lange’s original photos are housed  in the Oakland Museum of California,   where they have been digitized and  made free for public viewing in a   presentation called “Exposing Injustice:  Incarceration of Japanese Americans.” We may tend to think about viewing  art as a pleasurable experience,   but art can also make us feel  sorrow or pain, sympathy or remorse. It isn’t simply Lange’s photos but also the   reactions they provoke that  make them artworks of value.

And sometimes, the lore that  builds up around an artwork   influences our perception of its worth as well. Let’s go to the drawing board… Recognize this lady? Yep, it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” One of the world’s most valuable artworks.

But that wasn’t always the case! In fact, for most of its life the  painting was overshadowed by da   Vinci’s other works, including “The Last Supper.” That is, until August 21st, 1911, when  thieves grabbed the painting from its   spot at the Louvre Museum in Paris and walked  out with it hidden under their clothes. They intended to bring the “Mona Lisa” back to its  Italian home —and make a few lira in the process.

It took museum staff 26 hours to even  figure out that they’d been robbed. That’s how not a big deal this painting was! But the Mona Lisa’s theft made  headlines around the world.

Its whereabouts were unknown for two years until   one of the thieves was caught trying  to sell it to a gallery in Florence. The Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre  in 1914, with the same mesmerizing expression   but a whole new reputation—now as one of  the most famous artworks in the world. If you ask me, she seems highly  amused by the whole thing.

So there are lots of factors we can consider  when trying to figure out an artwork’s value. But who ultimately gets to  decide what art is worth? Well, there’s a whole area of analysis  called art criticism where individuals   with art expertise interpret a  work and make judgments about it.

The rise of European art criticism in the  18th century had a major influence on how   art history would come to be viewed  and taught for hundreds of years. Critics of the time, like Denis Diderot and  Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne, thought art   should have moral or philosophical messages, and  they made judgments based on those standards. This of course excluded a huge amount of work  that didn’t fit the definitions they’d created.

Like, take this Korean tea bowl. It’s an exquisite art object when considered  from the perspective of Korean aesthetics. But, many European critics  at the time wouldn’t have   considered it art because of its  apparent lack of a moral message.

When it came to European art, critics  dismissed certain styles like Rococo,   which they thought was reflective of the “loose  morals” of 18th-century French aristocrats,   who the critics…didn’t like,  and they weren’t alone. Instead, the critics promoted classical art,  which they saw as serious and substantial. This led to a wave of artists creating  “new classical,” or neoclassical,   art to take advantage of  the form’s perceived value.

But like all trends, this one didn’t last. Abstract art began to emerge in the 20th century,   largely without the ethical messages of the  neoclassical era, and it was widely celebrated. This was thanks in no small part to  American art critic Clement Greenberg,   who proclaimed his own ideas of  what made “good” and “bad” art.

To him, “good” art pushed  boundaries and broke from tradition. That included abstract pieces like  this painting by Piet Mondrian,   which he considered good precisely because it  didn’t look like anything in the world around it. Nothing like it had ever existed before.

Meanwhile, to Greenberg, “bad art” was  “kitsch”—meaning tasteless and overly sentimental. “Kitsch” art was considered commercialized,  or churned out for mass appeal. Take Norman Rockwell’s 1941  painting “Freedom from Want.” Now just because Greenberg hated this kind of art,   didn’t mean that Rockwell’s  holiday scene was actually bad. In fact, it’s had pretty  significant cultural staying power.

But anyway, critics’ opinions–subjective though  they may be–have ripple effects that pave the way   for shifts in art styles, and influence how  the rest of us think about and evaluate art. So, by making judgments about the value of  art styles or particular works, art critics   influence what becomes well-known —  what gets included in art history. And that shapes broader artistic tastes,  including yours – even if you don’t realize it.

It affects what you see as normal, or weird,  or good, because it filters which art you’re   likely to have seen at all, in textbooks,  on tote bags, and, notably, in museums. It might seem like a given that “good  art” is what ends up in museums. But museum collections are based on opinions  and biases, just like our own choices.

Like, the Guggenheim Museum  in New York City started out   as Solomon R. Guggenheim’s private collection,   and now it’s one of the most celebrated  and influential art museums in the world. And there’s sometimes a gap between the  perceived value of an artwork in a museum,   and your actual experience with it.

Like, let’s return to the Mona Lisa. Its value feels huge when you consider  thirty thousand people visit it each day. But that super-high demand means you probably  only get to see it for less than a minute,   surrounded by a crush of selfie-takers.

And once you’re in there, you’ll  realize it’s only about two -and-a-half-feet tall. In some visitors’ eyes,  she’s kind of…disappointing. So, what do we do with that?

If the lore of the Mona Lisa is  what attracts us to it — but the   actual experience falls flat,  what is the painting’s value? Well, it’s two and half stars. Just kidding — I don’t know the answer.

Nobody does. That’s kind of the whole point. Whether art can be objectively judged  as good or bad is up for debate.

But no matter when or where something was created,   its cultural context can provide us  with a deeper understanding of it. Art can, of course, be valuable beyond  its price tag, fame, or critical renown. Maybe it pushes artistic boundaries, or changes  our point of view, or gets us in our feelings.

But how we evaluate art often  says more about ourselves and   our cultural and social contexts  than it does about the art itself. Unpacking all the ways we determine art’s value  gives us the knowledge we need to break down   our own barriers so that we can appreciate  art from different periods and cultures. And, when we evaluate art with an open  mind, we see that the art in our homes   and communities has value, too, even  if it isn’t hanging in the Guggenheim.

Next time, we’ll explore the different ways that   art tells stories, and how those  stories shed light on history. I’ll see you there! Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course  Art History which was filmed at the Indianapolis   Museum of Art at Newfields and was made with  the help of all these outstanding people.

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