"The Mismeasure Of Greatness In Art." What artistic success is, and what does nature have to do with it?

Were Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso truly great artists?
We hear 'great' used all the time when describing the work, talents and contributions of artists of all disciplines. Greatness is also used to describe scientific and sports achievements. From politicians to spiritual leaders the word great is tossed around as if it actually exists or can be attained. History records the achievements of artists, thinkers and people of all walks of life. Cultural preferences, standards and progress, recognize the importance of the contributions made by these people to their society and the world. But were these people and artists truly great? 

We know what the definition of great is, but the word is loaded with personal preferences, emotional states and cultural bias. The word great belongs along side words such as 'beauty'. We have a sense of what it is to us, but does beauty really exist? Exceptional, outstanding, extraordinary, amazing, superb, and great are words that describe degrees of appreciation. He was a great leader, she was a great humanitarian, they were great artists. All describe people that were highly appreciated for their contributions. While the merits of ones contributions can be appreciated, they can also be disputed by others in the same society, which is often the case. 

In nature you don't find the equivalent of the human word great, but appreciation and aesthetic preference does exist. In fact aesthetic preference and appreciation in humans evolved from our animal ancestors. Bees and humming birds have evolved an aesthetic preference for certain types of flowers. Does the bee appreciate a flower? Perhaps, but when a female bird of paradise watches attentively to the performances and costumes the male birds are adorned with, she is using her aesthetic judgment, her senses and perhaps her feelings to choose the male that she likes the most. Sexual selection alone can not explain her aesthetic choice. The pecking order is not in play here. The strongest toughest male bird doesn't get to mate with all the females, as is the case in animals such as lions, gorillas, wolves etc… She has to choose from males with slightly different songs, and slightly different dance steps, and slightly different arrangements and colors of plumage. She is the art critic walking into a gallery and looking at visual art, hearing music and judging performance. She chooses one male bird based on her personal aesthetic preference and her choice is what she appreciates. Was this male bird great? Perhaps in her eyes. The same goes for the other females who have chosen the other males. In nature greatness does not apply. The use of artistic visuals, creative behavior, and the merits ascribed to them are absorbed by each species and nature as a whole. Billions of years later, aesthetic preference and appreciation in animals has evolved into a highly personal emotional response in humans, ultimately leading to the use of words like greatness to describe this highly personal appreciation. 

The western artistic culture known and described by many as the artworld, a name coined by American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, recognizes it's own artistic superstars. Western art history and culture have recorded and embraced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pablo Picasso as great artists. Famous artists in the present western art culture, like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Ai Weiwei, have certainly made their impact and contributions, but time has yet to label their contributions  as great. Western artistic culture measures the success of artists in much the same way its aesthetic preferences are formed. The aesthetic preference and appreciation of a culture is largely formed by the impact artists have had on that society and the exposure artists have managed to inflict on that society. Popularity, fame and wealth for these artist has nothing to do with personal artistic success. It has to do with the amount of exposure inflicted on the masses or the economic stimulus involved in attaining that exposure. Achieving true artistic success is subject to the intentions of each artist. Artistic success for an artist can only be measured by the desire and personal definition of what success means to each artist. Every generation and time period in history has had successful artists that did well and made art within their own parameters of success, as well as in the broader cultural parameter. Not all became famous or were labeled great, but nevertheless they managed to make their contribution to their society and to the world, regardless of how small or insignificant.  

The problem with labeling artworks or artists great, is that you trivialize the contributions of all the other artists that exist and have existed in the real world. Aesthetic preference and appreciation is highly personal and no one can truly confirm greatness even if the majority agrees. Everybody is a critic, like the female bird of paradise we all have individual aesthetic preferences. If a society defines artistic success and greatness, then it dictates its preference upon young aspiring artists, and severely limits their potential for creative growth. Greatness is only a word used to describe appreciation for artists and their art, it cannot measure the real impact artists and their art have on the world. Each artist makes their own contribution, and influences their own people. Times that by millions of artists throughout the world, and the impact upon the world is truly what is to be appreciated.  

The artworld does not exist. Art in the world exists as various artistic cultures, markets and industries, all co-existing. Each making their own contributions to humanity. What is great for some, is decadence for others, what is beautiful for some, is inappropriate for others. I may consider Picasso great, and Guernica a great painting, but this is based on the impact they have made upon myself and the western society in which I was raised. What is aesthetically great for one society or culture doesn't automatically make it great outside of the context. Consider a remote African village. Their aesthetic preference's have been formed based on the history and impact their art has had on their society. A young aspiring artist in that village may not consider the Mona Lisa a great artwork, or view the Sistine chapel with the same awe that a young aspiring western artist would. What we learn from the female bird of paradise is that the art of survival is at play. Aesthetic appreciation evolves as life unfolds and has a direct influences on the survival of all species. Humans are no different. We all appreciate artists and art, but greatness is in the mind of the beholder. What art and people contribute to a society merits the appreciation they will receive. 

By David Yanez

Digital Image:
Copyright David Yanez 9-15-12