How Do You Define Good Art?

How do you define good art? For me it’s quite simple. Occasionally I will look at a piece of art and I get a physical reaction. My heart speeds up, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I get a flutter deep in the pit of my stomach. It’s not a learned response to something,  it’s an instant reaction to something that moves me.

I was lucky enough to have this experience today. Inverleith House within the grounds of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh has an exhibition of work by  Irish born artist William McKeown (1962-2011). McKeown had been living in Edinburgh until his death last year. The Royal Botanic Gardens was a place he frequented and Inverleith House he saw as an ideal place to show art due to the beautiful proportions of the Georgian building and the quality of natural light that floods into the gallery space.

William McKeown said “there are two types of art – open and closed. All closed art is negative and anti life. Art which is open accepts without judgement, is expanding, positive and life enhancing”. McKeown 2002

This exhibition is certainly “open art” and definitely “life enhancing”. I was quite literally rooted to the floor as my gaze fell into his canvases. Blocks of colour dreamily fuse across the canvases but at the same time pulsate with positive, joyful energy.

I was interested to note he has painted a dark border around each work. The borders are dark and executed in a single confident brush stroke. They seem to halt any leakage of colour from the canvases and act as a boundary or fence to hold the intensity of colour inside the painting itself. The effect concentrates the image and allows each painting to become a portal to a stunning landscape. The borders surprised me though because McKeown is renowned for looking closely at  air and light and open infinite spaces. The borders define the painting but also strangely lead you into the infinite space contained within the painting itself. So important are the borders that they act as a way of taking the viewer on a private and personal journey into the painting rather than a shared experience with the rest of the gallery. I have however, no idea if that’s what he intended.

Agnes Martin paintings have a very similar effect on me, a sensation I wrote about here.  Strangely enough, Inverleith House are also showing a rare film by Agnes Martin alongside the McKeown exhibition.

I think the other ‘requirement’ of good art is that it should inspire creation. On return from the exhibition, I looked at some photographs I had taken which I had stored in an ‘unsuccessful’ folder. They were unsuccessful because there was little focal interest. However, thinking more about air and space, I looked at them again and saw them in a completely different light. I started looking at the air and space in the image rather than the objects. I have now turned my unsuccessful photos into new images of fused colours.

I only discovered William McKeown’s work today and I really wish I had been aware of it before. I would have really liked to have met the artist and as he lived here in Edinburgh, I probably could have. However, he has left us with a collection of open and positive paintings to dream over – it’s a not to be missed exhibition.

The show is on until 8th July 2012 at Inverleith House, Edinburgh.

20 thoughts on “How Do You Define Good Art?

  1. Completely love your colour palette photos, think they work really well.

    The paintings are very Rothko. I’ve always been interested by the slightly-stuffy Rothko quotes:

    “I’m not an abstractionist… I’m not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else.”


    “If you… are moved only by the color relationships, then you miss the point.”

    And I come to the conclusion that it IS the colour relationships I’m moved by – though I’m not exactly sure how. Maybe I’m just a poor art critic…

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. I have not heard of this artist before so thanks for sharing, and yes I agree it’s all about colour, and I also like space in a piece of work. Also I love Agnes Martin I was quite inspired by her when I was on my degree 🙂


    • You nailed it for me, thank you. Yes, space is such an important part of a painting for me too, thanks for pointing that out.
      OOOh, Agnes Martin is my all time favourite artist. Have you watched the interview she gave on u tube shortly before she died, it’s fantastic? I also adore John McCracken’s work, do you like his too?


  3. For me good works are something like ones with which I fall in love. Maybe my instinct responds instantly.
    All you showed here are magnificent images.
    Your photos are graceful and have delicate beauty. I love them.
    Thanks for sharing this.


  4. A fun post to read…I love how you first describe how to define good art. It should move you and every piece moves someone (even if it is just the artist) but not every person is touched by every piece 🙂 It makes art have infinite possibilities…

    I enjoyed your thoughts on the black border as well…very interesting.


    • You are so right Lilly Sue! It could just move the artist, I hadn’t thought of that.
      I too love the way we all respond differently. I met an older man wondering around the exhibition yesterday muttering about how he did not like the work at all. I got chatting to him and of course we liked very different things, and that’s all fine, healthy in fact and makes for a far more interesting world.
      Thanks for your comment 🙂


  5. I know when a painting speaks to me because it makes my eyes happy. I know, sounds corny, but I don’t know how else to explain it! I just commissioned a painting by an artist here in Ottawa. Her first incarnation was pretty, but after she tweaked it a bit, I just went AAAAHHHHH! YES! (If you’d like to see it, I blogged about it here:

    I love your take on the dark border around the paintings. I guess it doesn’t really matter what the artist intended, it’s how YOU interpret it that makes your view of the paintings unique 🙂

    I love your photographs-turned-fused colour. So creative, and it really gives the photos a very graphic & artistic look & feel 🙂


  6. I know exactly what you mean about ‘happy eyes’ and its often an instant reaction too. Its really fascinating thinking about why something be it visual like a painting or music can trigger this reaction in us. I love the way we all respond differently too.
    Thanks also for the compliment on my photos, really appreciated 🙂


  7. I’ve learned so much reading this post AND reading the comments. You have very clever readers (me not included). I can’t believe these photos you have ‘palette-ised’ were in your ‘unsuccessful’ folder as they are gorgeous. Your eye is fantastic too.

    Another exhibit to not miss!


  8. Thank you Kellie, you are way too kind, but I love it!
    Yes, I agree, the comments have been really interesting for me too. Connecting with all those informed and talented people is exactly why blogging is so worthwhile.


  9. I studied with William in 1986-1987 at Glasgow School of Art, doing the MA Design course. I have never forgotten his energy, quick mind and wicked sense of humour.


    • Wow, what a great legacy to leave with his students. Really lovely to read this comment although it does not surprise me at all. I never met him and only recently discovered his stunning art but I can see from his paintings how much energy he had. Thank you so much for leaving the comment.


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