In art (music, painting, etc.), is it meaningful to say that this piece is better than this one? I can understand somebody saying "I have more feelings, I'm more touched when I listen to this song rather than this one", but we often hear "this painting is crap". What makes a professional musician opinion more valuable, for example (not talking about technique, which can --somehow-- be measured)?

  • I think you mean "measure the value of art" or "measure the quality of art." As written, that's not what the questions says. Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 16:02

6 Answers 6


There is no universal agreed upon answer, but personally I would be a little Aristotelian about it: art has a purpose, and the degree that it is fit to that purpose is the degree that it is great art.

Some would say that the purpose of art is to make our surrounding more pleasant. It is to make us feel good, so we may judge whether lots of people "like" something to determine its value. Under this definition, even a soothing wallpaper pattern or elevator music could count as art, and professional opinion is valueless compared to the aggregation of millions of "likes". Personally I think art is different from decoration, or at least great art is much more than decoration.

I have heard a definition of art that art is what the art community says is art. There are various traditions of creating art, and the artists in those traditions can evaluate what is actually part of those traditions. Professional opinion is all that counts as it takes training to evaluate how well a piece of art maintains a particular tradition or not. This is probably a gross simplification of the position, but I'm not happy with this definition, as I think there is a universal and timeless quality to art beyond what a community of artists may define it to be.

Some would suggest that the purpose of art is to embody or communicate emotions and ideas, usually in a metaphorical way that gives it a general applicability that prose does not have. When we see great art, we feel something more, or understand something more than we did before, even if we can't say what it is. It is also accessible beyond a select group of people; it tries to communicate with everyone.

Art seems to have a language all of its own, and the way that we respond to art is largely determined by the associations we have with art from a similar tradition. These associations are like the language that we have picked up by previously being exposed to art. Some art languages we seem to pick up naturally, just as we pick up our native spoken language. Some languages take more work.

In this perspective, we can evaluate art by how well it uses the art languages from the traditions it draws on, and communicates to the desired audience. That audience may be people with only basic art language comprehension, or it may be people who have spent years learning artistic languages.

Maybe great art needs to have something to offer both audiences. There is a certain genius to just communicating to people using a small vocabulary, as shown by Dr. Seuss. But it has nothing for highly literate people, so it may be a stretch to call "Fox in Socks" great literature. Likewise, I think a book that can only be read and understood by a select few is no good at communicating, so it can not be great art.

Really great art seems to have a quality that allows it to transcend the art tradition in which it is based. It is almost like even if you don't fully understand it; you just know that it has a lot to say. So in that way, we can all judge great art to some extent, but it is good to have people around that can read it properly so we know whether it is really great or whether it is really just a babbling imposter.

  • Great exposition! Let's look at related composer/music-theorist/music-critic: Expressed art has a precedent/context/willful-purpose and a given material articulation. It also has certain logical qualities that can be understood to a degree, elements of the 'language'. In music, some decided on simple harmonics ('just intonation'); some, pitch classes ('serialism'); different tones/temperaments ('xenharmonics'); others, rhythm/timbre/sliding-pitch/etc. These are the elements of the 'art language'. Regarding how one should create, 1 opinion here.
    – dwn
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 14:18
  • @Richard: Nice answer! I especially liked the part on language. I don't agree with good art requiring good communication: for e.g., as a jazz fan, my favourite pieces are not the most easy-listening, yet, they are in my opinion, of far better quality than most commercial music. dwn: Thank you for the link: interesting point of view; it would avoid much of the junk music we have today, but what about the happy and communicative part of music (e.g. when music brings big crowds to dance)? And don't forget to upvote Richard's answer if you liked it! :D
    – anderstood
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 16:44
  • 1
    @anderstood Hi, upvoted now :) I don't completely agree with that essay, so I won't really try to defend it myself, but the POV seems more coherent than would be expected. I think his response is essentially, to very poorly summarize: Counting change is not harmed by new math theorems, but expecting new theorems to be appreciated for counting change hurts math theory. If a math theorem is to make a leap forward in counting change, it must develop mostly independently. Likewise popular Western music. Got to talk to his granddaughter online - no point, but that was cool.
    – dwn
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 20:17
  • @anderstood I'm glad you liked my answer. I agree with your point about Jazz music. I actually think Jazz is wonderful at communicating to non-specialists; even the composers often had little formal training. But people have to get past their hang ups and listen properly to art they are not used to, rather than listening for 5 seconds before clicking on the "like" or "dislike" button. Good communication is not always easy-listening!
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 0:16
  • @dwn Interesting link. I personally do not think the music discussed which is only accessible to fellow professional musicians, is great art. However, what is learned from specialist-only art can be used to develop great art. I'm thinking about the development of minimalism from experiments like John Cage's 4'33" to almost mainstream with Phillip Glass and Mike Oldfield among other popular composers. So I think art is more like technology than maths. In the end it needs to be accessible and used to be truly great, though the hidden years of development are also important.
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 0:29

Given that establishing a unified, widely agreed-upon method of assessing aesthetic value is one of my own chief life projects, I can confidently state on the basis of much research that there is currently no one accepted, uncontroversial method of judging any one given piece of art as better than another. What does exist is innumerable competing theories, many of which directly contradict each other.

Part of what makes this so difficult is that not only is there a lot of disagreement about what constitutes art in the first place (let alone good art), but there is also are a significant number of artists (Duchamp, Picasso, Cage, Warhol, Hirst, etc.) who have deliberately created artworks that challenge all prior notions of what can qualify as art.

If you want to see a broad overview of what some of the theories out there are, you might try Plato (art should serve a moral purpose), Aristotle (art stimulates the emotions), Kant (art is what we prize independent of any function), Beardsley (art is an experience) and Danto (art is what we perceive within an artistic context).


For a moment, let us assume that it is possible to define certain measures on various aspects of art as implicit in the question. Call them Aspect-1, Aspect-2, Aspect-3... which have corresponding measurement range and values {M1-A, M1-B, ...}, {M2-x, M2-y, ...}, {M3-LowerValue, M3-HigherValue} etc. Once this is done, Nothing stops us going further and define an aggregate metric for ultimate qualification: Set a rule for picking from some of those aspects, assign some weights to the measurement values of them and calculate a final "value"!

Note that some of the measurement values for a dimension/aspect (like aesthetics) would be {"crap", ..., "boring","mediocre", .., "master-piece", "shiny" } as well as {-10,0, 10} or {0% - 100%}

Just some problems with such an approach:

  • What are the aspects/dimensions/attributes to qualify art exhaustively? Who decides them?

  • How to assign metrics for those qualities? Who sets the ranges?

  • How to combine (or pick from) those qualities to reach the ultimate evaluation?

  • And most importantly, why to do that in the first place?

Note that, if, for some reason, one attempts to do so, he will possibly have to go to experts on each dimension for a reasonable metrics assignment. This still leaves the first question open. To appreciate a piano piece, would you go to a composer, a pianist, or a piano maker or to your father? Or is it best to consult a music historian or recording company? If you decide to get feedback from all of them, are you looking for consensus or make an average assessment? Should they weight equal then? How can you be sure the pianist, for instance, is marking it as crap subjectively as he hated the pieces because it caused so much pain in her early training?

My answer is that you cannot measure! Further reasons would be as follows:

  • Art is not a thing to "understand". We establish unique/personal relations with each unique instance of artful creation.

  • As each art craft is unique, any measure, if there would be one, that would apply to one instance will not necessarily apply to the other as they are essentially distinct, unique entities.

-We cannot put away factors like ideology, capitalism, Hollywood-effect, etc.

-Different ages have different ways of approaching art (style, extend, subject, form etc.)

My personal experience, especially with piano music is that it all depends on the recreational potential of the relation that I establish with a piece: If it never seems to be consumable then I know it is, well, art. I don't need any other external reference for this. Actually, it does not matter if I call it art or something else let alone its degree of artfulness. I never wondered if a piece is art, or its size in any measurement system.

  • But do you consider your opinion regarding piano more valuable than that of a non-musician, or less valuable than that of Bach? If yes, it means that you used a measure doesn't it?
    – anderstood
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 4:23
  • If you define "valuable", perhaps I would be able answer :) What is your metric for valuablesness? When choosing a movie to watch or read a book, sometimes I refer to critique sites. I do this for a number of reasons. Too many books or movies that I have no time to get them all. This is a practical issue. Second, especially after I watch/read, it is great to know what others (commenting ordinary people like me) say about what I have already done with. Remember also that Bach never was appreciated enough at his time:
    – mami
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 4:31

Yes, there are many ways to measure the relative merits of two pieces of art against each other. The short answer is that it depends on what you want to measure art by. Do you want to measure it by technical proficiency, beauty or popularity (which may include how much someone is willing to pay for it)? Some of the most common tests are

  1. Does the artwork show that the artist has mastered the technique he employed?
  2. How intricate or technically difficult was the artwork to produce?
  3. If the artwork was meant to elicit a specific response in the viewer/listener, how well did it succeed in doing so? This is probably the one you are after. E.g. is the song catchy and nice to listen to? Is the painting awe-inspiring? Does it make people talk? Does it cause a lot of controversy (aka "lively debate")?
  4. If an artist tried to create a piece of art reminiscent of a certain movement or period, how many times did he fail to stick to the movement/period? I.e. how "pure" is it?

I personally define art as any attempt to be understood. The value of art -- I suppose, the quality -- may be some function of

  1. The value of what is to be understood, whether it is a lesson, emotion, or bare fact.
  2. Its effectiveness in being understood by its intended audience. This is a tough one, in that I certainly appreciate a lot of music that I can't say I fully understand -- but perhaps the intent was for me to understand an emotion, or the effect of a certain sound or technique... Perhaps there were many intentions, and I have appreciated some but not others. I also know that much great art is written so that it will be misunderstood -- see "The Road Not Taken," or the passage with the "must haves" in "The Great Gatsby." I don't want to say that the quality of the art is a function of its impact, or how much its audience appreciates it. But I'm relatively satisfied with the way I've phrased this -- "its effectiveness in being understood by its intended audience."
  3. The uniqueness of that effort -- if I can have an audience understand a message that it could not otherwise easily understand, I may have accomplished something greater than if I had reiterated a thought that my audience already understood.
  4. Other factors. I really don't know. I think it's subjective at the end of the day, but if it's a function, it certainly isn't this simple.

Damnable as it is, measuring the quality of anything a tediously audacious task to undertake.

Picasso's lines are considered "genius", while a toddler's fingers painting is seen a childish scribbling. Evey aspect of our human existence is a measurement of some type. Art is special in its formless until seen as such relevance to anyone who may take the time to comment on what they experience due to it's presence.

We are limited emotionally in this endeavor because we are still trying to find out the" why "of our" how ". I like classical music. I don't strain my senses with over interpreting which conductor or sympathy orchestra plays it more to my liking.

There is art in the form of a tornado. Watch it's entanglements become a moving a powerful work of destructive awe, and you have a measurement. You see either it's beauty or its terror. In any conclusion, we measure its affect upon us as an individual.

Glass blowing is a craft which yields a magnificent stay of artistically frozen moments of the artist's brilliance. But not in the opinion of every viewer. Some look, it done do not, subjection to one's own acceptance or free rejection for whatever reason, is why anything can be called " art "in the first place.

Rain falls, we hear it, and yet we pass it up as a function. Someone else may hear a pattern and a musical composition based upon what they have heard. Art; or nonsense?

Measurements require determinant thought. This site demands thinking or it demands dismissal. Someone who is reading this post, will disagree and see it as total gibberish. Still online else, will see it as a pathway to develop their own opinion.

I don't know if I've contributed anything which will be accepted as being cognizant, but this is measurement. Processed thinking upon a subject. Hopefully, we can arrive at the actual truth, rather than more questions. Like art; the Mona Lisa is beauteous to many, while hideous to still many others.

Mozart is noise to some, while it represent genius mind and form to many other people.

Still, further goes the search.

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