Exploring how we can define great art

Studying art through three distinct lenses

Questions often mean more than answers.

For as long as art has existed, consumers, critics, and even artists themselves have debated what elevates great art above the rest. There may be no definitive answer, but the best works across all mediums often share commonalities.

Great art is timeless

Art is often a product of its time—frequently, the artist’s expression at a specific moment in their life. While this approach enables the artist to tap into particular emotions and circumstances, it opens the possibility of becoming dated, too.

Timelessness requires careful creative choices—something Omar El-Akkad recently accomplished with his Giller-Prize winning novel, What Strange Paradise.

Many consider it a commentary on the present-day refugee crisis, but El Akkad deliberately left locations and dates within the story unknown. This ambiguity allows the novel to serve as an exploration of the issue in the past, present, and future.

Great art is never pigeonholed by its time. It presents an idea or story that can be extrapolated across time, generations, and cultures.

Great art is boundary-pushing

It’s easy making art that fits contemporary moulds. There’s no risk in creating something for an audience that has been pre-established by others in the field.

However, to rise above the rest, great art must push boundaries and pave the way for whatever interesting thing might come next. They say life imitates art, after all.

Music undoubtedly has its trailblazers. Elvis Presley ushered in a generation of rock and roll music to the disapproval of 1950s parents. NWA infused 1990s hip hop with a fiery attitude and charisma that made them a cultural zeitgeist.

Way back in the late 1500s, William Shakespeare was writing dramatic plays unlike anything the world had ever seen before. His boundary-destroying literature is still studied today because of the doors it opened for storytellers across all artistic mediums.

Boundaries are meant to be broken. The best art is created when artists pursue their unique vision rather than finding comfort in the familiar.

Great art is a spark

We’ll likely never know what the Mona Lisa is looking at. People will debate the meaning of Citizen Kane’s ending until the world stops turning. Listeners might go the next hundred years without fully understanding what Pink Floyd meant with The Wall.

When art leaves some things to the imagination, it allows the consumer to incorporate thoughts, emotions, and experiences into the work. By doing this, the artist has provided us with a framework to think about whatever they wanted to communicate.

Great art has the power to inspire conversation. It frequently encourages people to think about what they have consumed, why it exists, and its place in society. It often has the audacity to challenge what people thought they knew about a certain topic, too.

The best artists recognize the power they hold. Their art is often a vehicle for change, serving as the spark society needs to start thinking about the world differently.

Great art doesn’t provide all the answers. Rather, it asks questions.

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