What Decides Good Art?

Art has always been, of course, a little subjective. But it has always been a debate as to where the subjectivity ends and the objectivity begins. Could we figure out what makes an objectively good artwork?

First of all, let’s get some theory out of the way. Most of you already know this, but there is heavy variation on the rating of any given artwork. In other words, for a single movie you probably got a lot of people rating it one star, a lot of people rating it five stars, and a lot of people somewhere in between. This is pretty different in comparison to other “products” like cellphones or cars — usually they are either good or bad. The only other case we see this in is taste (so food, drink, etc.).

But what’s interesting is that it’s not entirely variable, and we can tell that’s true because ratings are not uniform. You can look at the iMDB top 250 and bottom 250 to see this for yourself. So the question becomes… what factors contribute to some work being “objectively” better than others?


Effort is, of course, the big thing that comes to mind. And this certainly explains away the bottom portion of this list — most of the “worst” works are just ones that barely any work was spared on. So if you’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into a project, you’re already off to a good start.

Still, it’s not a satisfying answer if we want to explain the top bracket results. There are plenty of works out there that a lot of work was put into, and they ended up… mediocre. So we have to keep looking.


When you look at the stuff that is high effort but still on the mere “okay” end of the spectrum, it’s usually because its trite and has been done before. And so it makes sense that the content that is both a) high effort and b) innovative or otherwise unique in some way. When we compare the dataset to these credentials, we start getting a lot closer to the art universally deemed as good. And, sure enough, most traditional definitions of “objective quality” are just some combination of effort and uniqueness. But I think we can go further on two other fronts.


Hard work is one thing. It is usually correlated with high quality, but not necessary the causal factor in high quality. In reality, those with low skill and high effort can end up making purely mediocre work, while those with high skill and low effort can make something decently good. And, of course, high skill and high effort make for the best overall content. So I think skill is involved here as well, but I also think it is distinct enough from effort that we can fit it into its own category.


So if skill connects with the effort side, luck connects with uniqueness. Regardless of skill and effort levels, unique content can end up having some very averse consequences depending on where it lands in history. Take Heaven’s Gate, for instance, a film which was once treated as a self-indulgent disaster and has later been reconsidered as an epic masterpiece. For the inverse of this, look at The Birth of a Nation, a film once treated as an epic masterpiece and has later been reconsidered as… blatantly racist. You, of course, cannot tell how your work is going to be treated decades after it is released. You never know if people are going to “get it”. You might see bits and pieces here and there — for example, there were Heaven’s Gate’s fans at launch, and people back in the 1910s who were condemning Birth of a Nation — but you never know when that group will tip one way or another.

So then, what defines objective good art? A mix of effort and uniqueness for sure, but also with a bit of skill and perhaps a dash of luck mixed in.

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