Art Quality — Discerning Excellence in a Fast Food World

Art Quality: Café de Flore
I have spent many hours at coffee houses, contemplating art quality, writing my next book, or designing a new video. Photo: Café de Flore by Arnaud 25 (PD) via Wikipedia.org

Art quality is something that has concerned me since 1953. That’s when I first started drawing with an eye at capturing the feeling and detail of my subject. I was 3 years old.

Being married comes with some interesting responsibilities that touch on this “art quality” topic. One of those responsibilities is going with the wife when she tries on clothes.

“How’s this one?” she may ask.

“That’s nice,” I reply.

“Really?”

Of course, I’m being honest. There are many qualities about what she is currently wearing that are truly “nice.” Perhaps the color is pleasant. Perhaps the neckline has an interesting swoop to it. But most of what she tries on is only “nice.”

Then, she tries on a dress that seems to have been made in heaven. Everything about it works—the cut, the design, the material, the color.

“Wow!” I say, and feel goosebumps all over. It’s as if something clicks into place and all the planets align. The dress is not necessarily explicitly sexy. It can be that, but the true “wow” factor is in the degree of quality the artist added to their masterpiece. The difference between, “that’s nice,” and “wow,” involves this nebulous feature called “art quality.”

I’m no fashion designer, but I can recognize when a dress is either “nice” or “wow.” Certainly, personal tastes are involved, but beyond individual preferences, there is an underlying level of art quality that sets one piece above the others.

Using Art Quality to Select Music

One of my current projects involves producing a short documentary on global warming, called “Thermophobia: Fear of Warmth.” The video requires a few serious pieces of background music, but my favorite is decidedly happy.

Two of my preferred sources for royalty free music are Kevin MacLeod (http://incompetech.com), and YouTube’s “Free Music” audio library. I have listened to hours of music, searching for the right kind of pieces for my video productions. Many works seem to fall flat or are too repetitive and miss opportunities for exciting change-ups. Many pieces are “nice,” but don’t take me somewhere exciting and new.

What we like as individuals may vary quite a bit, because of our singular, and very different backgrounds. Personally, I can’t stand most Hip Hop, but there have been a few, rare pieces that combined rhythm and melody in a way that produced a full “Wow” effect in me. Most country and western is the same way, but when I hear Willie Nelson singing, “On the Road Again,” I feel like moving with the melody.

A true work of art has enough of the structure with which we are familiar to reach us. It contains some patterns from nature that we recognize, perhaps not consciously. It communicates to us on a deeply visceral level. It has interesting textures and contrasts, whether it is a painting or a piece of music. It has enough variety in its patterns to keep us entertained. For instance, a song can have different sections, including a chorus. By having some repetition in form and texture, we have the piece as a whole maintain a degree of integrity. All the parts fit together snugly. But the repetition can get boring if everything about each iteration is the same each time. Subtle differences can make the repetition take on new levels of energy. This is one of the things I liked about Boléro by Ravel when I first heard it.

Art Quality: Coffee stains are symbols of this quest
Coffee stains are one of the badges of honor for time spent tracking down art quality. Texture: Coffee Stained Paper 905211 by Taukast via Morguefile.com. Photo: Café de Flore by Arnaud 25 (PD) via Wikipedia.org

Many of the pieces of music to which I listen frustrate me. Why? Because they start out with a good theme, a melody or texture that shows promise, but then they beat it to death with mindless and flat repetition. Groan! Frequently, I feel a strong urge to learn music, to take their composition and do it the way I want it done—to show off their theme in a way that elicits the “wow” I’m looking for. Maybe next lifetime. I’m still enjoying my current art forms—video and writing.

By looking at these distinctions and discriminating between them, I’m learning more about my own art. I’m learning to become more patient, yet demanding of myself. I’m starting to see a deeper level of possibilities I have yet to explore.

Let me give you an example of this art quality dimension.

First is a piece of music which sounds nice. It’s listed on YouTube as “Mood: Happy.” It’s called “Coffee Stains,” by Riot. I like it. They do some interesting change-ups, keep the texture varied, and start with a simple, yet compelling idea. By the end of the piece, though, I’m tired of it. I might find a place for it, but I’m in no hurry.

“Coffee Stains” by Riot

Art Quality: Gemini robots
You can find art quality even in the design of a robot. Gemini symbol: SeLarin (CC BY-SA 3.0). Photo of Robot Pair: JosepPAL (CC BY-SA 3.0). Both via Wikipedia.org.

Next is a piece which grabbed me immediately, the first time I heard it. It sucked me in and kept me enthralled all the way through. Though I’ve listened to this one piece of music several dozen times already—and I can get tired of it—I find myself waking up in the morning hungering for another listen. This really is “wow” stuff. Now, it may not strike you as particularly “wow,” especially if you don’t like this kind of music. That’s an individual thing. But listen for the sparkles and highlights. Feel the driving vigor underlying the entire composition. Savor the warmth of the human voice added almost as if it were a bonus instrument. The textures are light, perky and energetic. The piece is called “Gemini Robot,” by Bird Creek. See if you can tell the difference between the “nice” of “Coffee Stains” and the “wow” of “Gemini Robot.”

“Gemini Robot” by Bird Creek

One of my all-time favorites of any genre is “Air” by Johann Sebastian Bach for its simplicity, elegance and purity. I always listen to it when I need a powerfully calming influence that inspires and uplifts.

Do you have a favorite piece of art that gives you that “wow” because of its art quality? I’m talking about any piece of art—paintings, sculpture, movies, music, whatever. If you can, give me your top three “wow” pieces. Describe why they wow you.

This article was originally published 2015:1030 on RodMartinJr.com.

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