by Seyhr Qayum

One of the questions that artists get asked by non-artists with incredible frequency, is how can you tell if a certain work of art is “any good”? How do you know if a painting or sculpture is successful? Are there any tell-tale signs that viewers and potential buyers should look out for?

Unfortunately, for non-artists (and artists too, pretty often) there’s no “Dummy’s Guide to Figuring Out if a Painting is an Epic Disaster.” There are no guidelines for evaluating contemporary art – and it’s for this reason that working as an artist can be such a hit-or-miss endeavor – you can’t ever really know if you’re doing the right thing. This also means that when the average person buys a work of art by an emerging artist – an artist whose name itself does not inspire any “oohs and ahhs” just yet - for investment purposes, he or she cannot know with any certainty if they’re buying the “right” painting - something that will have substantial resale value in the future, or something that is worth the money.

Understanding and evaluating art is a purely subjective experience, and cliché as it is, beauty (or an unholy mess) lies in the eye of the beholder (or in the size of said beholder’s wallet). However there are certain flexible conditions that can be considered when deciding whether or not you personally think a work of art is working, irrespective of popular opinion and critical reviews. While it’s often useful to take the opinions of critics into account, as they can often determine whether or not a painting by an unestablished name will have any real resale value (simply because critics influence the general perspective of the art world to a tremendous degree), I advise figuring out for yourself if it’s worth the investment. And if you’re not buying it for investment purposes and are buying art for yourself - to brighten up your walls and potentially your life - a large part of it predominantly comes down to whether or not you have it in you to wake up every morning and look at the same painting, without wanting to throw it out of the window.

On behalf of artists worldwide though, I implore you to not buy art based on what does or does not go with your sofa or curtains – that is an invalid criteria, and while it may be important, it is in fact possible to find art that complements your house or office’s interior, while also meaning something to you personally.
And that is broadly how to determine whether or not a work of art is working for you; you have to look at it and really ask yourself if it means anything to you? Is it eliciting an emotional response from you? A successful work of art will always stir something inside you – it’ll make you feel something, or it’ll function as a portal that transports you to another time or place. It’ll give rise to a bout of nostalgia, or make you consider the future from a different angle. You will never be able to walk by a truly successful work of art and forget about it, or dismiss it as something insignificant.

Art should not feel stale, it should not appear to be trying too hard to imitate an artistic style. It should be fresh and authentic. It shouldn’t remind you of a touristy poster, or of an image that is trying to create a certain feel – it should unabashedly be, not try to be.

Even a negative emotional response is a good sign – it means that the work of art has managed to spark a feeling in you – it has somehow managed to move you. Not to say that a painting or sculpture is “working” if it mildly irritates you because for instance, it embodies the “stale” characteristic I mentioned earlier. It means that if you see a work of art and it repulses you, shocks you or scares the living daylights out of you, it’s probably a successful painting. It means that the artist managed to communicate with you emotionally without having said or written a single word. And you have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. I wouldn’t however, recommend procuring anything that repulses you too much – I have a sneaking suspicion there’s bad karma buried somewhere in an investment like that. As I said, it’s important to buy art that you can imagine yourself looking at, and enjoying looking at, for a significant number of years.

Buying art for office spaces is a different ballgame however, and deciding whether or not art works for your business is trickier than deciding what you’d occasionally like to look at while sipping your morning tea. The artwork you put up in your office must reinforce your company’s brand, though in more indirect fashion than your other corporate branding elements. It should create the feeling of having been bought or installed simply because of its ability to enhance your office interior’s aesthetic appeal – because it’s a beautiful work of art – and not because it subtly drives home your company’s objectives or mission statement, which is exactly why it’s there in the first place. Art in most corporate buildings and hotels is therefore apolitical. The paintings and sculptures should not align you or your company with any one cause or belief system, for any such alignment is automatically excluding and may inadvertently offend a potential or existing client.

If you run a tech-savvy, cutting-edge software company, you probably wouldn’t want to adorn your walls with dated landscapes. It’d be better to put up abstract paintings with bold colors and clean lines. If you run a bank, it’d be smart to put up abstract paintings as well, but maybe something less risky, less alternative, less edgy (unless of course, you’re running an alternative, edgy, risky bank and your mission statement promotes taking chances). If your bank is more conservative, more “establishment” however, you might want to put up more reserved, abstract paintings that don’t immediately demand attention.
Similarly, hotels should put up images that are soothing and even more removed from politics than the work that goes up anywhere else, as their clientele is usually vaster than the average business’. Even if you’re running a “hip-hotel,” you’d probably want artwork that is contemporary but entirely free from conceptual, political alignment. In Pakistan, owing to different religious and cultural beliefs, it’s probably better to put up artwork that does not have any figures in it, or figurative elements. In some cases, images of nature might work, and in some, it may be best to avoid any sort of representation altogether, and stick to abstracts.

These are general ideas to keep in mind when deciding what might work for you, and whether you think a work of art is working at all. The entire process however is so subjective and open to personal interpretation, which in itself is fueled by years of socio-economic, political conditioning, that there’s no “right” or “wrong” option. For all anybody knows, a seemingly stale or kitsch painting resonates with somebody on a profound emotional level, and therefore might be worth the investment. Since the parameters however of what constitutes art and what doesn’t have been relaxed to such an extraordinary degree over the years, there’s no assured way of objectively determining whether something is good or bad. When deciding whether or not a painting or sculpture, or another form of art is worth the investment, a good place to start is to ask yourself whether or not it makes you feel anything. And if so, what is that feeling? Is it one you can see yourself living with for a substantial period of time?

What is important to remember though is that there are two questions you should refrain from asking yourself while deciding whether or not to buy a work of art: “Does this painting have ALL three colors that my sofa’s upholstery has?” and “What would the Joneses (and in Pakistan’s case, the Khans) think if they saw this?”