I apologise in advance for this re-hashing of the tired old debate on the meaning, nature and purpose of art. But it's a dirty job that someone's gotta do, so it might as well be me. I don't know much about art, but I know what I like! ;-)
Like beauty, art is said to be in the eye of the beholder. That's another way of saying there are no absolute criteria for judging art*. Art-consumers make aesthetic judgments according to their individual, subjective tastes.
So are there any valid, objective ways to measure, assess and compare the relative aesthetic merits of works of art? And if there are, are those ways productive?
One way to at least make a start is in terms of craftsmanship --- expertise in applying tools and techniques to achieve specific and measurable outcomes. It's entirely valid, possible and meaningful, for instance, to measure proficiency in applying the "vanishing point" technique for achieving realistic depth-perspective. Or the chiaroscuro technique for creating a realistic sense of three dimensional volume in a two dimensional painting or drawing.
Craftsmanship is the only one left standing when other methodologies have been sacrificed on the altar of subjectivity. Let's look at those others.
How about emotional intensity --- the extent to which one is "moved" by the art? Many people would be "moved" to tears by an artwork depicting a suffering person or animal. But that doesn't make a painting of a starving dog a great work of art. Nor does it rule out the opposite possibility. After all, Bacon's paintings of rotting flesh are deemed to be great art.
Symmetry? Dis-symmetry is no more or less "artworthy" than symmetry. In fact, dis-symmetry can be highly effective in capturing peoples' attention.
Balance? An unbalanced composition can be more dynamic, more fraught with emotional drama, than a balanced composition.
Artworks in which mathematical relationships (eg phi, the "golden ratio") are used in the composition are no more or less inherently aesthetically compulsive or dynamic than artworks with broken symmetries, failed relationships, unbalanced contexts.
Many colours, few colours, complexity, simplicity, realism, surrealism, high contrast, low contrast --- are there in fact any qualities that can help establish valid metrics for assessing art?
"Beauty" doesn't do it: nobody can tell me what beauty is. As far as I can tell, all attempts lead to an infinite regress: great art is characterised by beauty; beauty is characterized by ... (and so on and so forth). In any case, ugliness can be beautiful, or at least not be disqualified from being art. (These days "ugly" is the new beauty!)
Picasso's Guernica (above), for example, is said to be great art by those who claim to know. Is it beautiful? You tell me.
Similar remarks apply to the works (below) of Salvador Dali and Goya. Not to mention Bosch, Breugel and Bacon --- and those are just some of the bees --- among innumerable practitioners of "dark" art (if not the dark arts!)
Nor are we talking only about the visual arts. In music, for instance, a syncopated rhythm is not fundamentally "better" or "worse" or aesthetically more pleasing than non-syncopated rhythm. Chord progressions that are enjoyed by some people are experienced as unimaginative and boring by others.
Harmony is not aesthetically "better" than disharmony. On the contrary, disharmony can be used as a technique to showcase harmony, by virtue of the contrast.
(In fact many if not all qualities can be depicted in terms of the lack of their opposite, eg hate as a lack of love, darkness as a lack of light, etc.)
It's not easy to measure and assess something that doesn't exist. But at least the "craftsmanship" angle opens by just a wee crack the door leading to the room where valid comparisons of artworks to each other can be made. Compare, for example, the drawings of Albrecht Durer with the drawings of a child (excluding the child of Mr and Mrs Durer, or of Mr and Mrs da Vinci, or of a few other parents you'd never know about except through their children.)
The child's art may possess many wonderful attributes --- the art may be colourful, uninhibited, full of emotion, unrestrained by convention, feature unusual perspective, involve innovative use of materials, etc --- but notwithstanding all of that, the Durer would almost inevitably feature superior craftsmanship, draughtsmanship to be specific. Does that make it "better" art? No. But a high level of craftsmanship makes it easier to "engage" with the art. Craftsmanship can facilitate the uptake of aesthetic meaning, or be an obstacle, an impediment to that uptake.
Dance is another art in which craftsmanship plays a critical role. Anyone can jump up and down and fling zir arms around roughly in time with the music. But those who claim to know would not consider the dance-works at a suburban 21st birthday party to be aesthetically in the same universe as classical ballet. (Dance is a bad example, though: the creator/choreographer is (mainly) the creative artist; the dancer (mainly) the interpretative artist.)
Where is the craftsmanship in an unmade bed? Tracy Emin's "installation" artwork comprising her unmade dirty bed with used condoms and blood-stained underwear took out some major art prize or other in the UK, but I couldn't be bothered to look it up. It's a big and famous one.
Where is the craftsmanship in a pile of bricks, a dead cow suspended in a bag of formalin, an icon of the virgin Mary in a bath of urine? Where is the craftsmanship in a totally white canvas, a totally black canvas, a piece of "music" comprising total silence for two hours, etc? All of the preceding are actual, real examples of creations designated as art by those who claim to know. And all those creations have been treated as art (ie been shown in galleries, sold to wealthy but stupid patrons, written about by so-called "critics" in dire need of lobotomies, etc ).
Of course, I realise that this whole craftsmanship angle is a cop-out. Good craftsmanship does not necessarily mean good art. But bad craftsmanship can make potentially good art bad, if the craftsmanship or rather lack of it prevents the art-consumer from engaging effectively with the art. Being able to lay bricks doesn't make a good architect, though it probably helps. According to those who claim to know, Beethoven wrote his best music when he was totally deaf. (And if you ask what "best music" means, good luck getting a decent answer.)
So I think that for all its limitations as a metric for aesthetics, craftsmanship may at least provide a starting point for a more productive debate on the meaning and nature and purpose of art.
* Recently I read about a theory in which a supposed aesthetic preference for deep perspectives and open landscapes can be traced back to those ancient days when we needed to see predators and other humans coming for us from a long way away on the African plains. I think there's a lot of work to be done in identifying and analysing the evolutionary advantages of specific bits of human behaviour and culture. It goes without saying that you'd want to be selective, naturally --- it's a big field, evolutionary aesthetics. Survival of the prettiest you might say. If you were a total ....head.