The Power of Good and Bad Art


There are some instances where great art has changed the way that I look at the world around me, and there are even rarer instances when said art instills within me not only a sense of change, but a sense of acting differently. But for every sense of positive and reflective change that occurs from interaction with art, there are moments of disbelief and sometimes rejection. This is the power of good and sometimes bad art, and the differences between them.

Here is a possible distinction: Leo Tolstoy claimed, in his 1896 essay What is Art? that ‘good’ art is that which can be understood by everyone and therefore determined ‘great’ by its universal ‘goodness’. He goes on to say that for art to be considered ‘good’ it must, in fact, “create a unity between idea and emotion in both form and content.” This is a powerfully simple understanding of art, and one that in today’s post modern spectrum might seem a bit too elementary. But for as simple as it is, it does offer a “ground floor” examination on where one would start. He would go on to say that “not every form of expression can be considered art, for if that were to occur than the meaning of an expression being considered ‘art’ would be demeaned and ultimately lose its value.” It is thus Tolstoy’s belief that art should reflect the “beauty within” and that if one were to create a ‘bad’ expression of art, or simply ‘bad’ art, it would essentially be equated to trashy, banal, and boring. (Leo N. Tolstoy, What is Art?, translated by Almyer Maude, New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960, pp. 96-99.)


It is in that beauty, that Tolstoy mentions, that I find the greatest strength of human expression. I do not believe that beauty in itself always has to amount to expressions such as light, purity, translucent, or even physical beauty, but that it can feature all aspects of a proverbial “experiential spectrum.” There is a tension, a divide, and a surging force within beauty that is anything but these initial descriptors, and yet we determine that they are not to be considered beauty because of their complexity. There is a darkness in beauty but not one equated to text book violence or manifested psychosis. I do not wish to be misquoted, and so I should say that I do not believe that the essence of darkened beauty and human conflict will always amount to what we are calling human expression (beauty), but what I am saying is that there is this balanced plane within art that emanates both a physical and emotional layer within all of us and can be manipulated or soothed by either light or dark elements. 

When you, as a viewer and a participant, sit down to watch a really good film, and I mean a film that truly draws you in as part of itself and does not let go until the very end, you feel that sense of emotional resonation somewhere deep inside of you in moments of high and low emotion. It is trifecta (emotional, physical, spiritual) response to a moving transitional piece of art, but there is something deeper than that. It is this self inflicted recognition that when a piece of cinema truly becomes a work of art, it encapsulates, sometimes in entirety but in others ambiguity, something deeply rooted inside of the viewer in providing a unique and powerfully moving piece. That is what one would call ‘good’ or even ‘great’ art. It has much less to do with the subject matter itself, and everything to do with the internal connection derived by the viewer.

Now to consider the difference, we must ask: Is there such thing as bad art in cinema? Yes, and it is determined in very much the same way that Tolstoy informed us (banal, stupid, boring, unintelligable), and yet there is more. It is within a film that the emotion and physicality of the story, characters, motifs, directions, and dialogues that one could simply never surmise anything of the film or its meaning. There are some films that simply lack a sense of purpose, and others still that are simply devoid of any sense of beauty, intelligence, or even creativity. After all, all bad cinema will not simply be considered bad art, but does not mean it is any less terrible.

Here is an example:

The film, Cinderella Man (2005) starring the regularly disappointing Russell Crowe, is a bad film but not bad art. This is a film that got a fair amount of recognition simply for the fact that it involved a highly popular actor, director, and screenwriter- and that it arrived in theaters during the awards season for that year. The greatest problem arose, however, in the film’s delivery. The actors involved in the project give half-hearted attempts at emotional and physical delivery, and it bleeds into every corner of the film’s supposed “powerful story”. To be a film that attempts to win over its audience with the struggles of character, a director must position his actors in modes that draw out the strengths within each characters experience, and Cinderella Man director Ron Howard did a terrible job of doing so. 

Is this bad art, or a sign that the director should be blamed? Yes, Howard’s direction can be cited as a part of the issue, but because there was still an element of artistic beauty resonating within the circumstances of the character’s conflicts, the film acts as if its emotionally driven storyline comes across as thought provoking. It doesn’t, and because of this the artistic examination of its characters feels wooden and ultimately forced. 

Without a true individuality in showmanship or uniqueness in characterization, both from a visual and a rhetorical aspect, any attempt to really classify this film as ‘good’ art must be thrown out the window.I argue that in this, and many other instances, the lack of truly ‘good art’ escapes many films on its own inability to produce genuine emotion and storytelling.

To summarize and ultimately conclude my piece, the essence of ‘good art’ is something that becomes symbiotic within a work, growing and fostering as it becomes a living entity of expression, and can thus be influential to how an audience perceives it. In the world of cinema, this can mean the difference between something truly great and something truly uninspired, and that is the power of ‘good’ art.