Trying to define good art and bad art has been a source of contention among scholars since aesthetics became part of academic discourse. There are many differing positions on this issue, but I agree that art that is truly moving can be understood by the ‘masses.’ The masses however are not singularly defined. Art is an expression of cultural moments and traditions that do not always cross boundaries. The old phrase ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ can still hold true but art that is thought of as great may be beautiful to some can be ugly to others.
Greatness is a subjective value judgement. There are many works of art that can pass a test of greatness among one cultural group but not in another. If one adjusts their perspective to fit within a new cultural context, the test of greatness will be altered. There are many works of art with mass appeal, but one often finds that they do not affect their viewers in a particularly profound way. American pop music, for example, obviously appeals to a large segment of the global population but the extent to which the lyricism and songwriting produces an emotional reaction will vary greatly depending on context. Many pop stars all over the world appeal to the masses within their country (or regional bloc), but do not necessarily appeal to the larger world. This is partly due to language and lyricism but even music without lyrics is contextualized within cultural moments. Miles Davis’ seminal album Kind of Blue is revered in the United States and much of Europe, perhaps even globally, but how well is it really ‘understood.’
Usually, art that holds mass appeal as a goal falls short of great. Great art must stand the test of time and must hold its appeal. Some of the most enduring artists of the 20th century were rebuffed by the masses as irrelevant but later seen by later generations as encompassing a great cultural moment. Pablo Picasso had much success as a classically trained artist, but when he refocused his attention to geometric shapes to evoke a new perspective among viewers, the public was not apt to give him a chance. Almost eighty years later, Picasso is revered as a champion of the avant-garde movement and is one of the most renowned artists in the western world.
While Picasso’s art may be revered in the western world, the global community may not be singing his praises. The west may hold that Picasso’s art holds ‘universal’ appeal, but his reputation in the Eastern Hemisphere may not be so glowing. As westerners, what we hold to have mass appeal may indeed appeal to some mass, and by mass I mean a large cross-section of humanity. The world is inhabited by many communities each with their own perspectives and histories. These perspectives shape the way we view art. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ may be one of the most emotionally raw and poignant works in the Western Hemisphere, but without understanding its historical connection to World War II and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, its meaning would be lost on many viewers.
The ‘understanding’ of art is not objective. Sometimes art is not understood, but it can still be enjoyed. Great art is understood by the masses, but they must relate to the masses’ context. As the world becomes more global and cultural boundaries dissipate, artistic language will no doubt evolve. Yes great art appeals to the masses, but those masses are ever changing, the real and true test of art is not simply its ability to be understood by the masses, but its ability to stand the test of time.