The Good and the Great in Art

The oppressive society communicates to all of us a certain set of attitudes, or pseudo-theory, about art and artists. These attitudes and descriptions, reiterated in the media and schools, are often accepted for lack of any thoughtful alternative explanation of the role of art and artists. In a similar way many false pictures of reality in other areas of human activity are concocted and distributed in order to serve the exploitative purposes of the society.


What are some of these widely accepted attitudes to and about art and artists at the present?

(A) Any artist is a little warped, a little “mad,” that artistic creativity is necessarily accompanied by defects in the logical good sense of the individual artist.

(B) The artist is a rare, peculiar individual, saddled with abilities withheld from the general population.

(C) The artist is an irresponsible “drop-out” from the serious productive processes of the society, who spends the time she or he could spend doing useful work in “fooling around,” producing unimportant “pretty" things of little value, and deserving no or little pay for “wasting” time.

(D) The artist can only be really creative if thoroughly miserable, living in a garret, often hungry and cold and suffering from the rejection of the public and of the established artists, and resorting to a bohemian existence, alcoholism, and other debilitating practices in frenzied periods of escape from the misery which alone can inspire him or her.

(E) Artists are “spoiled” by success or security. Their creative juices dry up if they are able to win recognition, security, or support.

(F) Artistic productions have little value until after the artist is dead.

(G) The importance of a work of art by a still-living artist is determined by the price which is paid for it.

(H) The enjoyment of art is not properly a part of ordinary, everyday living but is best reserved for occasional museum visits, concerts, or nights at the theater.

(I) The older a work of art is, the better and more important it is.

(J) The more difficult-to-comprehend art is the more profound art.


What is the reality in these areas?

First, is the artist “apart”from humanity? No. Of necessity the creative artist must at some point rebel against the enforced conformity of the oppressive society in order to be creative, and the agents of that society must be expected to attack him or her as “inhuman” in order to prevent others from following the artist’s leadership.

In the development of Re-evaluation Counseling we early came to define “the essence of what’s human about a human being” as “the ability to create a new, successful response to each new situation.” We have called this ability “human intelligence.” Certainly this “essence of being human” is close to, if not identical with, the “creativity” which is the essential characteristic of the artist. It may be that we expect the artist’s thinking to accomplish more than his or her individual creative handling of the situations which he or she finds in his or her environment. Perhaps we can say that we expect the artist to find new, successful responses to new situations, and then, using some medium or media of communication, communicate these solutions so well to others that others are enlightened or inspired, and their understanding of reality is enhanced.

Certainly art is not a vagary of humanness nor is the artist inhuman. The artist’s work is the essence of humanness.

Is the creativity of the artist a special, rare endowment, bestowed only occasionally upon a few individuals?

So runs the myth, and the small number of people in the present societies whose artistic contributions are known or significant seems to support it. Even a casual examination of what goes on in the lives of most people, however, will refute it.

First, the great majority of people in the present societies lead lives of drudgery and insecurity, too tired and too anxious to be very creative. Their lives and energies are claimed by jobs where their wages or salaries are a small part of the value they produce, or by the unpaid labor of housewives and parents, or by exclusion from production with its attendant desperation and want. Creativity is denied for most of these people simply by fatigue and distress.

Second, for all of these, but also for the members of the better-paid professional, management, and owning classes, persistent invalidation of their creative abilities has fallen on them during their childhoods. It is standard custom, if a young child essays to sing, dance, compose a poem, draw or paint a picture, for him or her to be ridiculed, criticized, or have suggestions made that he or she should “do it like” someone else (the antithesis of creativity). Much of the invalidation will come from contemporaries or older children, passing on what was done to them. The occasional adult, striving to avoid the outright invalidation, will often point out what he or she “likes” or offer his or her “interpretation” of the young person’s work, a process more insidious and probably at least as damaging as outright invalidation.

These two factors alone are enough to explain the apparent “scarcity” of artistic talent among the general population; but the scarcity is only apparent. Most progressive art teachers are overwhelmingly of the opinion that “all children are artists,” although some still profess to be puzzled as to why this artistry apparently “disappears” among adults. “Successful” artists, freed by their recognition somewhat from any need to “play games” with the “Art Establishment” of critics, promoters, and dealers, usually express confidence in the universality of artistic ability. Often in embarrassed privacy, large numbers of people pursue artistic “hobbies,” take night classes, sing and play with amateur groups, and invent new forms of artistic expression that will never be shared.

Our experience with “creativity times” at Re-evaluation Counseling Workshops is very reassuring on this point. In the atmosphere of encouragement and confidence created by the workshop, and in the security of being able to discharge the invalidations of the past as they are restimulated, creativity flowers. At each such time several people who had “never tried before” produced works (poems, paintings, songs, dances, stories) of surprising beauty, and everyone moved forward in confidence in their ability to create.


Is the artist someone outside the sphere of useful economic production? Quite the contrary. The wealth upon which all of us survive, the value which we consume and enjoy, is all produced by people who work. Nothing is produced without human labor, and the artist is the very prototype of a wage worker.

Examine the life of a wage worker. Typically it is beset by insecurity, with the income from the worker’s work being threatened by wage cutting, unemployment, inflation, financial manipulation, and other insecurities of all kinds. Typically the wage worker produces a very large amount of value and receives back a small part of that value in the form of wages and “fringe benefits.” Just as typically the artist produces work of great value, even judged by the economic standards of the profit-oriented society (of much greater value in terms of its use-value to human beings), and receives back a very small part of the value which he or she has produced.

In times of economic crisis wealthy people are urged by their financial advisors to invest in “art” because of the great value inherent in the work and the permanence of the value. The artist, of course, receives very little of such value.

Years ago I heard a lecture by the curator of one of the large art collections of the East Coast. He was asked by a member of the audience (almost certainly by an artist) the expert’s estimate of how many painters were “making a living” from their painting in the United States at that time. The expert replied that, in his opinion, there were probably about a dozen who were actually able to live on the proceeds of their art. He hastened to add that he knew of several thousand painters in the United States who were creating significant works of art but that he would guess that all except about a dozen were having to give art lessons, teach art classes, do commercial illustrating, or wash dishes in restaurants in order to support themselves so they could paint in what time they had left. He also added that many thousands of people in the United States were making very good livings from the work of these artists, as gallery owners, critics, publishers, and investors. Several thousands of people enjoyed comfortable salaries and good living standards stemming directly from the value produced by the painters, but no more than a dozen painters were able to live on the incomes they received from their paintings.

New records are being set at art sales currently for the works of “old masters.” Single paintings are purchased for millions of dollars, but these same “old masters” received little or nothing for their work at the time they produced it.

Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter of the early twentieth century, received some recognition during his lifetime; I think he was once given a trip to New York to aid in the promotion of a show of his paintings, and there’s no record that he starved to death, but his income was very, very modest. Yet Mondrian’s paintings of “rectangular arrays,” which he produced in the early 1900’s, have been the inspiration for billions and billions of dollars of architecture. Architects have borrowed from his designs for almost all of the buildings which have risen high above modern cities in our century.

The artist is a typical proletarian, producing great value and receiving back a very small amount of it as his or her wages. The artist is a producer, not separate from productivity, but on its leading edge, the inspirer of productivity. The success of a clothing manufacturer, for example, is enormously dependent on the skill and creativity of the designers whom he or she employs.


Can the artist only be thoroughly creative if unrewarded and miserable and insecure; is the artist spoiled by success or security?

There is absolutely no evidence to support this view. The only “evidence” offered for it is the circular mislogic that, since most artists have been treated badly and some of them have managed to be creative anyway, this “proves” that mistreatment is good for artists. Actually, a detailed examination of the life and work of artists shows that, though they sometimes succeeded in creating great art in spite of the miserable insecurity of their lives, any of them who attained even slight security, by the intervention of a patron or by popularity, found their creativity enhanced. Picasso, one of the few visual artists who was able to demand and get a substantial income from the art market, painted more vigorously and more creatively, and explored new dimensions of painting with greater and greater success, the more security he attained in his life.

All of our experiences with human beings indicate that the supported, secure, encouraged, validated human functions better in all respects than the person under strain. The heroic accomplishments of some people in insecurity and stress are in spite of and not because of the distress which they have had to combat. Though it was undoubtedly humiliating and debilitating for the Bachs and the Mozarts to have to take what in effect were servants’ jobs for aristocrats during their musical careers, the very slight security which was thus afforded them led to great and brilliant productivity.


Are artistic productions of little or no value until the artist is dead?

Not so, of course, in terms of use-value. This is obviously an interpretation by the profiteering society of the fact that the guaranteed scarcity of the works of an artist who can no longer produce can be manipulated, as all scarce items are manipulated in the capitalist market, to secure higher prices and greater profit.

Is the importance of a work of art by a living artist determined by the price which is paid for it?

In the present society, the price is determined solely by how much profit can be made by re-selling the work of art, not the intrinsic value of it at all. The price of a painting may, over a long period of time, and subjected to long-range judgment, settle to a figure corresponding to its value, but in most art transactions, and certainly in the case of purchases of art from the artist, the factors of the artist’s desperation, the economic power of the gallery owner or collector, and the manipulation by the art business establishment of fads and popularities will have much more to do with the price which is paid.

Is the enjoyment of art only to be savored on rare occasions?

Everything indicates current practice to be a bleak distortion of what would be our rational functioning. Our ancestors, before they became encased in the rigidities of class societies, perpetually decorated their clothing, their weapons, their households, their working gear. The leisured aristocratic intellectuals of classical Greece vowed that every object associated with a human being should be beautiful, including household tools and cooking implements. People today, even in their usual conditions of deep invalidation and/or hardship, continually try to include music, pictures, and jewelry in their environments, and continually try to improve the designs and decors of their dwellings.

Does age determine the importance of a work of art?

The only age-related importance of a work of art is in terms of its scarcity, since some art tends to get destroyed or lost with the passage of time. A bias of economic profitability can enter here also.

Is the difficulty of understanding a work of art a measure of its profundity?

Not necessarily. Nonsense is at least as difficult to understand as is profundity. Artists are sometimes persuaded by the pressures of exploitation and the manipulations of the art business establishments to debase their creativity in order to secure a “market” for their work. If the overwhelming concern of the businesses which deal in art, whether it be music, painting, or any other art form, is to “make a profit” or “make a fast profit,” then creativity can be seriously interfered with by the manipulation of fads, cults, and artificial popularities. Artists can be pressured by economic need and desire for “success” to produce works that are “difficult to understand” because they have essentially little creative meaning, and which will not endure as of value in the long-time judgment of the population, but which will be promoted and sold as “profound because obscure.”

On the other hand, complex creations do take more time, more information, more background experience to understand well. In all forms of art, the simpler creations can be more easily understood. Understanding the more complex creations does require experience with and understanding of the simpler ones as a prerequisite. This is part of the reason that composers value the judgment of musicians on their compositions at least as much as they value the reaction of the general public, or why painters are glad of the public response but are most concerned with what other painters think about their work. We all value the judgment of our peers and colleagues because they are better informed. Complexity can contribute to the profundity of a work of art, but abstruseness, confusion, or disharmonic contradictions, however novel, do not confer profundity.

The imposition by capitalism of “profitability” as the overriding criterion of value of all production, including that of art, is undoubtedly the single largest factor behind the debasement of the work of artists and the blocking of this great fountain of creativity.


As with all oppressions, oppression of artists can be and is internalized. Almost every artist fights continually to keep creating against heavy feelings that what he or she is doing is “no good.” Seasoned artists learn that they must go ahead and create regardless, that feelings of worthlessness or depression or lack of inspiration cannot be taken as guides or they would not produce at all, or they would produce only on those rare occasions when restimulation is absent. Seasoned artists have learned that they must go against their distress and keep creating, that they must “poke holes in the canvas with their brushes” if necessary but not give up and retire from the struggle to be creative just because their mood is one of discouragement or other upset.

Quarreling and “competition” between artists also arises from the external oppression being internalized.

For many artists their art has become a form of “therapy” with discharge often being obtained (although seldom appreciated and valued for the profound central importance it has), or at least with attention gotten outside the distress by the effort to create and the process of creating, enough that they regain human functioning.


Artists have fought for what they have called “integrity.” Preoccupation with this fight has been a common concern shared by the many artists who have spoken or written of their lives and thinking. This is almost always the struggle to stay human, to trust their own judgment, to reclaim their own power against the pressure of the society in general and the art business establishments in particular. An artist who has succeeded in this struggle to listen to the critics but not abdicate his or her own judgment to them, to “be to one’s own self true,” is respected by other artists and, long-range, by the general public. Although factors of skill, education, experience, and viewpoint are an important part of the final product, it undoubtedly is this factor of “integrity” that is the core value of the artist’s creativity and production.

I have speculated recently that the element in any art which reaches out to other humans is probably exactly the factor of intelligence. I suspect that we respond to, learn from, and treasure the evidence of a mind in the artistic production; both the mind of the composer and the mind of a musician who is playing the composition; both the mind of the artist and the mind of the craftsman who prepared the etching or the printing plate. It is “the intelligence in the paint” on a painted canvas that communicates to another person. To paraphrase Frost:

“No one can know how glad I am to find

In any place the slightest trace of mind.”


To defend this integrity and creativity against the general insults of the oppressive environment, against the particular distresses which randomly or accidentally occur to the particular artist, and against the systematic and enforced pressure of the oppressive society is something to which the tools of Re-evaluation Counseling can well be applied. Many hundreds of serious artists have by now participated in Co-Counseling.

Although some, having internalized the oppressive nonsense of the society, were afraid ahead of time that if they lost their distress they would also lose their creativity, that fear quickly appeared ridiculous after actual experience with discharge. The artist sees clearly at that point how creativity is enhanced by the removal of distress. No insights which the artist had won through to while distressed are lost once the distress is gone. All artists find that creativity is greatly enhanced by the re-evaluation and re-emergence that follows the discharge.

Artists’ support groups began appearing in our Re-evaluation Counseling workshops several years ago. Such groups’ reports indicated the sharing there was of great value and an enhancement of the artists’ understanding of their own work for all those involved. These reports were also a joy for the other members of the workshop to hear.

Artists’ support groups have been meeting regularly in several Communities now for well over a year. An artists’ journal has been proposed and approved by the international leadership of the Communities in June, 1980.


We undoubtedly need a “liberation policy” for artists, a draft liberation policy which will be issued and discussed and revised and reissued and rediscussed and re-revised in many, many editions as it’s expanded to the many fields of art . Some of the key policies in such a statement would certainly involve the ­appreciation of the artist’s real role in society and the recognition of the artist’s great contribution to all human activity. I think such a draft policy should state the necessity for the basic freedom of any artist to create without enforcement or interference from any other source. We should try for an understanding of the role of art in relation to other human affairs and call for the development of support groups for artists and of “allies of artists” everywhere. We should propose measures to counter the current economic insecurity, invalidation, and pressures against the integrity of artists, and call for the emergence of all humans as artists and the permeation of all of our daily lives by artistic endeavors.


Defining what art is and judging the quality of art have been subjects of preoccupation by humans for a long time. The tastes or prejudices of wealthy patrons or gallery owners or collectors in present-day capitalist society are certainly unacceptable for general judgment on these questions, although some individuals among them may be very knowledgable and sound in their attitudes. How can we judge what is good and great in art? Is it purely a question of personal taste or whim?

Up to now the immediate judgments have usually been made by the patron or the collector, perhaps with the help of hired experts. More slowly, judgments have been made by the artist’s peers who work in the same medium or have insights into the medium of the artist. Long-range judgments have been made by the population as a whole. Over a period of time, there’s no question that the people’s judgment is sound, but, at a shorter range, are there better standards for assessing the work of artists than the often wordy nonsense of “professional” critics or the greed of exploiters?

I think we can find such standards. I think that we can propose standards that will allow us to judge quite accurately and promptly the worth and significance of an artist’s work.

To this end I would propose four categories of assessment for what is offered to us as art:


The first of these would be the category of Non-Art. This is material which is offered to us as art because it looks like a picture or it is created with musical instruments and therefore it’s supposed to be music, and so forth. The essence of these non-art objects is that they lack creativity; they restate what someone else has stated in the past and which has been restated and restated so many times that it has become banal. Much “commercial art,” of course, is in this category. The buyer of this “art” wants old patterns triggered or familiar “urge-to-buy” buttons pushed on the customers so that the merchandise can be sold, and does not want to risk offering anything new or original or creative. This does not refer to good reproductions of pictorial art or great recordings of good music. These are skilled, and often artistic, communication of art, and deserve appreciation for what they are.


The second category I propose would be called Poor Art.  Any artist is likely to  be frequently in contact with or dealing with painful emotion or other distresses. He or she will sometimes be portraying or having to portray some of the distressed pseudo-reality which obscures the benign character of the real Universe around us. In some cases the artist will be portraying his or her own distress in a valid attempt to get outside of it or get it to discharge. If the work of the artist or the viewpoint adopted leads to this distress being portrayed as if it were reality, or as if it were human, then such art, even though creative, leaves the artist’s audience demoralized, discouraged, misled, misinformed, pushed toward a handicapping viewpoint for coping with the Universe. I think this is poor art, even though creativity was involved.


I propose a third category to be called Good Art. In such art the artist is dealing with distress, whether his or her own or the distress around him or her, as well as with the reality of the Universe, but deals with it in such a way as to present it as distress, as not the real humans, not the real Universe, not the actual nature of reality. Such art leaves the artist’s audience inspired and encouraged, with a viewpoint that arms them to cope with difficulties. This, I would call good art.


The fourth category I would call Great Art. In such art the artist moves completely away from painful emotion or distress, ignores the pseudo-reality or sees through it, past it, and behind it and portrays a new, creative concept, a new view, new complexity, newly revealed beauty that has nothing of distress in it and that lifts the viewer or hearer completely out of the distress. Such art ennobles, inspires, and gladdens the human being with a new sense of what the Universe really is and can be like.

When I have talked of this at workshops, people have asked for examples of these last three categories. (No one has any trouble thinking of examples of the Non-Art category.) I have thought of two movies. One I did not see and never intend to see: The Clockwork Orange, which I’ve been told by knowledgeable friends portrayed a great deal of human distress very skillfully and very creatively but left the viewer with the impression that this distress itself is what humans are like and thus left added distress and confusion on the viewer.

For the other, I had avoided going to see the film Midnight Cowboy for some time because of the distressing activities viewers described as being in it. When I did see the film, it certainly did portray a great deal of human distress, but the net effect of the movie-maker’s art was to see the distress as superficial, to see humans as admirable, rising above all the oppression and pain. The movie left the viewer with an enhanced view of life and a confidence in the positive nature of reality.

For the category of Great Art, of course, examples abound. I think of many of the sculptures of Michelangelo, of almost everything that Mozart wrote, and the performance of a fine figure skater at an international meet.

 Harvey Jackins

Last modified: 2015-07-21 18:02:25+00