Define Great

The Choice Is Made!
So, I decided to make my own list. I’d find the best artists, put it online, make it age appropriate for K-12 students, and see if I couldn’t inspire a new generation of students to show they could become artists, make a career of it, and even if not, they could still use art as a means of speech and personal expression. And, regardless whether they chose to pursue art, at least they would know it’s a valid possibility, and would know a few great artists to be proud of…

Okay, But… How Do You Choose The Best? What Makes an Artist ‘The Greatest’?
In 1971, feminist art historian Linda Nochlin wrote a ground breaking essay, published in the magazine Art Forum, titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” It’s become standard reading for art students in colleges across America. Prof. Nochlin argued,

“The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been. That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history. The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are Black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s—and one can’t have it both ways—then what are the feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.”

Now, she’s arguing that society in 1971 was unfavorable to women, which was true. But to say, either the status quo was fine or there were no great women artists is a false dichotomy. To my eyes, there have been many excellent women artists at different points in history, despite the status quo being intolerant – artists that Nochlin didn’t acknowledge. What’s more, in the 50 years since she wrote this, a host of new artists have come along, creating such masterpieces as to easily rival the old masters – even, gasp, Da Vinci himself (blasphemy!). Of all the artists on my list, around 2/3rds are alive and painting today.  Nochlin warned in her essay against answering her titular question with mediocre artists, like Kaufmann and Morisot, saying it would “tacitly reinforce the negative implications.” This is no longer the case.
And another thing, notice how she implied a connection between ‘supreme greatness’ and status, as in, you have to achieve one to achieve the other? I disagree. I see greatness as existing within the art itself, not within the fame of its author. It’s not a question of the work’s dollar value, it’s the intrinsic value of the work, its power, its emotional impact, the love and care imbued into it, that makes it great. Artist Stapleton Kearns said it best, ‘The only reason for an artwork to exist is that it be excellent.’
The whole purpose of this project is to bring ignored artists to light, so I’ve completely disregarded the question of fame. As a result, you will not find some of the great names you might expect––that the history books mention briefly. If this upsets you, I’m sorry (and please don’t tell me I forgot them, I haven’t). But I have to consider the excellence of the work, first and foremost, which has led me down many surprising paths, and I’ve been just as sad to see some of my favorite artists fall by the way side. I must emphasize – this is not a list of my favorite artists. This is a list of those artists whom I feel deserve the most respect and attention. Greatness is a high goal, and leaves no room for sentimentality.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods…
Perhaps you may wonder, if an artwork lies hidden for centuries, and no one sees it, can it be great? Let me answer with two paintings. Imagine you find these in your grandfather’s attic. You don't know anything about them or who made them. What do you do with them? The first is this:

This work is by Bjarne Melgaard

Perhaps you may appreciate it as humorous? Or you wonder how your grandpa got it? Otherwise, what do you do? Sell it? Or does it go in the waste bin? How much do you think you’ll get for it (you'd be quite surprised)? Here's the other painting:

Portrait of a Girl by Kei Mieno

Even if it’s not to your taste, would you trash it? Or would you find out who made it and what it’s worth? Can you see in this second painting a level of quality, presence, and power that would make its destruction a shame? Perhaps even a crime? If you saw it in the street, would you leave it to the elements, or take it home?
Every art epoch has its merits, including Post Modernism, but one of its greatest crimes is the insinuation that quality doesn’t matter, and even worse, does not exist. Post Modernism is the only era where an artist can come up with an idea, have someone else make it, and claim it as his own. And, this blatant lie has filtered its way through to art education. I’ve seen it myself in grad school, where my peers balked at the notion of telling students that one artwork is better than another. The fear was it might hurt their precious feelings…
No one wants to do that, I certainly don’t. But, the absurdity of this is – there’s no denying it! Quality is self-evident; when one work is far better than another it’s obvious, even to children. Ignoring good work can be just as demotivational to the talented students as to the rest. The last thing you ever want to tell a child is, 'Don't believe your lying eyes.' Meanwhile, failing to show students where and how they could improve denies them the most important lesson art has to teach––humility!!! Art makes you humble. It keeps me humble after decades, every time I make a mistake.

Art making is the process of making mistakes and trying to fix them.

Art requires humility because learning to draw, paint, and sculpt is like relearning how to walk. It confronts you immediately and repeatedly with your own mental limitations. And, believe it or not, you can teach these things to children without any undue emotional trauma – the same as you teach a child to dance or play a musical instrument. And, isn’t it funny how we don’t accept the same bla attitude to quality in the performing arts? Quality seems to matter in every kind of art there is, except visual. I guess it’s harder to keep the audience from laughing at you when they’re looking right at you.
More and more, I get the feeling in our post-modern age we’ve forgotten the importance, the necessity of acknowledging we (as artists) are not perfect, and that this is okay, so long as we continuously try to improve. The PoMo approach typically focuses on how we're flawed as a society (valid) while shrugging off the need for our art to be flawless. It's counterproductive, especially considering quality (and sentimental charm) is all that keeps the product of our labor out of the trash. And who wants to hear from an artist who says, 'You have to be perfect, but I don't.'

Okay, So How Do You Judge Quality?
Good question. It’s subjective, isn’t it? I’ve decided to limit this subjectivity by equating greatness to its ability to impress––for the quality of its craftsmanship and the ideas behind it. And, I know that's subjective, but there is a such thing as a bad idea, and we know it when we see it:

There are many skills in art making, it’s not simply rendering, there’s:

1) Designing a composition that compliments and focuses the subject and ideas.
2) The process of painting, including different skills such as applying thick ‘impasto’ layers, thin washes, dripping and spritzing, using different brushes, and layering thin translucent and opaque paints so as to create different glazes. There's the question of brush stroke quality and economy.
3) Choosing varieties and directions of light to best effect.
4) Planning color schemes.
5) Considering ‘camera angles’ to best portray a situation and add to its mood.
6) Distorting figures and environments.
7) Considering the size of your work and what effect that will have on the audience.
8) Creating decorative patterns and effects, gestural or otherwise.

Then there are more creative skills where an artist playfully envisions what couldn’t possibly exist in real life, twisting the laws of physics, playing on the optical limitations of our visual cortex and ‘monkey brains’ to understand what it is we’re seeing. All this factors into quality.
Then, I’ve tried to balance an artist’s skills in these areas with the power and significance of her message. I’ve factored the difficulty of what she was trying to make––the level of challenge––with her level of success. For example, it's easier to draw a vase than a hand. It's easier to draw one vase than six together. It's easier to draw a hand than a face. It's easier to paint one building than a city full of them. It's easier to draw one person than a group of people, etc. There's also a question of legibility - if the artwork successfully conveys a message, or if you have to read accompanying text to get it.
     And, I’ve tried to weigh the number and consistency of her successful works, as well as the variety present in her work. Some artists’ work is uneven, like the one-hit-wonder in pop music. Some artists also choose to repeat themselves, exploring an idea over and over till they get it right. Other artists choose to copy the style and look of artists around them. And then, some artists manage to get it right in one picture, and then move on to something completely different – each work is a new and fresh idea, composed in a different way. There’s also the consideration of age, with some artists in their 20’s surpassing others in their 60’s, but having less work to show because they haven’t yet had enough time.
Then there’s the era in which the artist lived. Jonathan Swift used the metaphor of ‘dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants’ to represent those later generations of philosophers who could see farther than their predecessors, only because of the work previously done. So it is with art. Much of the art created today, while great, and in many ways special, owes a great debt to those who came before: Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Vermeer. You see their approaches and styles again and again. At the same time, we must remember these artists also stood on the shoulders of others. Da Vinci learned from Verocchio. Michelangelo from Ghirlandaio. Rembrandt had van Swanenberg - none of these artists painted in a vacuum.

Apples & Oranges
We learn in algebra that you can’t compare apples and oranges. And yet, you do this every time you visit the supermarket. You compare the size and freshness. You check the skin for bruises and blemishes. You consider which is in season. This list has presented many “apples versus oranges” moments, where I’ve contemplated the difficulty and achievements of unique artists with totally different goals and methods. In these moments I asked myself, “Could that one artist do the work of the other if she so chose? Or would it be beyond her, and vice versa?” It requires a lot of guesswork - and you never really know. 
     David Apatoff gives a great example here with Don Trachte, the cartoonist who made the comic strip Henry. No one who knew his comic would have ever suspected him capable of forgery, but that's what he did. While divorcing his wife, he painted a copy of Norman Rockwell's 'Breaking Home Ties':

and kept the original hidden in the wall of his bedroom. His children discovered it after he died. So it's hard to say just what someone is capable of.
     Surprisingly I’ve found it even harder comparing identical “apples versus apples” where two or more artists make the exact same kinds of paintings, for the same reason, with the exact same skills and abilities, at which point judging becomes impossible. And then, there are rock-paper-scissors moments where one artist is technically excellent, but her works are more academic studies. Then another artist comes up with wonderful ideas, but the execution is off, while another is a great impressionist, and her color relationships are perfect, great brushwork, but the drawing or perspective is off.

A Matter of Taste?
As stated earlier, this list does not represent my personal preferences or favorite artists. I'm attempting to eschew my personal taste here - but it's a challenge. A couple points regarding taste. First, there are two concerns that affect all of us when we form our taste:

1. Do I actually like this? What positive aspects can I find in this? Can I enjoy it?
2. What will people think of me, if they find out I like this?

This second question greatly affects us because taste isn't simply about enjoyment, it's about building identity. Humans are social animals and so we do all kinds of things, consciously and subconsciously to please and impress others. And I'm a simpleminded human too, so part of me worries what people will say if I leave out certain big names. What would Prof Nochlin think of I didn't list Bonheur? And one of the artist friends I respect the most, Chris Bennett, says Gwen John is the greatest woman artist. What if I don't include her? What will he say? And what about Frida Kahlo? And Cassatt? I worry how people will react to my list, but in the end, it's my list, and I've tried to filter out all these worries and noise.

Having said that, taste is more than the personal preferences of an individual. There are societal perceptions of good and bad taste, best defined by the painter Stapleton Kearns:

"Taste is a quality that an artwork may possess. Taste is now terribly underestimated, but it was thought, until our grandfathers time, to be essential and a characteristic of the finest art that set it above the merely pretty or mundane. It was one of the things that separated the fine arts from the baser products of the ordinary world of commerce and illustration.
Taste is the integrity of aesthetics, the highest form of artistic ethics, the high road. Taste is cool, measured, quiet, dignified, and refined. It doesn’t shock or scream at you. Taste lives in the color, the proportions, the design, and every aspect of a painting. It is often a restraint of color and design, and a moderation of subject matter away from the extreme, the cloying, and the vulgar. It is neither cute nor morbid. It is never obscene, or just the newest incarnation of a tired idea we have all seen before. It is neither retreaded nor spiky. It is never sentimental, sensational, or cloyingly sweet.
Taste treats the viewer with the greatest possible respect. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill spoke with taste. Taste places quality above commerciality. It's opposite to what I call “heightened cheese content”. It doesn’t make the most sellable art, but there are always clients who want it. Taste values workmanship, but neither flaunts it nor imagines technique the purpose of art, but merely its means. I often see well made art that fails because it lacks taste.
Tasteful art is powerful, not flashy. It is seldom the brightest thing in a show or gallery, but it is often the thing that speaks to you every time you see it, rather than expending its force like a firecracker, the first instant it is seen. It makes art that can be enjoyed for a lifetime, that will always appeal to the viewer, even as their knowledge and discernment increase. It strives for the eternal and eschews the suddenly fashionable. Taste is what often separates the good from the great. The best artists almost always have it."

So, taste in Kearns's view has more to do with the quality and seriousness of the ideas in an artwork, and how they're applied, than with craft per se. I recognize and largely agree with his definition, but it hasn't played the deciding role in how I formed this list. There's a time and place for "good taste". It doesn't apply to all situations, just as not all artworks should be beautiful. It's not always appropriate. Artwork done in "poor taste" is often vulgar or offensive. But sometimes, that's what's needed:

"Putin" by Petar Pismestrovic

"Kim Jong Un" by Anita Kunz

"Sometimes it's more important to be human, than to have good taste." - Bertolt Brecht.

Bearing this in mind, I haven't dismissed artists out of hand, based on whether their works fit normal conventions of good taste. In cases where an artwork is cloying or kitsch, or campy, I've asked myself the reasons behind these choices, and whether they redeem the work.

Originality vs. Gimmickry
A common point of contention in modern art concerns quality. Often, an observer will say, "I could do that. My five-year-old could do that." Snarky art historians like to answer, "Yes, but you didn't. The artist did it first, and that's why it's in a museum, and your art isn't."
     To this I answer, yes, and the work is original... but is it good? Is it a worthwhile expense of time? To what extent is it valid? There are lots of ideas I've never tried, and for good reason. I've never tried heroin. I've never tried to swim across an ocean. I've never tried to fight a bear. In the same vein, I've never tried splashing paint all over a canvas, or puking paint on a canvas,

Millie Brown drinks milk mixed with food coloring, and then vomits directly on her canvases.

or weaving a drawing with my own hair clippings or toenail clippings - all of which successful artists have done. I'm not saying it can't be done well. I've seen impressive sculptures made of butter. But, I wouldn't try to make one myself.

This work was sculpted by Jim Victor and Marie Pelton

     So, what's the difference between a fresh new idea and a gimmick?

Jonty Hurwitz 3D prints sculptures of people so small, you need a microscope to see them.

It depends on the work's intrinsic value, based on everything I state above - the quality of the work and the ideas behind it. Is the work skillfully done? Is there a message or metaphor or meaning to the work? Is that meaning or message true, accurate, intelligent, useful, poignant, important, charming, or at least humorous? What does the choice of material or size have to say about the work?

Alexa Meade with one of her painted subjects.

Can you answer positively to all these questions? And it's original? Well then, that is not a gimmick. If, on the other hand, there's no good reason to create said artwork other than to gain fifteen minutes of fame, then you have a gimmick - typically repeated endlessly and thoughtlessly. Now, just as there is a gray area between great and dumb ideas, so it is with art. Some works blur the line between greatness and gimmickry. That's how it is, and it's up to you to judge.

public sculpture by Claes Oldenburg
(This is not Photoshopped.)

Li Hongbo carves sculptures from paper normally used to make Chinese lanterns.

Willard Wigan sculpts grains of sand, rice, and sugar, under a microscope, painting them with a single hair taken from a fly's back.

Originality versus Authenticity

Artist Julio Reyes gives a great speech in a podcast with John Dalton (Dancing on the Precipice Podcast, 2016):

“Originality to me, especially the way we see it and define it in our culture, pop culture, today especially, has primarily come to mean something that you’ve never seen before, and that hasn’t been done before. And I think that creates a mindset, especially in young artists, that it doesn’t matter whether or not you have some kind of organic connection to what it is that you’re saying in your work, or if it’s welling up out of your life in a natural, meaningful way. But, if you create, we used to call it in college ‘the next box of shit’ right? And that was, ‘I’m gonna paint this up. It doesn’t matter what it is. But, you’ve never seen it before. So, therefore it has currency in the art market today, because it is original.’ 

"So, if somebody’s looking at a painting, and I run up to them from behind and just tackle them, and say, ‘this is performance art, and you’ve never seen someone tackle anybody quite like you’ve just seen me do it. Anything can constitute, can meet those parameters of originality today. But that does not mean that it’s necessarily significant or meaningful or has some kind transcendent value.

"Now, I can’t assess transcendent value in my own work, I don’t think that’s possible. But, I think over time we see things that have lasting and meaningful value, and apply to our lives, and feel like they are of some consequence to us. And, I think those often come out of work that prioritizes some sense of authenticity. And, authenticity to me really revolves around self knowledge. And that means craft. That means your own heart as a human being. That means your connection to the means and materials, also the subject matter of your work. What is it that you’re deciding as a subject matter? Why does it call you to paint it? What’s it so meaningful about it to you? And how does that relate to your feelings of life in general?

"These are bigger questions to me because I think they are transcendent. I think that they do touch on the human experience, of finding connectivity to this world, reconciling ourselves to being in this world, and wanting to find something reflecting back to you.  I think that’s important. And, when you’re able to tap into those things, I think you get greater reward, a deeper kind of reward. Because you really are honoring what you are by understanding what you are as an artist, rather than by just seeking to do something original but that might be arbitrary, and might have very little actual lasting meaning for you.

"I think today we live in a world of spectacle, albeit hollow spectacle. And, it’s very easy to create a spectacle, to make a rock concert or a crazy event in which it appears like there’s a lot going on. But, sometimes glittering lights are just glittering lights. And, I think nobody can create the meaning and the connection in a work for you, other than yourself – the hard work of the soul that you have to do. I always remember a quote from Vincent Van Gogh. I’m paraphrasing, but he said when he looks at a painting he likes to look for the soul at work in the piece. And that has always had great significance for me. What I’m doing here is a kind of soul work.

"And, if it’s true and meaningful to me, then I don’t have to try to sell it to anybody else. It’s likely that they will feel it too. I think we hear that in people’s voices, when they’re talking, when you hear a great story from a loved one. When you hear a great song or musical performance. I think there are some things that are unspoken that just come through in a work. And it’s hard to define something that’s genuine, but we know it when we see it, and keep going back to it over the course of a life time.”

Is It Appropriate to Separate Men and Women Artists onto Different Lists?
Doesn’t it delegitimize women’s work, implying inferiority, like with men and women’s sports? No. I’m not giving women artists a league of their own. I’m giving them a place in the spotlight. You see, in some sports, like boxing, physical traits such as size, height, weight, and muscle mass matter. In art, the only physical traits required are your basic eyes and hands––which we all have. People don’t think about it, but there was nothing special about the hands or eyes of Da Vinci or Michelangelo. It was their will to create that drove them. They became obsessed with their craft and that’s what made them special. The reason this list needs to exist is not so women can have a safe space free from the competition of men––that’s silly. These women are professional artists who exist in the real world where they compete with men daily, for sales and jobs. I’m making this list simply so you can see they exist, and that their work truly is great––as great as men’s. You don’t believe me? Okay then, wait till I finish this list and see for yourself.