What makes good art – Part 1: Unity

The first criteria outlined in our rubric is “Unity”, which seems as good a place as any to start my armchair philosophizing. What is this thing artists call unity? I’m so glad you asked.

Intuitively, the concept of unity in art refers to the representation of compositional elements precisely arranged within a work to achieve a composite whole whereby the sum of said compositional elements adhere to some generally recognized standard of balance, rhythm, and harmony.[1]

More simply put, good art looks good.

This very simple concept has a long and glorious history that reaches back thousands of years. Rather than chronicle the entire history of humans thinking about art, I’ll simply share interesting term I learned called organic unity. As outlined by Catherine Lord in her 1964 paper “Organic Unity Reconsidered”, this term puts forward the following three premises: “1) Subtraction or addition would diminish the value of the work of art as a whole. 2) Subtraction or addition changes the character of all the contained parts of the work of art, and 3) Every part of the work of art is not equally important when importance means prominence or impact.”[2]

She goes on to argue that the third premise supersedes the first two, and then throws out the whole sordid affair because How Dare You shackle art to one single model of “unity” in the first place![also 2]

Which is great, because now we’re right back where we started. Isn’t philosophy fun?

De gustibus non est disputandum.

[1] Frank, Marie. “Denman Waldo Ross and the Theory of Pure Design.” American Art, vol. 22, no. 3, 2008, pp. 72–89. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/595808. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
[2] Lord, Catherine. “Organic Unity Reconsidered.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 22, no. 3, 1964, pp. 263–268. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/427230. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.

ElementCriteriaScore (out of 5)
UnityDoes it look good? 2
BalanceThe work has a symmetrical arrangement that adds a sense of calm, or an asymmetrical arrangement that creates a more dynamic feeling 3
MovementThe work has a sense of movement
(ie. figure positioning, flowing water, leading lines)
RhythmWork has a rhythm or underlying beat that leads the viewers eye to view the artwork at a certain place 3
FocusThe viewer’s eye is drawin to a specific focal point of  the work 0
ContrastThe work is enhanced by the presence or absence of contrast 4
PatternThe work is enhanced by the presence or absence of regularly repeating lines, shapes, colors, or values 4
ProportionThe work is enhanced by the presence or absence of proportion 0
Created 12/13/2020
Source: https://www.liveabout.com/elements-of-composition-in-art-2577514

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