Last evening, I kinda got sucked into watching a Sergio Leone / Clint Eastwood / spaghetti western*, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The movie has been voted, by users of IMBd, as #5 on the IMDb Top 250 movies list. For whatever it's worth, the movie does not appear on the The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films list - a fact which could certainly spark a heated debate, re: mass market dreck vs. "serious" films. In any event, it was the title of the movie which got me thinking about making an entry about good art / bad art / ugly art.
First, let me make note of what I consider to be art - to be precise, anything made / created by anyone for the purpose of expressing their thoughts / feelings / on any subject / idea is, IMO, art. I hold to no artsy-fartsy high falutin' dictums regarding what is or is not art. It's all art, highbrow, lowbrow, or anything in between, it's all art. However ....
.... that written, just because it's all art does not mean that there is no distinction between various types of art.
I happen to subscribe to the idea that there are 2 overarching categories of art; Decorative art and Fine art. Each category has its own merits, chief amongst them being (without placing to fine a point on it); Decorative art tends to soothe the mind / emotions and is generally easy to access / appreciate, while Fine art tends to stimulate the mind / emotions and is a bit more complex to address / appreciate.
That written, postulating that it's all art, whatever category it falls into, does not mean that it's all good.
Despite the fact that it is very often suggested that what is good art and, conversely, what is bad art is "all in the eye of the beholder", that notion holds true regarding only an individual's opinion on the matter. And that is as it should be inasmuch as, who is better suited to determine what art an individual might acquire or appreciate (or make) in order to satisfy their very own personal preferences?
an aside: FYI, that is why, when writing about the medium of photography and its apparatus, I most always use the caveat / qualifier, "to my eye and sensibilities".
Personal eye-of-the-beholder preferences aside, there are a host of opinions from a host of sources who hold the keys to admittance into the pantheon of good art. Academics, curators, collectors (who vote with their $$ or $$$$$$$$$$), gallery directors, critics, amongst others, generally concur - although, to be certain, not always unanimously - on what is good art, bad art, and ugly art (IMO, both good and bad art can also be ugly).
Yes, their determinations are based upon their own personal preferences, but those preferences are weighted with in-depth knowledge of and experience with the medium and its apparatus, its movements / genres, and its history (to name just a few obvious considerations). Think what you may, re: these "experts", but the fact remains, collectively, they are the arbiters of the good, the bad and the ugly, Photography Division wise.
It should go without writing, some good art (perhaps a lot of good art) goes unnoticed or even ignored by the system. Even when noticed, the aforementioned arbiters are most concerned with identifying the best of the good over the merely good. It's simply a matter of quantity - not all good art gets the attention it deserves. However, some during-its-time good art which goes unnoticed or ignored, is often given belated recognition if the art has been preserved / archived in some fashion - think Vivian Maier** as an example.
Independent of those deciders is the great leveler, aka: time. Fads and movements come and go, personal preferences (individual and collective) come and go, but ultimately, it is the test of time which is the final arbiter of what good remains.
All of that written, make no mistake about it, in the art world there are arbiters, re: the good, the bad and the ugly, and what they decide matters and carries great weight in that world. They're not perfect, but, over time, they tend to get it right. To deny their existence and influence is pure folly and self-delusional thinking at its finest.
*a nickname for a broad sub-genre of Western films that emerged in the mid-1960s in the wake of Sergio Leone's film-making style and international box-office success. It was used by critics in USA and other countries because most of these Westerns were produced and directed by Italians.
**Yes John, I have the latest book of her pictures, Vivian Maier ~ out of the shadows, and, IMO, it's an absolute must-have for those who love the medium and its apparatus.