The sweaty palm test

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had with my classmates of what makes great art. I’ve asked this question as long as I’ve looked at it–since my second job out of college working at Butterfield & Butterfield, the auction house in San Francisco. Part of my job was cataloguing estates when they came into our warehouse. I saw everything from Giacometti sculptures to hospital beds, 18th century Japanese screens to velvet glow-in-the-dark paintings of Elvis. Now I knew a hospital bed wasn’t art. But people paid top dollar for the rest. I usually relied on the experts in the various departments to tell me if something was collectible. I didn’t know. And as eBay has since proved–one’s idea of trash is treasure to another.

But then one day I stumbled into a Mark Rothko exhibit. I can’t even remember where or when. There I was standing in front of a row of his striped canvases. You know what I am talking about, right? Although the form was the same in each painting—two boxes of color separated by a thin line—each one affected me differently. Some of them made me feel calm, others anxious. Some made me melancholy, yet others excited. That seemed pretty powerful. (Music has always affected my moods but up until that show I hadn’t been aware of pictures doing that.) “Aha”, I thought, maybe there’s something to those color swatches after all.

So, I started to wonder…if a work of art transcends out of its medium to become something larger than just a painting on a wall, or an actor on a stage, does that qualify as great art? If it makes my heart flutter, or my palms sweat, and I look at the world differently, I think it is then revealing a hidden truth about who we are. That’s a hard test to pass. If it does, I vote for it qualifying as great art.

(But then again, maybe some people get sweaty palms when they see a hospital bed.)

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