exploring the role of judgment in art …
Party Hats, JT Winik, 2010 (Exhibition, Banquet of Consequences, Oeno Gallery)
It is from the womb of art that criticism was born. – Charles Baudelaire
Remember that all is opinion. – Marcus Aurelius
Don’t mind criticism. If it is untrue, disregard it. If it is unfair, keep from irritation. It if is ignorant, smile. If it is justified, learn from it. – Anonymous
Even the intrepid of us cringe, sweat and panic with the words judgment, jury, adjudication. These are tough words; they chafe the tender roots of us, summoning images of report cards, exams and the often nebulous lines between right and wrong, good and bad, winning and losing. Judgment excites fears of admonition, discrimination, evaluation and the inevitable pronouncements. Basically, judgment poses the question: Are you up to snuff, or not? Simply put, no one likes to be judged. And, yet, as artists we willingly place ourselves in this position again and again.
Evaluation is just part of life and common to all fields, of course, but as artists we are unique, because what we do is what we are. It’s not just about what we think and how we think – it gets far more personal. Our creative process demands that we turn ourselves inside out and for all to see. Thus, very early, as art students, dealing with evaluation is an integral part of our experience. A former student of OCAD, one of Canada’s more prominent art universities, responds to a CBC report on mental stress among art students:
“At OCAD, the pressure is intensified by a tradition of often-punishing critiques of student art work.” As much as I do agree that critique can sting sometimes, it’s also something every artist has to go through and need if they want to improve. It’s something you have to develop a thick skin for as an artist. – Stephanie Wu, former OCAD student – (please see link below)
Indeed, by the time you graduate with a BFA in your pocket, if you’ve learned nothing else, you’ve at least become a slightly better judge of fair criticism. With maturity and further confidence in your process, you may come to learn that not all critiques are created equal – that there are times to let judgments slide off your back and times to take something from them. It’s an ongoing process, and for many artists it remains a sensitive issue, yet, they continue to put themselves on the line. Why?
Answer: Art that lives in a closet is not seen.
As artists, we seek exposure and the response of others – like anyone else, we need verification. Working in isolation may sometimes be necessary but there comes a point when we must place what we’ve made into the real world where it can undertake a life of its own. Thus, we find ways of doing so. We join art groups and find galleries, and again and again, we apply to juried exhibitions and competitions and, well… so it goes.
As one who has participated in many juried exhibitions both as an applicant and a juror, I’ve a great respect for those who present their work for judgment. True, there are times in viewing submitted work, I’ve thought oh dear, that’s dismal – as in, dismally bad. … But everyone has got to start somewhere. There is a quote by Malcolm Cowley (writer, editor, literary critic) : Be kind and considerate with your criticism… It’s just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book. The same goes for any of the arts. Artists put their hearts and souls into their work, be they educated in the arts, self-taught, or newbie amateurs and as a juror, it’s not my job to slash their potential. If anything, in accepting or rejecting a piece, it’s my role to look more closely.
Adjudicating an exhibition is subject to a number of factors, some of which have nothing to do with the art itself. As a juror, you are most likely one of two, three or more jurors who operate each within their own agenda and comfort zone. Each juror brings their specific knowledge, experience and background to the table. As a result, being accepted into an exhibition depends on the agreement and compromises of those tasked with choosing. In the end, although one would like to be objective as a juror, it is, necessarily, a subjective but informed process.
My experience as a juror is such:
First of all, at the initial viewing of the submissions, there’s what I call the scream-factor. A work that screams at you is one that snags your eye with an unusual viewpoint on the theme, a surprising use of colour or technique, a powerful composition, perhaps, or a harmony of design. This is a work that begs you to linger and to look again… and again. Secondly, on further viewing the submissions, other works distinguish themselves with their subtlety, quietness, depth. Art can speak in many ways and viewing an artwork is both an emotional and intellectual experience for the artist and the juror. A work, finely rendered is not necessarily engaging if it fails to speak while, on the other hand, a simple gestural line may speak volumes. Some artworks scream, others whisper – what they have in common is that they’re telling us something we haven’t heard before.
So … how does a work of art speak? As artists we all utilize the same visual vocabulary: line, gesture, colour, composition, space, balance, tension, texture, form and mass, value (lightness and darkness), asymmetry, symmetry, etc., any of which may inform our visual expressions, be they painted on canvas, drawn on paper, or carved from wood or stone. What makes one artwork speak when another doesn’t is a good question. It’s one we all deal with in our studios every day, myself included.
I think the answer lies somewhere in this: art seems to gain strength when it leaps beyond reproducing a perfect facsimile of something that already exists; if it extends beyond our preconceived ideas and delves deeper, chances are, we come up with something. When, as artists, we digest what we see or experience, mull it around and then filter it through our own unique vision, something wonderful happens … and sometimes (not always) we create a small jewel and that jewel may not be pretty, it may even be rather rough but if it speaks with authenticity (if it born from the gut) it likely has something to say. And if it does, it speaks to others.
On the disparity of viewpoints in observing art: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2007/oct/09/howdoyoujudgeart
Advice From an Art Competition Judge: http://artid.com/members/artid/blog/post/120-advice-from-an-art-competition-judge
Former OCAD art student, Stephanie Wu: http://www.ixdaily.com/grind/4c24edb7fd05ad8b9456ddfd4939194f872d229f
Mental stress in art students, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/at-ocad-mental-stress-met-with-support-1.2252208