Judging Art

Judging Art

Zen teachings advise you should approach every experience with a beginner’s eye; that is to say, you should try to free yourself from the prejudices of the past and approach everything as though it is the first time.  Though I feel there’s a lot of value in this approach, I also don’t think it’s always particularly realistic.  If you don’t like liver, chances are you’re not going to start after the third helping.  On the other hand, albums I once couldn’t stand have grown into my favorite pieces of music simply because I gave them a second or third chance.  Judging art requires an enormous amount of assertion and introspection, one that is certain to clash with other people’s opinions but will be enormously helpful as you grow as an artist.

Taste is tricky.  What others love, you might hate.  Or vice-versa.

There’s a fear among artists to say something is crap because the voice in the back of their head starts screaming, “though you may not like it, that doesn’t mean other people may feel the same way”.  Who could guess Campbell’s soup cans would end up in the same book as Michelangelo or Monet?  As a result, there’s a tendency for instructors and experts to emphasize formal components, those factual elements they can criticize: the composition, the color, the balance, the medium, the context, the scale, the history and so forth.  There are plenty of mediocre artists who justify their work with masterful dissertations while the crowd nods and follows along.

How artwork moves you, makes you feel, and draws you in all consist of your own personal experience with that work of art.  Personal experience trumps logic and motives.  Or does it?  If a piece of art you had a lukewarm reaction to is suddenly revealed to be about man’s isolation in war, is it retroactively good?  Suppose you encounter an art installation you don’t understand until you read the artist’s motivation on the wall; do you agree and move on, or do you feel cheated this is the only acceptable interpretation?

Experiences, particularly those when you are judging art, should be personal and up for debate.  Re-read the same book, you will have a different experience: maybe you picked up something you didn’t before, maybe you saw a parallel between the story and something going on in real life, maybe you disagree with the author and feel the story is about something completely different from what he intended.  Those are the experiences which should be encouraged.

It’s a truism among artists the one piece in your portfolio you’re less than thrilled with, is going to be the one everyone is interested in.  It’s amazing how differently we all think.  Still, people will try and convince you otherwise.  Look at the popularity of top ten lists.  Why should I agree these are the ten best or worst of anything?  I didn’t make the list so therefore they’re not relevant to me; if I did make the list, they’re not relevant to you.  How do you determine what is #6?  What makes #5 any better than #7?  Ranked lists are fun curiosities but it’s best to reject any weight their rankings purport to have.

Own what you like and hold on that visceral experience for as long as you can.  Enjoy something, be able to justify why, but let the experience be more important than the rationalization.

There’s going to be a lot of stuff you just want to say, “I don’t like that” and move on.  Though that’s ok, you should try and pin down reasons to avoid becoming dismissive and cheating yourself from learning a new approach.  Granted, don’t linger in a bad experience just to explore motives.  Remember, hate and dislike are very powerful instruments of decay.  You don’t want those qualities lingering inside you; giving something its due then deciding why you should or should not give something personal merit, turns emotion into choice. In addition, it helps you finding your balance while developing your style.  This is crucial if you want to be a leader in your field.

Let the work speak for itself, without interference of educators, critics, or your own past experiences.

“Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” – Bernard Berenson

Stop worrying about consistency.  Your opinions don’t have to be sorted like colors in a sock drawer.  You can both like, and not like something, at the same time.  You can change your mind.  You might learn to love something in part or entirely; which is great, because you’ll be able to give voice to others who feel as you once did.  As you are judging art as a method toward developing your style, you will learn and experiment with a lot of techniques, accepting some, rejecting others, until you build an arsenal to tackle the project you have in mind.  Your choice of techniques and how you employ them will become part of your genome; after a while, you’ll see a common identifiable quality emerge making your work uniquely you.

If you’re vocal about your likes and dislikes when you’re judging art, people may assume you’re contrary, ignorant, or naive.  “Haters gonna hate”.  You’re going to run into that no matter what.  Stay strong!  You’ve done your homework and you can back your opinion.  Often, you will have realize liking or disliking something is much more complicated than a binary yes or no feeling.  Regardless, you should be receptive to criticism and able to reevaluate your convictions.  Flexible informed opinions are always favorable to clumsy mass-agreement.  Remember, developing your style requires innovation; good ideas never thrive where everyone does the same thing and thinks the same way.

Why is this Art? Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans: Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 (The Museum of Modern Art)

Speakers: Sal Khan & Steven Zucker


Image Credit: https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/forum/grm/august-grm-issue-ford-pinto/23320/page1/

Posted on October 21, 2012 in Personal

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About the Author

James Cain is a Saint Louis digital photographer. His studio, www.opentheshutter.com has been active for more than ten years; he's shown works of art at St. Louis Union Station and has participated in other notable art shows. Currently, he writes informative photography articles for publication and is an active member of the local art community.

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