Friday, May 19, 2017

Should you serve on an art jury?


Salon Jury, 1903
In a letter to the director of the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) declined to be a juror for their annual exhibition. Here's why:
"In regard to jurys of artists, I have never served because I could never reconcile it to my conscience to be the means of shutting the door in the face of a fellow painter. I think the jury system may lead, & in the case of the Exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute no doubt does lead to a high average, but in art what we want is the certainty that the one spark of original genius shall not be extinguished, that is better than average excellence, that is what will survive, what it is essential to foster--‘The ‘Indep√©ndents” in Paris was originally started by our Group, it was the idea of our exhibitions & since taken up by others, no jury’s & most of the artists of original talent have made their debut there in the last decade, they would never have had a chance in the official Salons. Ours is an enslaved profession, fancy a writer not being able to have an article published unless passed by a jury of authors, not to say rivals—"
She went on to say that she would be glad to help the museum in any other way.

Those of you who have been a juror, please share your thoughts about the process and the outcome of judging. No need to name the specific competition, but I'd be curious to hear what you learned about the experience of judging.

Letter to John W. Beatty, 5 September 1905, from Pen to Paper: Artists' Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art

17 comments:

rock995 said...

Wow, didn't realize that Mary Cassatt lived to be 102 years old! The lack of stress from not being a juror didn't hurt I bet.

A Colonel of Truth said...

The public need not be steered to (true) objectivity.

Jim Douglas said...

Another form of judgment is Auction Price. Jean-Michel Basquiat's untitled painting of a skull from 1982 just sold for a 'mind-blowing' $110.5 million at Sotheby's auction Thursday night.:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/arts/jean-michel-basquiat-painting-is-sold-for-110-million-at-auction.html?_r=0

I wonder about the outcome of this form of judging as well.

Roca said...

It’s unfortunate that juries need to exist at all but I suppose there needs to be some form of limiting the number of works since space is limited. In my small town for a time, only photorealistic works were making it into art shows. Then the pendulum swung the other way, and works that were more abstract or symbolic were making the shows while photorealism was not. Bias is an issue, when a jury decides “This is art,” while “This is not art.” There must be a better way to do business.

Unknown said...

I hated my experience judging a graphic design exhibit at my Alma Mater. I could only give four awards, and I second-guessed my decisions for a week afterwards. I hate the idea of being looked upon as some kind of expert, when nearly every creative inspiration I have seems to simply be the result of blind panic.

Being "an expert" is dangerous business and I'm suspicious of anyone who bestows that title on me. Here are my thoughts on the whole "expert" business (from my blog):

http://www.sigmadog.com/2016/04/24/compliment-negation-fixation/

Mary Aslin said...

I have served as a juror many times and I find it educational, humbling, and....subjective.

I judge art by what I call the three 'A's: the Application (technical competence), Analytical (design considerations), and Aesthetic (meaning and intent of artist). This critera has helped me evaluate (and score accordingly) a piece of art that has, for example, excellent technical execution and with clear intent, but perhaps the design could be improved. The one 'A' that has the most subjectivity is the Aesthetic but separating it out from the other more objective considerations has been very helpful. It has also helped me evaluate my own work better.

It takes A LOT of time to evaluate art this way, but it's the only way I can live with myself and it also gives me a mechanism--should the artist ask--for providing very specific feedback. I've never been asked, but perhaps part of the angst of jurying is that the jury process does not allow for followup feedback to the artist so that he or she can learn (and agree or disagree) with a juror's specific criteria and assessment.

David King said...

The only way I'd consider it is if the event used a scoring sheet (with multiple qualities for the juror to score each painting on) and multiple jurors who were not allowed to consult with each other during the process. Average the scores, those with the highest scores win the awards. This is the closest thing I've ever seen to an objective system for judging an art event.

Sesco said...

It appears that art is subjective, therefore difficult to evaluate objectively. What is considered good in one frame of years is not in another frame of years. If art were simply an expression of consciousness, there would be no need to evaluate its relative merits, but our impulse is to compare and contrast this expression. I believe one to be pure, and one to be egoic. "Art is what you can get away with." - Andy Warhol

Bug said...

In my home town the art museum had a show that was judged by a famous artist whose reputation was made doing photographs of dogs. (This is not a joke.) The upshot of the ultimate show-- wherein was selected one in six submissions-- was a disproportionate amount of dogs as subjects. Not a lot of dogs, mind you, but more than usual. What was not surprising was the amount of photographs, because the director himself is a photographer as well. There are a LOT of photographers! What was surprising was the range of media and techniques. Although there seemed, among the admissions, to be some catering to the assumed sensibilities of the judge, he himself ranged widely and the selection was well done and representative of the vast variety of local proclivities. To have selected such a fine show had to be both difficult and daunting. But he did it, and did it well.

a_real_scientist said...

Hi together,
I'm only a hobby artist but I'm a physicist.
What was described here is exactly what is - in the sciences - called "peer review".
Just think what this does to scientific freedom and exploration...

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

I've judged/juried many shows. I have a mental checklist that keeps me objective (design, color usage, handling of medium, etc.), but as I reach the end of the process, the objective can't help me anymore, and I have to go with my gut. This is especially true when there is a high level of craftsmanship in the paintings; this is the point where the painters have moved beyond craft into the realm of art.

It's always a tough call at the end. Show committees might be better off, rather than having a first, second and third place -- often I find little or no difference between paintings at this level -- simply two categories of award, "Best of Show" and then "Merit" awards.

James Gurney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Gurney said...

These are all very useful thoughts, thanks everyone.

In my case, I've probably juried about a dozen different competitions. Lately I've turned down a lot more judging opportunities than I've agreed to. I'm aware of the fact that when you pick a winner, you make that person happy, and everyone else is a bit disappointed. Moreover, their disappointment has your face on it.

One of the issues with being judge is that if you're judging a tight group of people who all know each other, and you're part of that group, some people will assume that you're playing favorites (it's hard not to). And if you're coming from completely outside the field, some people might presume that you're not qualified to judge that category of work. I've also witnessed the dynamic that when a group of judges consults during the process they sometimes get into "groupthink" and they end up picking favorites that might not have risen if the judges acted separately.

As some of you have suggested, it's probably best if the judges are relatively anonymous and if the artists who did the pieces are as anonymous as possible. For that reason, I'm skeptical about the idea of commercial competitions with celebrity judges used as bait to get people to pay the entry fees.

It's good if the organization has some shared set of values, so that there are some reasonable agreed-upon criteria for the judge to go by. What deserves the award: objective realism? subjective expression? scientific accuracy? originality? I agree with you, Michael: once you weed out the 95% of work that's either poorly done or what Mary Cassatt calls "average excellence," the really great pieces can't be ranked for gold, silver, or bronze.

rotm81 said...

I'm coming to this late, but Robert Hughes' takedown of Basquiat (from 1988) is worth reading.

https://newrepublic.com/article/105858/hughes-basquiat-new-york-new-wave

Paul said...

@a_real_scientist, exactly, art and science has so many aspects in common. Dogmatism is the illness, like cancer, that will reduce science and art to a business.

Darcia said...

@James Gurney: I would like to react to your comment only to say that I have been a part of a competition that you have judged and I didn't place but I in no way associate my "losing" with you. I just felt very thankful that you took the time out of your busy schedule needed to look at all the work submitted! But I appreciate a lot of what was said here and I am glad to be able to see it from the point of view of jurors because as a person that is just starting on my own art journey I will definitely be on the side of contestants for a long while yet and this helps me appreciate how hard it is for everyone involved.

Roca said...

There is something about art competitions that seems antithetical to the whole point of art, which should be expression of an idea. That is what makes anything eligible to be art. Paint dropped haphazardly on a canvas is art. A screen print of soup cans is art. A urinal placed in a gallery is art. And the reason it is art is because it is the manifestation of an idea. Does bad art exist? Only a lack of authenticity makes art bad.

This topic frustrates the hell out of me. I have an elementary school kid who thinks he’s a bad artist. Despite the fact that he draws prolifically, his art teacher has convinced him he’s terrible because he’s “messy.” (He has a weak grip strength and difficulty holding a pencil or brush). I see his enthusiasm crushed by others who don’t deem it “worthy.” To everyone out there who loves to make art, just do it! Don’t worry about galleries or competitions or anything like that. Make it and love it. Make it for yourself. Don’t make it for anyone else. If others happen to like it, fine. If they don’t, fine. Just express yourself! I’ve fought the need for approval my whole life. But I’m never happier than when I’m drawing for myself alone.