A subscriber wrote, “In judging an art fair this weekend, I found myself utterly affected by the input of a fellow juror. Suddenly my picks seemed wooden and overworked. He was looking for spark. I was seeking mastery. In my search, I lost my yen for a purity of expression. He brought it back again by describing his delight in seeing a single line applied with élan! I’ve been changed by this occurrence. I can see that my own future work will grow from the exchange.”
For those of us who perform jury duty, pass judgment on the work of others, or simply give thought to what we do, mastery often picks a fight with spark. Actually, in recent art history, mastery and spark represent “The Great Divide.” It would be easy to say that those who have no mastery tend to value spark, and those who have no spark tend to value mastery. But there’s more to it than that. In a recent show where I was one of the jurors, there was a magnificent semi-abstract rendition of a horse. On close examination all the jurors agreed that the animal was way out of whack. The painter really had no idea what a horse looked like. And yet the thing had spark. An argument followed — in less civilized times there would have been a lynching. The pseudo-horse galloped off with second prize.
As we tend to find virtue in our own prejudices, one might think it important to pry open and educate the minds of jurors. But really, in the subjective business of artistic value and creative quality, that’s what juror-variety is all about. Parachuting jurors in from other villages broadens viewpoints and neutralizes artistic incest. One has also to watch out for what I call “unnatural spin.” This is where jurors are so stultified by pedagogy, fashion, expectation, or garden-variety ignorance that they are untrue even to themselves. With these lovely folks, one watches a mind-bending circus that includes fresh breakouts of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Genuine creators with a range of styles and genres make the best juries. A slate of three or more is best. What blows me away is the frequency in which “spark” jurors favour mastery, and “mastery” jurors favour spark. I can only conclude that genuine creators have a fine degree of humility, are themselves in a state of learning and are open-minded.
PS: “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.” (H. L. Mencken)
Esoterica: In 433 BC the Greek lyric poet Pindar noted, “Convention rules all.” In the art game, however, there is now no rigid convention — no rigid gospel. Modern art has become a do-it-yourself religion. In the name of democracy, these days the conventional wisdom is to give first prize to the work with both spark and mastery. Speaking as a frequent juror and a regular painter, I would say that works with both spark and mastery are hard won and hard to find.
This letter was originally published as “Mastery or spark” on August 11, 2006.
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“Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague.” (Vincent van Gogh)