This morning I was cruising my collection of old art magazines. In The Artist (Britain) from March, 1938, in “Readers Queries Answered” there was some fun stuff:
(A.L.J., Huddersfield) — I have been studying art for six months, and now feel ready to submit poster designs to big users like London Transport. Do you think the enclosed would stand a chance? (Answer) Not the smallest dog’s chance. Your architectural subject is a very bad parody of someone else, dull in colour and poor in drawing. The figure subject shows an entire lack of any power of grouping or of sales-appeal. You must not try to run before you can walk.
As the work in question is not illustrated, we can only wonder at the proficiency. And I wonder whether a magazine would be quite as frank today? Especially in other than a discrete private correspondence. And I have to ask — since this brutal and confident critique was written — have standards slipped?
The Artist was just entering its eighth year of successful publication. Its circulation and reputation were worldwide. The mostly black and white presentation was excellent, and standards were high. Capital painters and sculptors of the day were the authors of articles. As this was during the great depression there was an emphasis on commercial art and “making a go of it.”
Has the advent of modernism made us all a bit more permissive and open-minded? Is “doing” now more important than “doing it properly?” Do beginning artists not always see and respect excellence? Do they care? Have standards been fuzzified? These days, with the widespread democratization of art, is “finding the inner artist” more important than rising to norms? Is quality going to hell in a hand-basket?
Nowadays, when looking at an artist’s work that struggles under a burden of issues — issues that could be resolved by study and practice — most of us first search diligently to see a virtue. Nowadays a lot of us tread lightly, lovingly. “Criticism,” as they say these days, “is like a sandwich; it ought to be layered between two slices of praise.”
PS: “We all need critical confrontation of the fullest and most extreme kind that we can get.” (Wayne Thiebaud) “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” (Henry Van Dyke)
Esoterica: (F.W.N., Dorchester) — My humourous drawings have won high praise from my friends. I wonder if you think I might try them on various publications? (Answer) No we don’t! Prominent papers require good jokes and good drawing, and you offer neither. Cultivate your draughtsmanship and your sense of humour. Until you can greatly improve both, you will be wasting money by submitting to the press. (The Artist, March, 1938)
Junk in, junk out
by Harold Johnson, Antioch, California, USA
Art standards have certainly fallen. But, to the credit of everyone, there are some great artists out there who we can aspire to. I spent 45 years in the advertising graphics field and have seen great progress in design and illustration. The computer has been a great tool for professional artists but, unfortunately, it has also increased the spread of bad design and illustration. The old pros know what I speak of. The younger ones are too eager to get to the top and fail to learn the basics. If you are not any good at the beginning, the computer is not going to improve you. Junk in, junk out. The buying public, including clients, have no taste or education in art…especially in the recent years. We should all keep our standards high always!
Criticism an art in itself
by Tanja Dorosh, Montreal, Canada
“Criticism, is like a sandwich; it ought to be layered between two slices of praise.” My students (aged 16 to 25) respond best to a similar approach but I change “Criticism” to “Creative suggestion. ” Women particularly dislike in-your-face criticism and prefer the teaching of skills mixed with encouragement and creative suggestions. There has been an improvement in the way people criticize — it is an art in itself. The current trend to globalization means wider acceptance and permissiveness — learning to have a wider view. But “a turd in a tuxedo” is still bad work. The layman still can tell beauty from ugliness.
by Patty Harrison, Surrey, England
That’s one reason I like “art brut” or “raw art” from untrained artists. It seems to just be accepted. If the process of making art relieves depression, who’s to say it’s good or bad? You’ll never know what it has done for the artist. I’m too thin-skinned to show people what I do so I’ll avoid criticism at all costs…
Must be cold and critical
by Jim Webb, PA, USA
With regard to art standards, I systematically destroy my paintings that have gone astray or miss the mark. As with all high quality produced art, the viewing public rarely sees samples of the efforts a dedicated artist goes through in learning their craft. The subject of the work of art is diminished by poor execution. I saw the Van Gogh portrait show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently, which displayed a number of sketches showing the painful struggle Van Gogh went through to achieve his goal. I’m afraid that society in general has been psycho babbled to accept milk toast standards. We must not offend anyone’s sensibilities. How would one like to fly in an airliner built by people who do things by their feelings? The artist must be able to be cold and critical of their skills in order to produce works of passion.
by Carol Costa, Mamaroneck, NY, USA
Visual art, like music and writing, is a creative outlet. One of our divine gifts as humans, is the creative energy that we all have inside us. Therefore, we all have the God-given right to express ourselves as we see fit. This includes painting, even when we don’t have the experience or the skill to execute a ‘good’ piece. I don’t think that anyone should judge another’s creative work, but rather, honor it as part of the creative process of the ‘artist’. If that person chooses to put their work up for sale, who are we to say that someone else wouldn’t see the delight in the painting, or a certain something that catches the viewer’s eye and makes them feel certain emotions. I have seen art that I wouldn’t call ‘good’ by traditional standards, but there is something about the piece that ‘speaks to me’, evokes a feeling in me. This is precious and that painting is priceless!
Best answer may be “no”
by oliver, TX, USA
There is a difference between answering, “How am I progressing?,” “Do you see any merit?,” and otherwise giving encouragement, to answering “Am I ready to make sales as an artist?” … To the latter question, sometimes the best answer may be “No,” sometimes the best answer may be “I don’t know but it may cost you time and effort to try”… Unless you are a gallery owner, commercial art buyer etc. willing to pay in advance for the work and make a long term commitment to the artist, buying many, many pieces (even if you are having trouble reselling them), I doubt if the answer to a new artist should ever be an unqualified “YES,” at best it should be, “We’ll give it a go — let’s see what happens.”
Don’t settle for less
by Juan Lugo, Kauai, Hawaii
I am finally fulfilling my life long dream of painting and I am amazed by the amount of “soft-critique” concerning my work. As a youth, I had to practice long hours drawing nothing more than a ball, cone and square. I was to capture the interplay of the shadows falling while moving the light source. I do not ever recall my instructor saying, “That is pretty close. You can stop now.” Quite the contrary, he would tell me things like, “If you cannot capture the simple things, how do you expect to capture the more complex interplay that life has to offer. Do not settle for anything less. Practice, practice, practice and when you no longer can; practice some more.”
Weak managerial tool
by Michael Young, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
During my managerial days (there were over 300 people in the division I headed, at one point, from Architects to warehouse workers) the idea — “Criticism is like a sandwich; it ought to be layered between two slices of praise.” was greatly frowned upon. It was called a “shit sandwich,” and was considered the weakest of managerial tools. Isn’t Art Criticism today about the work’s (artifact or performance) acceptability to its audience? Not about the artist? Any straightforward critique will reflect more about the author of the criticism than the piece under review. Whether the artist believes or accepts the opinion, and its just that — an opinion — is up to the artist. Some opinions are valuable and others not.
The rule of “no rules”
by Kimber Scott
I have just transferred to my state university after studying painting, drawing, graphic design, etc. at my local community college for three years. Fortunately, at the community college, I was lucky enough to have a drawing and painting teacher who cared about “norms” and insisted we rise to them. He spewed axioms for three hours a day, twice a week, i.e. “When one plane comes in front of another you must lower the key and feather the edge!” He insisted we look at shape and form and “Lie like a rug! You’re transferring a three dimensional world to a two dimensional surface. You can’t just draw what you see!” Now, at the university, it seems not one of those poor children know what a plane, or an edge, is — much less would they know how to lower the key of one — and shape and form are mere inconveniences. I’m shocked. Muddy, composition-less garbage earns high praises, with only minute suggestions of correction being offered — which have very little to do with helping the overall picture.
I enjoy most artistic styles — from photo realistic to outsider — if it’s done well, but well does not seem to be a requirement for creating art anymore. I thought to myself yesterday, what if an architect were to decide the rules of proper design were too restrictive and designed a house without the least bit of structural integrity? Would he be praised for his “creativeness?” Or, if a surgeon decided washing his hands was an unnecessary nuisance for performing surgery? Why should art be different?
My university experience is not all wasted. I’m enjoying being forced to think outside of the box, and this I need, but I am very happy someone taught me what the box was before being pushed to look outside of it. I find it extremely helpful to have been taught the “rules” before being encouraged to break them. Why is it so hard for purveyors of art education to embrace this theory?
It’s funny, when I participated in my first critique at the university, my painting (a very loose, but realistic, self-portrait) stood out like a sore thumb amongst a bevy of cartoonish mud puddles and I was actually afraid I would be scorned for not “fitting in.” We discussed each painting at length and I waited for my turn with an impending sense of doom. When my turn came, the first thing that was said was, “THAT’S how I wish I could paint!” Suddenly, I felt bad for the students, many of them graduating at the end of this semester, who had spent all that time and money on an art education and who still could not render a simple three dimensional form.
If the new rule is “No Rules” then art is nothing. True creativity is achieving an intended purpose within a predetermined, if only self-imposed, set of guidelines. Imagine if the Great Creator had thought it would be fun to have some people, or animals, walk around with their guts on the outside, not encased within a protective skin — just to be different? The Creator found innumerable ways to be creative while still following the “rules.” We can, at least, attempt as much.
Standards are slack
by Lawrence Philp, FL, USA
Standards are slack. We live in a time where excellence and freedom have been dummied down. I used to work at a university in an art department where I was criticized for doing my own work and making efforts to get the work out. I think that being organized in your teaching and organized in your art efforts is a good combination. I am no longer at that school. I presently make a living in other ways perhaps more suitable to an artistic type. I actually don’t make a living at selling my work and have to wash dishes, prep food for a fast food restaurant and teach for a local Adult Education Program in Flagler County, Florida. The arts have somehow encapsulated themselves into little units. These units praise the project-oriented rather than the artist in the studio. It reminds me of The Painted Word by Thomas Wolfe.
Painting in itself is a reason for living. Painting has been reported dead for a long time and each year the writing on painting is prolific. Painters have to find ways to keep on painting. My signing on to your letter was one way that I decided to help myself, get some outside views and continue my quest to paint and draw until I can’t anymore.
We as artists are in the freedom and excellence business. I am a kid from Brooklyn, New York who saw something in art that made him want to be an artist. I am fifty-four years old and I am still painting, still making stuff. I am still finding my way. One of the things that I have stressed as a teacher is to have a work ethic and a way of finding out things for one’s self. This is what is missing from the curriculum, as well as in the daily diet of artists/teachers who are graduating from art school. Missing are the stick-to-it-ness and chance-taking that I believe is a part of the artist’s path to self-discovery.
Anyone can do that
by Marlene Aikins, Penticton, BC, Canada
Modernism is complex and can please the viewer greatly or leave one cold, because, as some say, they can’t understand it. I say, what’s to understand? You either like it or you don’t. For most who try this form of painting — to haphazardly splash medium around and win some kind of acclaim due to an inept accident, is one I class as interference in true art. Study and practice should still be criteria, and knowing why you put a colour here and a line there. Those who ignore knowledge and just fall into it, don’t deserve it! The masses have been duped into believing there’s depth or mystery in a painting that makes no sense or has no discernible realistic picture. They will strive to “understand” it. There are also those who say “anyone can do that..In a lot of cases they’re right!
Dog distracts autodidact
by Gerti Hilfert, Langenfeld, Germany
I have an Airedale, “Ginger” — she’s 2 1/2 now and I love her very much. I do love her so much that I really forgot to keep my art works going on. Doing “Natural Dogmanship” with her we’re having a lot of fun – it’s like hunting together. But soon I’ll start continuing my drawings, paintings (watercolours and acrylics), carving, ceramics, sketching, cartoons. Most of this I learned as an autodidact.
Words are wonderful
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Roger, I am sitting here giggling at the latest words from the current clickback. I see we speak the same language as Dr Foth, as in “fuzzify” (a word that invariably confounds non-Allan Fotheringham-reading students). As for “shapelets” in your response about counterpoint — I love it, know just what you mean. “Liberties,” though, I wonder. A small contrapuntal liberty, perhaps? Surely not a large one. The image of Emily’s hind legs overtaking her fore describes exactly what happens when the brush moves faster than the concept. One of the best malapropisms concerns donuts (doughnuts?); since when has the traditional brass ring of the carousel been replaced by a donut? I can’t stand it, Charlie Brown — or is it Roger? Words are wonderful, and for the times when artists take themselves too seriously, words like “fuzzify” are absolutely essential to restore the sense of humour. Eh? By the way, I used to copy-edit Dr Foth’s column for Maclean’s back in the ’80s. Rarely did I find typos or fualts of any sort.
(RG note) Alan Fotheringham is a well-known Canadian columnist who seldom makes misteakes.
Kelowna fire project
Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
Thanks to those who continue to offer to donate works of art as fundraisers or as gifts for the victims of the Kelowna fires. You could send your donation to Isabelle Prenat anytime as we are collecting and storing starting now. Works are coming from Australia, Puerto Rico, US, Britain, etc. Isabelle will be driving here at some point with a lot of work.
(RG note) I’ve committed an 11 x 14 framed acrylic to this cause. If you should wish to participate, Isabelle Prenat is at 3911 Anton St, Victoria, BC, Canada, V8Z 4M4. Her phone number is (250) 704-1064. Stewart Turcotte is the brave art dealer of Kelowna of whom I wrote a recent letter (Fire Duty).
Welcome the World’s Famous Brands
painting by the Luo Brothers, Beijing, China
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Tricia Migdoll of Byron Bay, Australia, who wrote, “There was a powerful scene in the movie Dances with Wolves that became a valuable life lesson for me. It was where the Indians were having a difficult powwow. When one disagreed with another, he would first heap praise upon him before coming to the point of disagreement. Very civilized and respectful, I thought.”
And also Gertjan Zwiggelaar who wrote, “Judging from the incredibly fine work displayed in the clickbacks, I don’t think mediocrity is overly rampant in practicing artists of the day.”
And also Lida van Bers who wrote, “This is the first time your letter has upset me.”
And also Karen Rebernek who wrote, “I considered responding to your letter because I disagree with you, but it’s really not worth my time or energy. I have things to do. :)”
(RG note) Below are a few quotes related to the material in my letter about Declining standards. They are taken from the Painter’s Keys Resource of Art Quotations. The initials at the end of each are for the more than 200 volunteers who have sent in art quotations. The initials “df” for example, are for Derek Franklin who has contributed more than 1900 quotes to our resource.
Some ideas about standards and criticism
Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. (Ralph Waldo Emerson) sl
You’ve no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself — and how little I deserve it. (W. S. Gilbert) ba
If I believed what they wrote, I’d have slit my wrists a long time ago. (William Goldman) ka
A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still. (Samuel Johnson) nb
Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger. (Franklin Jones) js
Why don’t you write books people can read? (Nora Joyce to her husband James) js
Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against, not with, the wind. (Hamilton Mabie) lt
You’re there to be shot at, and that’s part of it. (Norman Mailer) ka
If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter”, then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced. (Henri Matisse) sl
To say of a picture, as is often said in its praise, that it shows great and earnest labour is to say that it is incomplete and unfit for view. (James Abbot McNeill Whistler) jb
However bad an artist, his work is his life; the worse it is the greater his vanity. (Sir Alfred Munnings) gr
The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from. (Andrew S. Tanenbaum) sh
Good, bad, or indifferent—it doesn’t matter, just work. (Shelley Winters) df