A subscriber wrote, “I used to evaluate paintings by looking at composition, technique, color, tone, texture, perspective, etc. Now I realize that even though these are important, they are really about craft and artisanship. I now think they come at a lower priority than the totality. I’ve rewritten my evaluation process: 30 points when the passing viewer comes to a stop. 30 points if viewer gets the point — message, feeling, mood. If too explicit, I deduct points. 35 points to artisanship as before. If, after a year, the viewer still enjoys looking at the painting, it’s worth another 5 points. Does this system make sense?”
Not really. All rigid evaluation systems eventually get the heave-ho. There are so many reasons to accept or reject a work of art. In such a complex percentage system, it would be impossible to get real thoughts and feelings from collectors. Further, collectors are not everybody — there are the vastly different points of view of artists, investors, decorators, critics, mothers, etc. Sometimes a painting has everything wrong with it and yet it totally rings someone’s bells. Inexplicable.
I was one of five on jury duty and, while the entire slate was already chosen and hung, we had to choose thirteen winners of cash prizes. As painters ourselves, we all started with the knowledge that our choices might not be the public’s choices. Also, because the collection had both realistic work and cutting-edge modernism, there was the need to present an open-minded balance. Some of the paintings definitely stopped us dead in our tracks, although they didn’t always get our votes. Scratching my head, I couldn’t help thinking my old evil thoughts. Why not let everyone who comes to the show — both artists and the general public — vote on the work by secret ballot? Give out the green stuff accordingly at the end.
As all evaluation systems are suspect, there’s another way for creative people to approach the game. Pay no attention to what anybody thinks. Set your own standards. Paddle your own canoe. This includes not putting yourself at the mercy of kangaroo courts. Simply become your own jury and prize-giver. The real prize comes to the artist when the work is made, and if it’s truly worthy and anyone wants to vote for it down the line, maybe they’ll track you down.
PS: “The King, not wanting to appear a fool, said, ‘Isn’t it grand! Isn’t it fine! Look at the cut, the style, the line!’” (from the story by Hans Christian Andersen, The King’s New Clothes, as told by Danny Kaye)
Esoterica: If expert opinion is suspect, so is that of the general crowd. Public opinion polls are notoriously faulty. People will say they want to buy small, economical cars — then they go out and get gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. In art they give lip service to imagination and creativity, but when push comes to shove it’s often security, conformity and provenance that win the day. One can only conclude that we are a deceptive lot. A friend of mine just had to have a Rauschenberg and went to New York to get one. He didn’t care so much what the painting was about, as long as it was a Rauschenberg. When I asked him why he wanted a Rauschenberg, he told me he liked saying the name. “Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg.”
This letter was originally published as “Evaluating art” on August 28, 2007.
“Painting is always strongest when in spite of composition, color, etc., it appears as a fact, or an inevitability, as opposed to a souvenir or arrangement.” (Robert Rauschenberg)