Evaluating art


Dear Artist,

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?”


“Cactus Kiss” (from Urban Bourbon series) 1988
painting on mirrored aluminum
124.5 x 154.3 cm. (49 x 60.7 in.)
by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008)

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.


“Gossip” (Marrakitch) 2000
screenprint on paper
by Robert Rauschenberg



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.


“A Doodle” (Borealis) 1990
acrylic and tarnishes on brass
72 3/4 x 96 3/4 inches (184.8 x 245.7 cm)
by Robert Rauschenberg

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.

Best regards,


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)


“Creek” 1964
artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

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.


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“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)



  1. In Art School I took a class called philosophy. We didn’t get too far into the textbook and I spent years studying it myself afterwards. Aestheticians have thought about Art for a long time now and I believe that it’s worth considering their thoughts.
    My professor didn’t get into it with the class but he did give me personally a list of “Critical Criteria for FINE ART” I think it is worth considering.
    The list named 5 considerations in an an ascending order from lowest to highest, 5th being the lowest. I intend to give them here with out explanation. It would take volumes to actually go into that.
    I would like to preface this with the statement that “WHAT WE APPRECIATE IN A WORK OF ART IS THE GENIUS OF THE ARTIST.” All Art is a HUMAN ARTIFACT. (for those of you who have a piece of drift wood on your table and think it is FINE ART…IT IS NOT! You can appreciate it aesthetically, but that DOESN”T MAKE IT ART!
    OK…5th- or lowest criteria that is worth considering as to judging the quality of a piece of “ART”, or even if something is a piece of Art……. is Skill, Technique: that would be about judging or appreciating the level of mastery of the methods, mediums, and physical abilities of the artist.
    4th- Choice of Subject Matter: What is it that interests this exceptional mind that is manifesting….but don’t forget that in ART, it’s not what it is but HOW it is what it is.
    3rd-Formal Design: Art is both expressive and communicative and it does this through Composing the Elements of Form into a work. Formal Empathy is very significant in the appreciation of FINE ART. (…a plug for my book which is an introduction to formal empathy “Composition and the Elements of Form by Leonard Melkus Jr.” available on line at Amazon etc.)
    2nd-Degree and Quality of Intellectual and Moral Content Expressed: Remember, Aesthetics is about a value judgement. Beauty doesn’t exist as an objective substance.
    1st-The Supreme Unity of Formal Properties and Expressed Content:Do all of the formal elements work together perfectly in this exceptional manifestation of creative genius to communicate what the Artist is expressing?

    I hope that after you spend some time considering these points, you find what My professor offered me as enlightening as I do.

    • Well done Sir,
      That is probably the most credible and intelligent method of evaluation that I have read ,it sweeps away confusions and strictures that produce egg bound confounded appraisal that purports to be honest .

    • Mr Melkus I love to paint and create. I can look at paintings of the older painters and from their interpretation I see where I can produce a work of art which comes from my soul. Sometimes it comes to me almost immediately but there are those times when I have come back to a work and a couple of years have passed before I got that painting where in my eyes mind “Yes That’s It”. I’m basically a landscape artist and I have seen them all. Nobody puts a work of art together like for example Albert Bierstadt or somebody like a Frederick E. Church. So what you have revealed makes more sense as to what constitutes a real work of art. Today we have to much plagiarism. We have no original art to speak of. because either the work is either a hodgepodge or a fake. So in summing up I would say to you don’t compromise for the sake of the majority. Originality is the light that comes out of the deep dark majority. Good luck to you. Eddie Walsh

  2. too intellectual for me. Art is about experience and any of those criteria may not hold, but what the artist experieced somehow communicates to you.

    • instead of trying to see the flower in its original and entire beauty , you look at it through colored glasses , and therefore you can never see it , as it is !

  3. Wow, that is honesty! Saying you want to own a painting because you like to say the artists name, “Rauschenberg, Rauschenberg.” I agree with Robert, that people say things “publicly” that maybe they dont really feel, for whatever the reason. But, with maturity, I agree with Robert, again, “that you have to set your own standards” and “paddle your own canoe”. Then, you know what you like in art, and other things. And that makes it easier to make honest decisions about what you like, and what you don’t like.

  4. Just had three of my pieces rejected by a jury process for inclusion in a local art expo here in Colorado. I really related to Robert’s thoughtful and succinctly worded advice: 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.

    This has softened the rejection and now back to my room I go………..

  5. Barry Salaberry on

    I attempt to practice the following advice, given by Rilke to a young poet who sought his wisdom:
    Letters to a Young Poet:
    And if out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses… Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other. Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.
    -Rainer Maria Rilke

    • ” the healling of the mind is something totaly different. that healling gradually takes place if aman -one with nature , with that orange on the tree ,and the blade of grass that pushes trough the cement ,and the hills covered hidden , by the clouds ! ,, and immaturity lies only in total ignorance of self, to understand oneself , is the beining of wisdom,
      so an artist who paints a picture because he must , otherwise he is unhappy – not unhappy , but he must obey , only , creative impulse ,,

    • LOVE this Barry, thank you for sharing.

      I pretty much aim to please myself. I want to please others but I don’t make my art with that intention. If a piece happens to please someone else, it’s a bonus. And absolutely I MUST create and feel the need to express myself in a way that has no explanation nor needs interpretation.

      And as far as this article goes, evaluating art is pointless. It’s like trying to measure love or beauty. You can’t. And isn’t art first of all in all it’s forms an expression of self? Whether that expression is “I like pink” or “war is wrong”, an expression is like an opinion and can’t be seen as a fact or judged as wrong or right.

      I’ve learned after many years of rejection is that it’s not a reflection of good or bad. It’s just not what was chosen by that particular juror/s and that time for their needs.

      Good stuff here though!

    • It seems to me that the creation exists to connect humans and therefore, if the creator gains afirmation that the intended message is understood, that is another level in evaluation of success of the work.
      Otherwise, the “Greatest poem, painting, novel”, may as well exist in my head. There is no need to express it.
      This article warrants revisiting on a regular basis.

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