A = A

Posted on June 27, 2011 in Blog Post, Editorial, Exhibitions, Philosophy, Plein Air Painting

What is going on here?

Exactly how are we valuing our art?

One’s expectation of reality should never interfere with their ability to perceive reality.
– Richard Schmid

Before I talk about how the Cedarburg Event wrapped up, what my results were, I want to tell you about a conversation that I had shortly after the event closed, which I am still contemplating, and my criteria for evaluating a painting.

Just prior to attending the artist post-event party thrown by the remarkably generous Shoenenberger home, I was congratulating the awarded artists whom I knew, which inevitably ended up in long conversations about art. The last of these involved my friends Brian and Bonnie, both of whom are more established artists than I, both of whom won awards.

We ended up discussing the judging of the event, and at one point I expressed an opinion that good paintings are good paintings because they rise to a standard that is recognizable. By this I also meant that there is a standard by which to evaluate the value of a painting, or towards which to strive for excellence, regardless of style. I did this while inwardly reasserting to myself that if my paintings were better, they would have been recognized and they would more likely have sold.

I forget the order in which these responses were stated, however, Bonnie said that there is no standard, there was no way to determine standards which could be applied fairly to all paintings. Brian said that it’s always a crap-shoot with regards to what the judges liked, collectively or individually. Brian said that jurors are capable of evaluating artwork which may not be done in their style or preference of technique, yet still appreciate the skill required to accomplish it. Bonnie also stated that each juror brings their own unique set of standards by which to judge paintings. She also said (I’m paraphrasing here) that in the end, these events usually culminate in a consensus, regardless of personal style, background, interest or preference, the jurors often come to an agreement on the work most worth merit.

I am trying now to reconcile these statements, which I believe to be in many ways contradictory. This is important to me because I believe that one’s actions and statements should be consistent with their philosophy. Follow me through these premises and try to make sense of it:

  1. Jurors have unique and varied interests, personal styles, and standards.
  2. The unique interests, personal styles and standards of a juror will affect their decisions of whom to award.
  3. Jurors are capable of awarding work that may not reflect their personal styles, interest or standards.
  4. Jurors often come to a consensus (agreement) on awarding artwork.
  5. There is no standard that can be fairly used to evaluate all paintings.
  6. There is no way to know what jurors will choose (crapshoot).
  7. An artist should not endeavor to paint in a manner that will appease the jurors.
  8. Artists should not take the results personally.

I think that’s every premise raised. So:

If premise #4 is true, how can #1, #2, #5 or #6 also be true?
If premise #4 is not true, but #1, #2, #5 and #6 are true, how can #8 be true?
If premises #3 and #6 are true, how can you possibly do #7?
If premise #5 is true, then why should any award mean anything?

It would seem to me that these events will either mean everything or they will mean nothing whatsoever. And if they mean nothing whatsoever, why are we doing this?

About a year ago, I came to the following conclusion: I have to believe that good work within a genre (comparing apples to apples), will tell. That there are qualities or characteristics that an artist can display, regardless of personal style and in some ways, regardless of choice of subject matter, that will demonstrate excellence, and lacking these, will not. I have to believe this because if this is not true, then these competitions, the awards and peer acclaim are all meaningless.

Sales may or may not result from an exhibition, with regards to that, there are more outside factors to consider, economics being not the least, but also promotion of the event, format of sale (auction vs. silent bids, etc.), overall pricing, etc. There is also the whim of the uneducated public (that sounds snooty, but I don’t mean it that way – fads exist for reasons that have nothing to do with the evolution of our tradition of painting), and the ubiquitous fancy of the art investor, and their expectation on returns.

I want to take a moment to state that art done strictly for oneself is not art, it is either a form of therapy or vanity. Art needs an audience, even if that audience is only one person, in order to have significance. Although personal tastes may vary, I have to believe that a good painting will be recognizable in spite of those tastes. At these events, there are in fact several audiences. There is the public at large, comprised of private owners, prospective buyers, and collectors. There is the personal audience, one’s family, one’s patrons, those who are following a particular artist or style within this genre. There is the audience of one’s peers, and then also of one’s seniors within the community (some of whom presumably comprise the jurors for the event). Last would be a specialized audience of gallery owners, agents, and those in an industry which trades in artwork (such as interior design).

An educated audience will apply criteria for evaluating a painting that an uneducated, or poorly educated audience will not. Neither criteria, by the way, is more right than the other, it is what it is. A specialized interest will also have seperate criteria for evaluating a painting. I do believe, however, that if a painting is good enough, there will be a recognition of that fact, regardless of which audience evaluates it, it will rise above these separate criteria and reassert its excellence.

So, to further clarify what I mean by criteria, here is my criteria for evaluating a painting, a system I owe largely to Ron Bitticks and Richard Schmid:

Evaluating a painting can only ever come down to two issues: What and How.

By What I am referring to one’s choice of subject matter, the issues it brings with it in terms of meaning (symbolic, mnemonic, relational, metaphoric, and/or literal), as well as what can be discerned about the artist’s intent.

By How I am referring to every other technical decision made in the construction of the painting. In terms of How, we can evaluate a painting in each of these areas:

  • Drawing – How sensitively, accurately or convincingly the subject matter is rendered, what has been simplified, omitted, included, etc.
  • Value Structure – The arrangement of values, their relationships to the overall composition, use of contrast, etc.
  • Color – This includes the choice of colors used, their and relationships to cause contrast, harmony and emotional impact. This also includes the way in which color describes the light.
  • Handling – This relates to control of one’s Edges, texture, and to any decision made to effect the focal point of the piece by how the edges are rendered relative to the rest of the painting.
  • Composition – The decisions as to framing the subject matter within the picture plane and the overall affect this achieves.
  • Message Content – This has to do with any layers of meaning brought to the painting, how deftly or successfully this was done. This can be emotional, political, symbolic, cultural, etc.
  • Raison d’Etre – What is the evident reason for this painting, and how well is this intention delivered?
  • Presentation – This deals most with framing, after the work is finished, as well as marketing.

I also think that what we commonly attribute to “style” – especially within a set genre such as Plein Air painting – is often simply a combination of choices made (or abdicated) in terms of subject matter, paint handling, color choice and decisions about presentation, as well as perception and skill, or shortcomings in perception and skill, pertaining to realizing the idea. The argument that painters will all see things differently, therefore cannot be fairly held to the same standard just doesn’t hold water with me. All painters work with the same tools (i.e. – my list above), and can agree on examples of other artists who excel in each of those areas, therefore can be compared to a standard.

Now here is one of the problems with jurying artwork. Jurors can know and debate some of these characteristics, but in the case of a Plein Air event, for example, where they may have your name, the title of the piece, and not much else to go on, (such as an artist statement, a paragraph describing your choice of subject matter, a photograph to compare your work to, or the story behind the painting in question), they can really only speculate vaguely about your intention, and how convincingly the picture you created comes to realizing that intention. Because of this, they often have to give the benefit of the doubt to the artist that any liberties taken with regards to the description of form, or arrangement of elements, or choice of color, were in fact intentional unless enough inconsistencies exist within the image to provide argument to the contrary.

Having gotten that off my chest, I should say that I neither won an award, nor sold anything this weekend. It took me some time to conquer my great disappointment. I spent ten days and not a small amount of money and time doing what I feel is some of my best work to date. I take these things personally.

But the fact is that the work simply wasn’t good enough. I know there are some of you out there who would argue with me over this, offering the litany of excuses and platitudes that we all consider (it just wasn’t your day, the judges just had different preferences, etc.), but the fact remains that if my work was better, it would have transcended the vagaries of personal prejudice and preference and held their attention. I will simply have to do better next year.

Here is the summary of this year’s event, just one way I like to evaluate the success of my endeavors:

  • Cost of Panels, Canvas, Gesso: $300
  • Oil Paint, Solvent, Medium: $27
  • Frames, Refurbishing Supplies: $45
  • Brushes: $110
  • Time Preparing panels, frames & gear: 30+ hours (prior to event)
  • Time Spent Painting: 54 hours (from 6/15-6/25)
  • Time spent standing in the rain: 5.5 hours
  • Trips to Cedarburg: 11
  • Time spent on the road: About 10 hours
  • Gasoline: $200
  • Meals: $100
  • Paintings Attempted: 11
  • Paintings Finished: 7
  • Awards: None
  • Sales: None
  • Great Conversations: 9
  • Left over panels: 13 (3-6×8, 1-8×8, 1-7×7, 4-8×10, 1-11×14, 2-16×18, 1-9×12)

A worthwhile experience, but hardly profitable. That has to change.