Evaluating art

August 28, 2007

Dear Rodney,

This morning Kerim Kahyagil of Istanbul, Turkey 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?"

Thanks, Kerim. 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 your 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.

Yesterday I was one of five on jury duty. 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.

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)

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."