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Friday, October 7, 2016

Critiquing Art

I get asked to attend a lot of shows and to review a lot of portfolios from other artists. No review of work is complete if you are only telling the artist that their work is good or their work sucks. I like to look at a critical evaluation of a piece of art like the building of a wall. One brick doesn't make a building. Many bricks do. Saying "good" or "bad" is the equivalent of one brick. 

I also feel like I need to make sure I am applying the same set standards to each piece of work I look at and give it as objective a review as I can manage. I feel sometimes that art critics and gallery owners do not use as impartial a set of standards as they should. I've seen professionals in the art world apply very personal standards and biases and I think this hurts the art world. Because all art is subjective. Its all the eye of the beholder whether they like a piece or not. So professionals should hold themselves to a higher set of rules and guidelines.

When I started getting an upsurge in artists asking me to look at their work, I created for myself what I felt was fair set of standards for how I judge that work. I don't apply these standards in every case because if I am looking at the art of a student or an intern I do not think its fair to apply the same set of standards I would give an established artist with a portfolio. Plus I think I have an obligation to encourage developing artists who may not have a complete set of skills rather than discourage them. 

But with that in mind, while I am working with emerging artists I want to teach them how to obtain the same high level of standards which a piece of art should always embody. 

My system works along the following lines. I assign a number from a scale that looks like this:

-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5

If a piece of work makes no impact I assign it a 0. If it makes a negative impact in a specific category then the number may go into the negatives. If it makes a positive impact thus the positive.

I assign a number to each of the categories listed below. Again, some amount of subjectivity must play into it, but I try hard to set my own personal preferences aside during this process. I do not assign a final score to a piece of art. This is not a term paper or a high school test. Blanket scores tend to be focused on exclusively instead of looking critically at why each category score was arrived at. I do take a moment to give the artist a synopsis of "why" certain things were scored a certain way so they have an analysis that is helpful.

So here are my categories. 
  • Composition - The overall composition of the piece
  • Materials - The materials used to create the piece, the creativity of such materials, the unique aspects and the originality of the materials.
  • Originality - How original is the piece in idea, variations, etc
  • Use of Symmetry - How symmetric is the piece. Does the artist understand how to use symmetry effectively, or lack the basic understanding
  • Use of Color - How was the color palette put together? Do colors work cooperatively? Do they clash? 
  • Spontaneity - The spontaneity of a piece involves whether it came fully springing from the artists mind, or was well thought out. 
  • Artist - The art and the artist are linked. Reputation, enthusiasm, overall demeanor play into the piece. If you are merely viewing the piece online with any information about the artist then the scale is always 0
  • Presentation - How the piece was presented to the viewer. Were steps taken to make the presentation effective or was the art simply sitting on an easel?
  • Initial Viewing Reaction - What was my initial reaction to seeing the piece in the first few moments? Surprise, mediocre? etc
  • Gut Reaction - There is always a gut reaction to seeing anything. Is the gut reaction positive or negative or null?
  • Sellability/Resell Value - Is the art easy to sell, easy to ship, easy to display in a home. Based on similar pieces how well would it sell on the open art market? Since some pieces are created for effect rather than sell, the rating would be 0
  • Title - There is nothing more important than an effective title for a piece. 
Lets look at a piece of art using the rating system. Since I've not seen the piece in person (which is often the case when reviewing a portfolio), I only have photographs and information about the piece to go by. So here we go.

Artist: Xu Bing
Title: Tiger Rug (no official title was found for the piece)

Composition: +5
Materials: +5
Originality: +5
Symmetry: +5
Color: +5
Spontaneity: +5
Artist: +5
Presentation: +5
Initial Reaction: +5
Gut Reaction: +5
Sellability: 0
Title: -3

Synopsis: As you can tell my initial reaction to this piece was amazement. I can honestly say I'd never seen it before until I saw the first photo and then took a few minutes to read about it. Criteria wise it rates a +5 in almost every category with the exception of sellability. For obvious reasons it is not the kind of art that could be sold to the highest bidder. With that in mind the sellability rates a 0. The low score in title results from two things. First I can only find references to "tiger rug" as the label for it and it is often referred to by its exhibition name which was "Tobacco Project". If it has an official title I was unable to locate it. With this in mind I am basing the score on "tiger rug" being the official name therefore it rates a lower score because the title is rather weak. All it does is describe the piece. It does little to set the imagination on fire or give reference to anything but the basic description which any viewer would know just from looking at it. 

Now lets look at another  piece

Artist: Jeff Koons
Title: Play-Doh

Composition: +2
Materials: +5
Originality: +5
Symmetry: -3
Use of Color: +1
Spontaneity: +4
Artist: -5
Presentation: +1
Initial Reaction: +2
Gut Reaction: -3
Sellability: -1
Title: -5 

Synopsis: I'm assuming since the piece is listed with a gallery that it is for sale. With this in mind its sellability rating is very low. Since the piece is huge, its chances of a buyer are reduced unless bought by a museum or a city looking for art. My gut reaction was that it just looked like a pile of paint chips, which can be beautiful if artfully arranged, but I'm not sure in a random pile really works. I dropped the score on the use of color because I felt like even though play doh comes in primary colors that it just isn't a very exciting color scheme. I also felt the presentation was lacking. Its just a white platform. There in the middle of a room. There is not much about the presentation to rate a higher score. My gut reaction was low because I just feel its overall a weak piece of art. Lastly the title rated the lowest score because "play doh" is again just a simple descriptor. If the name had been "A Childs Play-Doh Fantasy" or something like that, I would have given it a higher rating. Lastly you'll notice I gave the artist himself a -5 rating. I admit this is a more subjective rating because I feel this particular artist should be a used car salesman rather than an artist selling at $100,000 a piece. No more said on this. 

In closing, one should never be discouraged by the opinions of one critic. Again all art is subjective. What one hates another loves. But with that said, if you are going to give an artist constructive criticism that he/she can use, it is not enough to say "I hated it" or "I loved it". You must give them information that betters them as artists. I think this rating system comes closer to doing so than my just looking at a piece of art and giving it a blanket judgement. 

I am sure in the coming years this system will adapt, change and grow. No system should ever be static but evolve along with ourselves and not just be critical but helpful to a new generation of artists yet to come.

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