Monday, September 20, 2010

Tis the Season: the juror vs the critic

 I've a lot of experience critiqueing (mainly in my online classes) and some (limited) experience as a juror and  I began to wonder about the role of the juror vs the role of the art critic.  Too often when faced with the yes/no response from a juror we tend to think of the juror as a critic…but there are actually many differences between the two.  The juror has only the y/n binary response sorting the quilts presented into two (metaphorical!) piles only...also we never know why one quilt was chosen, another rejected. Whereas the critic has a much broader role which may or may not (according to the critic, they vary) include indicating whether or not they think the art is “good” or “bad”.    Unfortunately, there are many jurors but few critics in the art quilting world.

Critical reviews are valuable to both the general public and the particular artist.  although some artists choose to disregard (or  consider invalid) a poor review, in fact, a thoughtfully written review, can help the artist gain insight into their own work,  and enable them to see it in both a wider  historical and  geographical/cultural view.  It’s hard to step back from an individual piece and see how it fits in with both one’s own body of work, and that of work being produced by other artists.

One of the goals of art criticism is to introduce the work to a wider audience – not just the art going intelligentsia, or the magazine-buying quilter, but everyone – all classes, ages, occupations and levels of society.  A lot of people out there still think of quilting as a bedding medium, not an art medium – they are truly surprised when it’s suggested that a quilt can hang on a wall! An art critic would act as a public educator: art can be paint on canvas, clay formed into vessels, glass hanging in light, fiber on a wall.  I met a well educated woman just yesterday who told me that quilting was a lost art because nobody hand quilted anymore!

Today there are many journals of art criticism offering a wide variety of reviews about art from many different angles.   We can learn so much about ourselves as well as increasing our art knowledge from looking at art, examining our reaction to it, and reading about the critic’s (hopefully more broadly educated) reaction.     I enjoy reading the short critical reviews in  magazines like Art in America, for example.   Some writers focus on describing the work – perhaps in ways I had seen, or perhaps not.  Others compare the work to other artists..which can lead one to follow a trail that broadens and has many side trails!  Some offer value judgments with which one might agree or disagree – but all the reviews make you spend more time thinking about the art. 

Most critics feel that the phrase “art should speak for itself” is a cliche.  They suggest that art is strongest when it forces the viewer to engage with the artist.  The work should entice one into conversation, but not  be a direct obvious advertising-like statement that leads one to put up the shutters, rather than peer in through the window! (o yes the glory of the closely stitched mixed metaphor!)  Stay tuned!!!  I don't want to be hit in the face with the obviousness of your image,   I want to be intrigued enough to want to stay and figure out what is going on for myself…intrigue me, entice me, question me and pull me in…

A critic, of course, may have his/her own agenda.  Clement Greenberg was famous for his desire to drive a revolution bringing change and progress to the contemporary art world – he has been called the “Moses of the art world” – feeling that he was the one with the vital set of rules on stone tablets tucked under his arm….but today’s critics are less didactic though alas, often very dense in their writing.    Greenberg felt that one couldn’t intellectually determine one’s response to art: that one should follow one’s automatic response with bravado and nerve and then work hard to “determine the difference between good and bad”.    One of the exercises I have done in my workshops is to show very good and very bad art - (IMO of course!) - not stating what I think of  the work, allow a discussion to take place - if you think it's good (or bad), then tell us why....

 Other critics have sought to show the public the connection between a society, its culture and its art.   They feel that the art should communicate about that culture rather than adhere to specific aesthetic goals (which can often render the art as dated by “fashion” within the art world).   All seek to educate us, and to encourage us to spend more time with art.  I think that this is very difficult for today's quilters - how to hold onto the tradition and at the same time make one's work relevant to today's culture?  I find myself doing one thing or the other, and entering the work into different shows bearing in mind the particular bent of  the juror.

Criticism has been defined as using language to explore visual images: trying to clarify one’s thoughts, emotions and understanding about a particular work.   It should help us to see why we respond to this landscape, and not that one – when they may both be views of the same river.  Why is this one more effective than that?   From this kind of criticism, we can learn how to strengthen design, how to make better art, as well as how to understand and enjoy good lasting art – rather than art that is like candyfloss, a quick cheap flick of sweetness that soon grows stale.  

  The critic’s task is to put into words the effect that a work of art can have upon us.    Thus the importance of the dance of communication between artist, the critic and the viewer.  
I wish  we had more art critics writing about art quilts, and didn’t have just those yes/no responses, all of us -   art quilt makers, and viewers and collectors  - would be better served.
So, what d’you think? Can the emphasis be switched from sport (running races with people coming in first, second, third etc) to education (leading us to a broader understanding of what the medium is about and what it can do)?

If you have been.....thanks for reading…. all comments Very Welcome!    Elizabeth


Marianne ( said...

I think it could be helpful to the quilt world if more quilters chose to exhibit their work with work of artists who work in different mediums. I very rarely go to quilt exhibitions because there aren't many where I live but even when I do go I get overwhelmed when faced with hundreds of quilts hung like sardines in a can. It is like the supermarket aisles. Rarely would you see paintings or sculptures exhibited so close together. Is it really surprising that the quilt world find it hard to attract art critics? Some years ago I was very lucky that a local exhibition space put on an exhibition where 4 artists put in work - a quiltmaker, a ceramist, a painter and an artist working in wrought iron. It was very refreshing seeing how these very different materials came together. I read a review later that expressed surprise at how versatile all 4 disciplines are! The reviewer was very enthusiastic. Could the way forward for the quilters be that they reduced the number of quilt only exhibitions for a while and concentrated more on mixing with other artists?

Unknown said...

Marianne's points are well taken, however, at least locally, I've had difficulty getting art establishments to recognize the quilt as "art", so hanging things outside of the traditional quilt shows (where they often are hung like sardines in a can) is difficult. I write exhibition proposals for the local art quilt guild and am turned down often...only finding places to show in nature centers and churches.

I agree that we need to employ critiques in our satchel of tools. It is difficult for many of us to separate a useful "critique" from "criticism." Learning how to critique so that people's feelings aren't hurt and that a useful outcome is produced is more difficult. Learning to ignore our "I don't like it because...." to "I don't think that the ground works, perhaps it would be better if" is something which takes work for most of us.

In general, I think, if you mention "critique" or "art criticism" to art quilters, it often makes us quake in our boots. To learn how to critique well is something which takes effort, almost as much as learning (assimilating) all the elements of well it should be because you can't critique well until you have those elements mastered.

In addition, we have more elements to learn than many traditional arts...we have texture and yes...I still think craftmanship has a place in our critiquing toolbox.

Your post, as usual, Elizabeth, is right on target.

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you Marianne and Michigoose for your very thoughtful comments. I agree totally that we should be trying to get our work into mixed media shows..I know there are online lists of upcoming fiber shows, but I don't know about mixed media shows. We have three or four locally and I always try to enter - and spread the word! Have even been lucky enough to get a BOS or First prize in these shows, something I've never achieved in a quilt show! I love the idea too of looking for shows for a mixed group of artistic mediums - quilts definitely look better when mixed with 3D art than with lots of other "sardines"! (great metaphor).

And critique and criticism are slightly different. Critique usually applies (I think) to individual work in a classroom setting, whereas criticism is usually a written piece published for the public at large to read. The former would be valuable mainly to the artist, but the latter would educate us all. some seem to think that quilts should be judged to a different set of standards, but I think the same guidelines re strengths and weaknesses apply to all mediums. The parallels are far more striking than the differences.

Kathleen Loomis said...

It's also possible that the jurors in the important quilt shows could emerge briefly from their isolation booths to provide a little criticism to go along with the yes/no choices.

Some of that pops out occasionally in the Quilt National or Visions catalogs, but show organizers could do more. How about a jurors' statement in the signage or in the notebook of every show that is trying to be art?

I suspect, darkly, that the reason we art quilters as a community don't do this is that we're too NICE. Far worse to potentially make somebody feel bad than to encourage many, many others to do better work. With that attitude, criticism won't do us much good.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you for your comment, Kathy! And I agree: I do wonder if "niceness" isn't a part of it! I don't think it's limited to the quilt world sadly - certainly in schools these days very little honest assessment appears to be given. But a reviewer might get around this by talking in generalities..when you look at quilt shows, you can see general strengths and general weaknesses as well as specific excellence and specific ipecac!

Anonymous said...

I feel that some quilts are art and others are craft. The former being original in every way, the latter using patterns created by others. There is no doubt that if media installations are art and now fashion is being considered art, quilts are art;however, mixing quilt art with quilt craft in the same setting, especially in the grocery store/sardine can arrangement, takes something away from the quilt art as an art form worthy of recognition in the hearts and minds of, not only art critics, but the general public.

Mary Beth said...

What a very interesting post and conversation. Helping people learn about looking at their own work rationally would be helpful too. I know what warts my own work has. Sometimes I hear the internal chat rationalizing some design decision. Others may or may not agree with the choices but if I'm rationalizing it to myself, I certainly begin to wonder - LOL!

If we could make statements about our own work, would it be easier to look more calmly at the work of others?