Friday, July 8, 2016

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


Ellen Lindner said...

I love your comment, " 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…"

Yes! This is what I've been thinking about my own art lately. I no longer want to perfectly depict a photo, but to be INSPIRED by it. This is a stretch for me, but I'm really enjoying loosening up and tackling this.

(You can see my own attempts at

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thanks, Ellen!! I look forward to meeting you in November...and you're so right...we need to get beyond merely copying, we have to learn how to put our feelings and our experience into the piece.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing commentary. Really agree with your view that the "emphasis be switched from sport (running races with people coming in first, second, third etc) to education".


Kristin said...

I totally agree. Great post!

Mary Ritter said...

I only participate in juried shows these days... no more 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., although I did get my fair share of those ribbons, so this isn't sour grapes. It is more personally satisfying to just be admitted to the gallery show. Sometimes I just sit on the bench and watch the gallery visitors. They usually spend more time in front of some of the pieces, discussing and questioning what they are seeing. To me, those are successful pieces. I enjoy receiving critiques from experienced artists, but many artists seem reluctant to give or receive that sort of criticism. It's such a good way to learn and advance as an artist, which is why I enjoyed your classes so much! Thanks for another instructive blog post!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you Yarn G and Kristin!
Mary - I totally agree with your comments that many are reluctant to give's actually try of many arts! Last year I took piano lessons with a teacher who just said "very nice, dear" after everything...I learned nothing! I've taken painting classes with artists who say "just keep on working"...again you learn nothing. If you tackle them on this there are different responses:
e.g. fear of being criticized back, or of upsetting someone.
Also they say they feel they don't want to put anyone off with "just their opinion" and so on....
Some try but lack the vocabulary so they say "well it's not resolved" without explaining what that is!!
I feel that if someone has paid me good money to help them with constructive, problem solving criticism then it's a cop out on my part not to help them as much as I can with as much as I know.
I have stopped going to that piano teacher!! I've found one now who doesn't spare the comments though will often start his remarks with "Well, don't shoot me, but......"!!!

Sandy said...

Lots to consider.
Recently I was involved with an art event weekend at my local art centre and was asked to be part of the committee that organised who was taking part. (Most of it being interactive or interventions - something made to engage with the place where the event was held).
Anyway. At the event, I was introduced to someone as one of the selectors. I liked that more than a juror, though that was also what we were doing. We selected from all the proposals submitted, the ones we thought would work best for the event.

Quite different from making a shortlist of work to hang in an exhibition, because it was often about how you understood from their words what the resulting art would be. There were only a few cases where there were actual photos of completed installed in a different venue and only adapted for this one. Most were either simple sketches or photos which had the proposed look added in a photo programme.

As it was, they all exceeded what I expected. A very interesting experience.
Sandy in the UK
By the way, further to that, our submission for funding from Arts Council England was successful. So I also had the strange first time experience of getting paid to exhibit!

Anonymous said...

This blog lead my thoughts in many directions, but here is one personal observation. Being "critical" of another's work (even in the widest sense of discussing strengths as well as weaknesses)is, I find, very hard to do between peers. I agree that it's not only acceptable but also desirable from a teacher (and would be helpful from jurors if they had the time and mandate). However, the fear of being wrong, added to the fear of discouraging or hurting someone, is very inhibiting among equals. Add to this that in the fabric arts fields, by far the majority of practitioners are women, and you have an added cultural inhibition ("As women we should be encouraging, supportive, whatever.")

In an online class, I want to comment on the work of other students to "encourage, acknowledge, support" but feel I simply cannot make a remark that suggests any kind of judgment. Fortunately that's what you do, Elizabeth, but I'd like to know what you think should be the role of students in such a class.

Incidentally, I do find your suggestion (in Inspired to Design)very helpful from my own point of view:
"... don't ask 'Is it any good?'. Instead ask open-ended questions. What is the first thing you see? Where does your eye go next? What do you think this piece is about?
Perhaps one could adapt this approach to having a conversation with a peer.