Summer Break: Week 2 — Responses To Last Week’s Post

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Echoes Of Danno

Last week’s post resulted in more than the normal number of responses, most of them via email. This post discusses some of those responses and answers some questions.

First, though, I feel the need to stress that I had no intention of whining in that post. I was exploring the nature of the jurying process and what the jury might have been trying to communicate with the decisions they made. I don’t have any real answers about that as I have yet to discuss it with any jury members. Eventually, I hope to do that, but the term is basically over, and they will be off doing personal life stuff rather than being around to answer my questions. Time will tell.

Also, of course, prepping for and putting up the grad show takes an enormous amount of time and effort from everyone involved. Imposing on my instructors while all of that is going on would be a bad move.

So, let’s get started.

A question I was asked a couple of times in different ways is this: What is “jurying”? Given the number of times this was asked, others were probably confused by the term as well, so an explanation seems wise.

To over simplify a bit, art shows or exhibits come in two kinds: juried and non-juried. In the latter, the artist(s) showing work select what they want to show themselves. There is no guiding hand picking a theme, style, or message. Quality isn’t even assessed, except insofar as the artist does so.

A juried show or exhibit is different. Such a show has a jury that picks the works to be displayed. The jury may be just one person (a curator at a small gallery, for example) or it may be a group of people that collectively determine what works are admitted into the show. Sometimes the jury consists of one or more well known artists, or some of the staff of a museum, and so on. In the case of the Langara College Fine Arts Graduate Show, the jury includes all the instructors in the Fine Arts Department. They get to choose (and argue over) which pieces are displayed in the show, selected from those submitted for consideration by the students participating in the show.

To clarify the terminology:

  • A “jury” reviews the works submitted by the artist(s) and selects some for inclusion in a show or exhibit
  • Works may be “juried in” (that is, included in the show) or “juried out” (excluded)
  • The overall process is called “jurying”

With that out of the way, it’s time to discuss the comments I received.

That post was, without doubt, good for my ego. Everyone who commented liked Echoes of Danno and wondered at the decision not to include it in the show. Several people told me that is it among the better pieces I have ever carved, and that I should not let the decision get to me. Like Isaac Asimov, it seems I need to find a source of corrective hats.

Beyond that, several readers drew a distinction between “art” and “Art” in one way or another. “Art” (with a capital “A”) is seen as a bit exclusionary, stuffy, and (particularly) arbitrary. At least some people think “Art” must provoke some response in the viewer, and that a simple recognition of beauty by itself isn’t “Art”. Note that being provocative doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific, like something sexual or political. Instead it seems “Art” must in some way be more than simply pretty.

On the other hand, “art” (with a lowercase “a”) has a different nuance behind it. It may simply be nice to look at, or prompt consideration through less aggressive means than “Art”. Some also see “art” as being created outside the institutions (museums, galleries, etc.) that show (and sell) “Art”.

There was definitely some frustration expressed with “Art” as defined in this way, and the instruction that goes with it. The apparent arbitrary nature of things bothers a number of those who wrote. Interestingly, the examples they cited when describing this frustration varied a fair bit, from modern art generally, to specific artistic techniques, to the specifics of the language used to describe some works. You’re a diverse bunch. Thank you for that.

Again, I am attempting to summarize what my readers said in their replies, not present a detailed analysis from the perspective of art theory or history. These ideas are interesting, though, and while I cannot claim I have a statistically valid sample supporting this summary, I see some truth in it, at least in the sense that some people who interact with art (or “Art”) perceive it in these ways. How important that is may have a lot to do with where a given person falls in the spectrum, ranging from “Art institution insider” to someone completely untrained, who happens to see a work somewhere.

As I alluded to in the previous post, there is a long history of juries rejecting art that was seen as good (or important, relevant, provocative, or at least interesting) by others, and significant fallout from such rejections in some cases. The Salon des Refusés is one example, and there are others.

A few of my readers told me a bit about their own artistic preferences, and I have to say that I found it interesting that these varied all over the map. They were united only in that in each of these cases the commentator liked Echoes of Danno. If collectively put on a jury, though, I think there would have been a lot of arguing amongst you about other pieces that might be admitted to a show.

One person asked the question: Is creating work that sells enough for me, or do I have to create work that appeals to the “institution” of art — museums, galleries, and so on? It turns out there is an interesting wrinkle that question that is not obvious to my American readers. Here in Canada, there are ways to be paid for creating and showing art that will never sell. It’s complicated, and I have only a limited exposure to it, but many galleries pay artists a fee for simply showing their work. It is possible to earn at least some money — and perhaps enough to make a living, if you’re good enough and show work often enough — by creating and showing art. There is government funding available at various levels to make that possible, and it’s viewed as analogous to paying a singer to perform. The experience is what is being supported, and the artist is providing that experience

Americans like me — and others who don’t expect government support for the arts — are not used to that idea, and the presence of that funding can change how artists interact with both the market and the creative process. I am still fumbling with the basics of the concept, and I have no idea if it will ever matter to me, but it clearly makes some kinds of art possible that otherwise would never be created. There are other options in the creative process than creating “art” (with a lowercase “a”) that will sell, or “Art” (with the uppercase “A”) that will be provocative and might pique the interest of the institutional community. (Note that I am completely discarding the very high end art market here — the one currently talking about Jeff Koons’ Rabbit selling for something like $70,000,000 soon. Yes, seventy million dollars. That market is distorted beyond reason by the vast wealth of the participants in it. I cannot imagine becoming a part of that charade.)

Somewhat embarrassingly, at least two people asked if perhaps Echoes of Danno was too good for inclusion in the show. That is, was it rejected to keep from showing others up? Honestly I dislike even writing that idea out. Firstly because I would never claim to be that good at anything in my life, but also because I saw the quality of the other stone works created in that class. I know that while my own work was good, others were as well. Certainly there were enough good ones that jurors could differ over interests and preferences, rather than any inherent quality difference in the works themselves. As a result, I have to reject this notion, though having people suggest it does, once again, inflate my ego a bit.

Another pair of suggestions demonstrates the dichotomy of the responses I got. Perhaps, some said, the jurors felt I had too completely dominated the stone when I worked it, rather than letting it suggest (or drive) the composition. Others suggested the exact opposite: that perhaps I had been too open to letting the stone tell me how to compose the work, how to feature its flaws and transparency, etc. I find it amusing that different people could see such different things, and I honestly wonder about the quality of my writing as a result. In the end, though, these kinds of considerations go back the jurying process into which I still lack insight.

I got one request for more writing on art jargon and my frustrations with it. I’d intended to include that here, but I am going too long already. Maybe in a later post.

Finally, I think most of my commentators remarked on the fact that everyone’s preferences differ, and that juries will do odd things as a result. Without doubt that is true. In fact, the same people on a jury might come to different decisions depending on many arbitrary and unrelated things like the weather, how recently they ate, the state of the relationships in their lives, and so on. As always with humans, the variables that impact behaviour are effectively infinite.

For the moment, the decisions of the jury are opaque, and they may remain so. But there are two things that came up in the responses that I am attempting to take to heart:

First, one person mentioned Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, an interesting approach to the teaching of art. Or rather, craft. Apparently, Walter Gropius said this:

Art itself cannot be taught, but craftsmanship can. Architects, painters, sculptors are all craftsmen in the original sense of the word. Thus it is a fundamental requirement of all artistic creativity that every student undergo a thorough training in the workshops of all branches of the crafts.

There is something valuable in that. I taught stone carving with a friend — as a craft — for most of two decades, and I think we were/are pretty good at it. I take some measure of pride from what the students we taught accomplish while working with stone, and I see value in both the teaching we did together and the works our students create.

The other important point that was driven home repeatedly in the very generous answers I got was that the choice about the works I make is my own. What I view as important matters, and my choices are allowed to change over time. That, too, is reassuring. The jurors choices are their own as well, as a result. There may be value in understanding them, but I control my own destiny in the end.

Thanks to everyone that responded to that post. Your thoughts and insights were (and are!) very helpful as I ponder the nature of life in art school.

Written by

Sculptor/Artist. Former programmer. Former volunteer firefighter. Former fencer. Weirdest resume on the planet, I suspect.

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