Friday, April 23, 2010

Art Jury, but not really

This is an idea that all art schools should adopt: a mock jury, so that students can see what happens when experts are alone with images of their work, find out what they really think in an impersonal, non-confrontational way.

Tuesday I participated in the Second Annual Fourth Wall Panel Review as part of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) graduate program. The idea was to invite an artist (James Hyde), a curator (Robert Cozzolino), and a critic (I was wearing my critic hat) to publicly view and discuss the anonymous digital images and written statements of nearly thirty MFA thesis students in the program (a lily-livered few declined to participate) and narrow it down to the three we found most competitive for the kinds of professional opportunities—grants, residencies, exhibitions, teaching positions, etc.—that are determined in this way. It provided the students, attendees from other area institutions, and the general public, with fly-on-the-wall insight into this otherwise secret process.

For three hours we sat with our backs to the audience facing the screen on which the images were projected. The panel differed from others I’ve been on in that there were fewer artists (30 as opposed to several hundred) with more slides each (10), and instead of simply dismissing those we weren’t interested in, we discussed our reasons for doing so. We also took the artist’s statements into account where normally, at least the panels I’ve been on, if they’re considered at all, it’s only to make distinctions at the very end.

Shall we digress onto the subject of artists’ statements? Oh, why not. So I ask: why is it that every time I’m in a situation like this, my colleagues and I unanimously agree that the concept of artists’ statements is ridiculous, yet this relatively new invention persists in being seen as an essential aspect of the artist’s promotional package? Further, statements often work against the artist. As the director of a not-for-profit gallery once told me, “Often we’ll find an artist we like and then read the statement and say ‘no way.’”

The PAFA statements were no exception, containing the usual damning phrases: “My work is about…” “I want to make…” “I am trying to….” By allowing such statements to pass, art schools give the impression that once students are out in the world, we’re going to be interested in them. No one has told them that we’re not interested in the slightest; we don’t care what they think, feel, or want to do. We see tons of stuff, all day, every day, and it’s their job to stand out from the crowd, to make us take notice whether we want to or not. I try to imagine a similar situation in another, more rigorous field—such as a filmmaker attempting to get backing by writing: “I want to make a film about….. Ever since I was a small child I’ve been fascinated by …...”

Fortunately, so we didn’t come off as total curmudgeons, there was one statement that not only piqued our interest, but shed light on the artist’s obliquely rendered subject matter:

My flight is at 10:00 in the morning, which is good because I can wake up at 6:00, catch the trolley by 6:45, then catch the train to the airport, and hopefully be there by 8:30. If the flight were earlier then I’d have to find a friend to drive me because public transit doesn’t start until 5 and it takes about 2 or 3 hours to get there. I have to remember to bring my phone charger. When I wake up I have to put it in my bag. I have to make sure everything I need can fit into a carry on bag, I can’t afford to check it and they ALWAYS lose my bag. A friend of mine checked his bag and they lost it for months, he had to call them everyday about it until they paid him some money. I have to make sure the machines can see everything that is in my bag and on me. I can’t have too many clothes. One pair of pants only. I don’t have to pack my jacket I can wear it even though its too warm. I can’t have too much change or metal stuff in my pocket because it will take too long to empty my pockets before I go through the metal detectors. I seem to always think I have to take my money out of my pockets. I haven’t shaved in a while I wonder if they’ll search me, I hope I don’t miss my flight. I have to make sure I fill my water bottle up when I get there and not before. This one time they changed me to another flight that was already boarding in a different terminal, but to get there I had to go through security again, but my water bottle was full, so they made me go empty it and wait in line again. I had to run to catch the plane. I’ve never connected where it was landing before. I hope they over booked the flight. I’ll volunteer for a free round trip. (Jordan Graw)
Jordan Graw, 22nd Street Station, 2010, oil on panel, 24"x 24".

The panel was initially proposed by PAFA faculty member and curator of the Arcadia University Art Gallery, Richard Torchia, who told me that the students, to their credit, forwent having a catalog in order to fund this event. There were no prizes involved, just the honor of being chosen. Although we were almost, but not quite, as straightforward as we’d be in a closed panel, the students took it well, and afterward we all went out for drinks.

11 comments:

Concerned said...

This sounds like a bad idea and a conflict of interest for the artists.

"We see tons of stuff, all day, every day, and it’s their job to stand out from the crowd, to make us take notice whether we want to or not."

This only applies to receiving "professional" opportunities. Not to actually learning to make great art. I have no idea if that context was provided to the students, hopefully it was.

I understand the need for both worlds, but mixing them in such a fashion leads to stunted artistic growth, in my opinion. Those of us who've received MFA's and are a handful of years out, realize that our work during this time is still maturing. Few, if any, come out of grad school fully formed.

Artists should be aware of all aspects of the contemporary art world for sure. I'm just not convinced this is the best way to do it.

Is knowing how your (the artist's) work is judged supposed to give the artist a leg up in making better work? If so, how?

You say artist statements are "ridiculous" but go on to praise and publish a full statement. So, is it that statements are ridiculous only until a good one is written? I find this position to be asserting that statements are a good thing and not a ridiculous proposition, as long as they illuminate the art's intention.

And if the panel was united on that front, why did it even consider them?

And one last thing to end my rant:

This is an idea that all art schools should adopt: a mock jury, so that students can see what happens when experts are alone with images of their work, find out what they really think in an impersonal, non-confrontational way.

This is indeed non-confrontational for the panel, they have no idea who the art belongs to. But if I'm understanding the setup correctly, it seems very confrontational for the artist. Everyone in the crowd knew exactly who was being discussed. The only part that's missing is the artist's ability to defend their work. They just get to sit and absorb all the great wisdom of a panel who is "...not interested in the slightest; we don’t care what they think, feel, or want to do."

Sounds like every program should pick this up...

BooshtheLurker said...

How wonderful. Such a unique approach to an artist statement. It relays the essence of the artist so well, and without all the trite verbiage commonly extolled.

I think your right; every undergrad and grad program should offer this.

Damien Franco said...

Wow...

As I read the post in my feed reader I came to the website to post a comment praising the brilliant and valuable insight that an end-of-study project like this would offer to artists.

After reading the comment left by "Concerned" I re-read the article.

Yep...I'm pretty sure that "Concerned" missed the whole point.

These artists are about to enter the art world where they will be fighting for professional opportunities and need a bit of the "punches pulled" wisdom that an experience like this offers.

Further, I felt that "Concerned" missed the point of the artist's statement that was shared. It was a play on mockery of an artist's statement which was a breath of fresh air to Jurists who often read artist's statements filled with fluff and forced self reflection (or whatever trend in artist's statements is being taught at the time).

JMHO

Katharine Smith-Warren said...

Carol, As always a thoughtful post. What you describe is the real world so artists the word is" get used to it". When I have served as a critic there is a whole different dynamic which is useful in education. However, certainly by the time of a graduate thesis show, artists better be ready for the brutal truth. Is it the final judgment on your work? No, nor were the academy shows of the 19th century that missed the exciting work done by the Impressionists. However, remember you may not be the next Van Gogh, and your work may not be up to snuff. Listen and take what you can from the experience. Continue working and prove your mettle. If it bothers you, that may be a sign that the $80,000 you just invested in grad school may not be such a good investment.

tackad said...

Yes, that's the thing about artist's statements - most of them make the artist seem like a total dolt who has no respect for our intelligence. But the new thing these days is that artists just don't have a statement nor do they say anything about their work and some give no links no clues, no nuthing. I see a lot of art(painting) and when I'm attracted to someone's work well, I'd sure like to know more about it. It's absolutely rare to find artists who simply and sanely explain what they're about in a concise and conversational, normal manner.
At what point did these art students become unable to simply converse with another human and convey a simple idea (giving us a clue about their work)?

vincenthawkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vincenthawkins said...

you are right re the artist statement , you can see someone's work and like it only to read what they have said and it cancels out your previous thoughts about them .... why the need for what is articulated visually to be unarticulated in words... you can only give a descriptive analysis of how you go about your practice...

CAP said...

Like Concerned, I'm puzzled why the panel disparages artists' statements, and then picks out one of which they approve.

Why not just address the work/slide?

Fair enough, the artist's intentions, are often not reflected in the work, may be poorly articulated in any case. But if I liked the art, this would not put me off. Their imterpretation is simply not mine.

All feedback on work is useful of course, and if it comes from recognised figures in the art world, it at least helps the artist get some idea of the terrain. But my experience has been that occasional opinions tend to vary so widely it's hard to put much credence in any single remark.

Rob said...

That is an excellent statement. It gives a real sense of the source of the work and makes me what to see the rest of the series. I find statements rarely worth reading and if you are looking at a lot of art, who wants to stop and read something that is just going to disappoint you. Sometimes I disagree with what an artist thinks their work is about which may be the source of the general problem with artist statements, the lack of self awareness. I don't think you need self awareness to make good art, sometimes the reflection just leads to confusion, but a good artist statement requires it.

I really don't like Concerned's last comment about giving the artist a chance to "defend" their work. What is there to defend, when you put art into the world it has to stand on its own. Is an artist supposed to follow their work around and argue with everyone who walks by it to tell them how great it really is if they would just understand the artist's intentions?

Joanne Mattera said...

You offered these students a peek into the window (and thinking) of a real jury. Their minor discomfort in class will be far outweighed by what they've gained.

I did something similar with a class, where I had them jury, in groups of three, a show I'd juried in real life. Everything was anonymous. At the end of their allotted jury time, the four groups presented their selections

What the students learned:
. Quality of image counts
. Requested information counts (they couldn't make a decision about work that was lacking in basics like medium and dimensions)
. "Best" is subjective (one group's top selections didn't even make the bottom of another group's list)
. Rejection is also subjective (especially when selection is based on a two-out-of-three vote)

Joey said...

When I was in school, we went through the don rag process: having our professors speak of our academic progress (or lack thereof) as though we weren't in the room. I was initially terrified of this end-of-semester ritual, but a fellow student who had come to college later in life explained that he looked forward to it. "I've never in my life had the opportunity to hear honest feedback from people whose opinion I respect," he said.

I have to admit that a visual artist has to own their ideas maybe even more than a scholar, since they've put such an incredible amount of time, thought and technique into something that exists with far less context to be judged by than words. That said, I'd prefer to hear that information "while i'm living," as Sam Cooke once said. A bit like hearing your eulogy, sans sentimentality.