September 19th, 2010
How to Conduct a Review of Student Work
by Matt Kuhlman
Lately I have been applying for many lofty jobs, one recent example being as an admissions counselor at the Kansas City Art Institute. While most jobs only require a resume and a cover letter, this application went a step further in requesting a philosophical statment on how to successfully conduct a student portfolio review. This may sound easy, but I really want this job, so I toiled over it. I read and re-read this statement so many times that the words started to make no sense. But I think it came out pretty good, and put forth some good solid ideas on how to review the work of emerging artists. What do you think?
Philosophy on conducting reviews of student work
When conducting an art critique, it is important to keep in mind that there is no single standard to judge the work against. Every body of work, as well as each piece individually, exists in a context that is largely defined by the artist’s progress in developing their techniques and ideas. It is best to begin by asking questions that get the artist talking about their work. This reveals the parameters that the work should be viewed within by establishing the artist’s intents and experience level, and how they feel about their work. Knowing these specifics about the individual helps determine what advice they need to continue their artistic development.
In general, no high school artist is capable of making sophisticated work in terms of having the conceptual and technical quality commonly seen at the gallery level, and there is nothing wrong with that. Artists at that age are at the beginning of a potentially life-long journey in developing their craft. It is likely that a high percentage of these students have not even been fully exposed to all artistic media. A successful critique of the work should provide feedback that inspires the artist to experiment in their work and explore methods of creating that they may not have tried before.
Most of the discussion should focus on formal elements such as line quality, mark making, contrast, proportion, composition, and color usage. These are the basic elements of making any kind of art, and they must be fully understood before continuing on to more complex work. It is also in these elements that artist’s current level of potential can best be detected. Conceptual elements should not be a major topic in the critique because a bulk of the work done by high school students is meant to fulfill class assignments. However, if a young artist takes the initiative to make work outside of class assignments, then it is appropriate to discuss conceptual elements in the work more in depth. It is also appropriate to at least raise the question of concept to all artists at that age because it provides them with another dimension to consider as they move forward in their work.
A majority of the feedback given to young artists should be positive. Artists invest a lot of personal emotion and self-worth into their work, and young artists in particular can find negative comments about their work very hurtful. It is important to identify and reinforce the things they are doing well in their work so they can gain confidence in knowing that they are doing something well and feel motivated to continue working. The weaknesses of the work must also be addressed, but the amount of attention paid to the weaknesses should be less than the strengths, and the comments must be made as constructively as possible. A weakness in the work should be framed as an opportunity for improvement rather than a fault or a flaw.
The key to making all comments into effective pieces of criticism is providing a thorough explanation for the opinion given. It does not help the artist to simply label parts of their work as being either good or bad. Explaining how and why parts of a work of art, or even entire works of art, are stronger than others benefits the artist by defining more subtle devices in the work that they may not have realized were present. Also, it is simply polite to provide an explanation along with any comments. An opinion made regarding another person’s artwork should have a line of reasoning behind it, and the artist deserves to hear what that rationale is.
All of the objectives outlined above are best achieved through making the critique a conversation, as opposed to a one-sided evaluation. Throughout the critique the artist should feel welcome in taking a critical look at their own work and expressing their opinions and justifications. The conversation should progress in a way that both the reviewer and the artist build toward a consensus in their opinions. Of course, the reviewer can form an opinion of the work without any help, but approaching the critique conversationally helps the reviewer be more sensitive to the individual context of the work, which was discussed earlier.
Ultimately, these tactics intend to create a mindset within the artist in which they begin thinking of newer and better work, rather than either feeling satisfied to continue at their current state or feeling discouraged. The reviewer should strive to identify things that the artist does well at their current skill level and areas where they can improve, and use those findings to suggest ideas for ways the artist can further develop their work. Those suggestions may be a variety of things, ranging from using a wider variety of line quality to considering the conceptual content of the work, to working in a medium that they have not previously worked in before. The point of the critique is to help a young artist feel inspired in beginning a career in art, not to judge, and as long as the reviewer keeps that in mind they will do just that.
The Etiquette of Showing Art, For Beginners
By Matt Kuhlman
Within the last five years or so I have accepted that there is a certain etiquette involved in putting together an art show. The average viewer doesn’t necessarily know whose work they are looking at or what it is about, and it is to the benefit of the artist and the art scene as a whole that they take the proper steps to allow people to fully enjoy the show. Some artists say that art is what it is, or that it’s about the experience of seeing the work, but they are not operating from the viewer’s perspective. The viewer is looking for something to latch onto, for something to be excited about, and if they don’t have a name or a meaning to attach to what they are seeing it is likely that they will forget the work they saw.
The easiest way for the viewer to remember the artist is of course for the artist to sign their work. I don’t often notice pieces that suffer because the artist was obnoxious in signing the work, but I hold the belief that the signature should be as invisible as possible. I’m okay with signing my print editions underneath the image because that is a centuries-old tradition, but I usually sign any other work on the back because I don’t want the viewer thinking about my name. I want them to focus on the work, and unless my name is an essential part of what I’m creating it has no place in the picture plane. If they like what they see, they can look at the label and find my name. And as far as labeling is concerned, there are only two essential elements: the artist’s name, and the title of the work.
Titling of work is essential to the experience of the art, but it often seems like artists don’t think about how an untitled piece is perceived. To leave a work untitled is a declaration that the work is about nothing in the eyes of the viewer, and untitled works are often abstract expressionist pieces that provide little for the viewer to relate to on a personal level anyway. For a person to see the word “untitled” on a label provides them with nothing to think about. They have no clue what the artist was thinking as they made it, and if they’re not even willing to grant the work they produced a title why should they even care?
I can be sympathetic to artists who don’t want to bother with titles. After producing so many pieces it gets boring. I personally have print editions that are titled after objects lying around the studio, such as “Styrofoam Cup” and “Big Pile of Paper,” but at least these titles will confuse the viewer and prod them towards trying to understand the work. Whether leaving a piece untitled, or actually naming it “Untitled,” this act is a slap in the face to the viewer. It is a name that screams “I don’t care! This is a piece of junk that wasn’t worthy of a title!” And the viewer will regard it as such.
If an individual has many pieces in a show, they can get away with a few untitled pieces because it creates a context where the untitled pieces are associated with titled works. The viewer will regard them as secondary works, but understand that they were made in the same vein of thought that created the more important titled works. To have a show with a majority of the works being untitled is not a proper way to treat the viewer, and should be avoided.
Framing and general presentation are another thing to consider in the etiquette of putting on a show. It is rare, but on occasion I will see a work of art that would be fantastic if it weren’t for the fact that it was tacked to the wall, or displayed in some type of way where it was obvious that the only objective the installation was to stick the damn thing on the wall so people could see it. The presentation of a piece does not have to be elaborate or cost a lot, there are plenty of creative alternatives to traditional framing and hanging, but installation is an essential contributing element to the experience of seeing the piece. The installation must have the look of being an intentional attempt at enhancing the piece, or it will be a distraction because, again, it looks like the artist didn’t care enough about their own work to try and display it nicely.
It seems customary these days for most serious artists to post a statement along with their show, and as to whether or not this is an essential part of good show etiquette, I’d say it depends. Does your work use a lot of abstraction? Obscure references? Personal symbolism? Does it try to challenge the viewer to think about something that is not explicitly clear in the work? If so, then you should probably have a statement. The statement is there as an explanation, and if your work requires any amount of explanation you should provide one. It’s not fair to the viewer to leave them guessing.
If you choose to post a statement for your show, it should be clear and easy to understand. What is common in artist statements is for the artist to use unnecessarily big words and abstract terms, trying to make their ideas sound more important. Don’t do this. The language of the artist statement should make it a clear explanation of the show in the artist’s own words. Fluffing up the language only makes it harder to understand, and you don’t want to risk making the viewer feel foolish for not understanding the work.
The last thing to consider when putting on an art show is booze. Don’t be cheap and provide absolutely nothing. At least put out a box of Franzia for people to help themselves to. Even if it’s basically alcoholic water, people appreciate it as a gesture, and if you run out people later on can at least see that something was available, they were just too late.
All of these aspects are important in allowing people to enjoy viewing a show, and really it is in the best interests of the artist to take them all seriously because the whole point of making art is for other people to see it. If proper etiquette is not taken in putting the show together, it’s only hurting the artist’s chance of achieving that goal. It would be like never showering, brushing your teeth, cutting your hair, or washing your clothes, and trying to get a date. Not going to work out too well. So the next time you put a show together, leave your ideas aside for a moment and consider how someone else might perceive what you’re doing, and see whether or not you are creating a presentation that someone who has no personal attachment to the work would care about.
The value of art in the Digital Age
by Matt Kuhlman
If you’ve ever seen a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt in person, you know that there is no substitute for seeing the painting with your own eyes. It doesn’t matter how expensive the printer is, how many megapixels the camera has, or how high-definition the monitor is; nothing in the world can accurately capture the intense layering of texture and color that these artists put on the canvas. Yet, even if you have seen one of these paintings in person, chances are that your experience of viewing it was diminished without you even knowing it. There’s nothing that could be done to enhance the experience either, because desensitization is just some of baggage that comes along with digital living.
While the digital age has blessed us by making many things in our lives easier, it has also cursed us by severely depreciating the value of books, art, movies, and music that were once quite valuable to us. I began thinking about the concept of value one day when a co-worker asked me to explain how artwork is priced. He’s only 20 with no background in art, and was wondering how someone we knew was able to display a painting with a $5000 price tag on it. The short answer I gave him was this: art, like anything else, is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it. The artist may hope that their piece is worth $5000, but if no one is willing to pay that amount then its actual value is obviously much lower, and maybe even nothing at all.
This conversation led me to thinking about how subjective the value of art is, and only the monetary value of art, but the value that the dollar amount is supposed to represent, which is how much art means to us. Just consider how many factors determine how much we personally value a piece of art. It depends on what piece of art you are looking at. It depends on where and how you’re looking at it. Whether or not you like to admit it, the opinions of your friends and others affect how much you value it. The list could go on for miles, right down to whether or not you skipped lunch or just had a beer before viewing the work. Any variation in these factors right down to slight variations in our mood can affect what we think about the artwork in front of us. However, the one factor that always causes us to instill value in something is rarity.
The more rare something is, the more we value we automatically ascribe to it. The quality of rarity has benefitted art through all of history, but with the internet and digital technology putting any work of art we can imagine at our fingertips rarity has completely vanished.
If you don’t think that this loss of rarity depletes our ability to value art, just look at what it has done to music. Before music could be recorded it was one of the most rare and valuable things in the world. The only way to experience it was to listen to a musician play it, and as quickly as the instrument produced the tone and it reached your ears, it vanished forever. Just imagine living in a world like this, where music could only be heard live. How much more would you savor the sound of music if the opportunity to hear it was so infrequent and fleeting?
Even after music could be recorded, it still retained a decent level of value because you had to find and buy the album in order to have it at your disposal, and there are very deliberate efforts made in building a music collection. You don’t go out and buy every album ever made, you buy the ones you actually care about, the ones you want to hear again and again. And when you do want to hear a particular album or song, you have to choose to play it. Recorded music is still essentially rare because you only have one copy of it for yourself, and the intentional actions it takes to hear it signify that you place some value in it. Of course owning an album can cause it to lose its value when it is played too much, at which point it sits on the shelf and gathers dust.
Nowadays music is so plentiful that there’s no concern about owning a copy of a song or an album. MP3 players and computers can hold more music than we could ever care to listen to, and virtually all music can be obtained for absolutely free. If I broke into your house, stole all your albums, and wiped all the music files off your computer and iPod, you could amass a music collection several times larger than the one you had before by copying files from your friends’ hard drives. Essentially file sharing gives us the ability to listen to any song we want at any time for free. While music used to instantly disappear into the air, now music is an omnipotent presence, and the ability to hear any of it at the snap of a finger robs all music of almost all its value. To claim that any music has value today is like standing on the beach and trying to defend the value of a single grain of sand.
The value of images has similarly suffered in the digital age. Digital technology has made the creation of images so easy that it has resulted in a pictorial glut. Unlike the film photographer, the digital photographer has no incentive to be careful in his work. Memory cards can hold thousands of pictures, many times more than most people would care to shoot over a span of months. This leads to the digital photographer being completely trigger happy, creating oceans of sub-par, uninteresting photographs. Nowadays most cell phones also take high quality pictures, making cameras more present and used than ever before. Whether it be random people at a party or a funny sign in a bathroom, every small moment that seems remotely noteworthy can instantly recorded by the digital photographer without worry. All these pictures end up stored on computer hard drives, in massive volumes so large they are not worth looking through.
With film, even an uninteresting snapshot still retains some semblance of value, because there is typically only one print made of it, while copies of digital photos are essentially infinite. Once an image makes its way to the internet it earns electronic immortality, forever accessible and able to be recalled. Like our music, our pictures exist in extreme abundance, easily obtained and recalled.
With images being so easy to create and so abundant, it is impossible to fully value art. When digitized, images of artwork exist in the same capacity as our personal photos, easily becoming intermingled with them. The sensation of looking at an oil painting is not much different from looking at an ordinary snapshot on a computer screen. Some art images may catch our attention among the crowd, but for the most part it is just a point in the infinite queue of pictures available to us, and the experience of seeing it is relatively expendable.
This is an idea that Walker Percy addressed in his essay “The Loss of the Creature.” In his essay, Percy uses the Grand Canyon as an example of how the uniqueness of an experience determines its value, comparing the experiences of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, the first European to see the canyon in 1540, to that of the modern tourist. Imagine being Cardenas and seeing the canyon for the first time without knowing it ever existed. How long would it take for you to come to terms with discovering such a natural wonder? Imagine trying to process every detail of the massive gorge, and the intense desire you would have to fully explore this previously unknown place.
Then consider the modern tourist. They already know the Grand Canyon exists, they know more or less what it looks like, they hear other’s stories of visiting the canyon, and they know it is supposed to be an incredible vacation spot. Nowadays they can even take a three-dimensional tour of the canyon on Google earth. Of course none of these exposures can be considered complete experiences, but they can allow a person to “know” all about the Grand Canyon without ever actually visiting it. Then if this person does visit the Grand Canyon, they are not actually experiencing the canyon, but sizing it up against their expectations. At best it will confirm the preconceived notion they have built about the canyon, and at worst it may leave them disappointed by not living up to how spectacular they thought it would be.
This process of building preconceived notions that rob us of our ability to have genuine experiences is obviously furthered by computers and the internet, but it is not a new phenomenon. It is simply the newest phase of this phenomenon. I already discussed how photographs are losing their significance in the digital age, but in the 1800’s photography was the hot new technology that originally posed a threat to the value of art. The perfection of photography marked the first time that an image could be truly mass produced, and I’m sure more than a few painters at the time were wringing their hands about it. Up until that point, the ability to manually render something realistically was the highest achievement of the artist, and suddenly the photographer was able to accomplish that with a point, shoot, and develop.
But obviously photography was not the end of art, and in fact it ushered in one of the most exciting eras in art ever. Artists instilled value back into their work by doing what the camera couldn’t do, spurring the rise of impressionism, cubism, expressionism, and all the other art styles that have gone on to define art in the 20th Century. The artists of today need to find a similar way of dealing with the mass societal desensitization created by the internet culture. While it is true that no method of replication will actually live up to the original work, each replication does still incrementally steal portions of value from the original. The one thing in art that cannot be replicated digitally is actual experience, and artists must start becoming more inventive in how experience is incorporated into their work.
Experience as art is not a completely new idea. Allan Kaprow held his happenings more than 30 years ago, but I don’t think the solution is to make art that is pure experience. Visual elements will always be at the core of art, but seeing them needs to be part of a larger, more complete experience. I’m not even sure exactly what this means. I’m still purely visual in my own work and don’t have the time to cook up ways of injecting elements of experience into viewing my work, and for all I know there are plenty of artists that are already successfully doing this. But as it stands, it is the only way that artists can add value to their work – by creating a unique experience in viewing the work. This will add an element of rarity to the work, increasing the incentive to experience the work first hand, and of course, increasing the value of the work.