Balance and Judgment in the Arts

This is a follow-up to the post "My Guide to Looking at Art." I would say that how you look at art for pleasure or cultural interest is different than how you look at art to critique it. I'm currently on a jury for an upcoming exhibit, and one thing I'm noticing about some artworks of this era is that the powerful desire to share a message is overriding any artistic quality of form, materials, and craft. This applies to written work as well.

Unfortunately, the rant, however necessary and true, puts the work out of balance. The message screams, but the care in the object itself is nearly silent. This is the opposite of a type of work that is beautiful, well-crafted, but just points to beauty. Holding something up and saying "This is beautiful" or "Look what I found" or "This is Terrible" is not enough to make a work of art. The artist needs to transform something, put themselves into it, and connect with the outer world in addition to showing they have command of the materials and methods. If this transformation is done with a fresh approach it will give the viewer the feeling that they had never thought about it that way or seen the world through that particular lens. It isn't easy. There is a reason we call it artwork.

Hierarchies are not popular in current culture, but if one can only include 30-40 artworks in an exhibition and there are 200 from which to choose, there must be a method to narrow the field. Because these works would be behind Plexiglass or on the wall they would not be able to be fully read or touched. So, as I was looking through the images I found I was judging them this way:

1. Aesthetics. Did it attract my attention and make me interested and curious?

2. Craft and choices. Did the artist seem to be in control of the making and were they sensitive to the materials?

3. Originality. Have I seen anything like this before? Were there any components (such as the text) that were borrowed or appropriated from a source beyond the artist, or did the artist write and create all the art?

4. Subject and focus. Would the subject be appropriate to the setting where it would be shown? Did it connect to the theme? (This was of less interest to me, as the theme, in this case, was quite broad.) Was it both personal and universal, presented as only this particular artist could present it, yet open enough to include the viewer? Was there philosophical depth? Was it about more than one subject?

5. Layers. Were there different ways to look at the work? Could one thing be a metaphor for something else? Did the book breathe with translucent paper or cutouts? Were there both words and images? Or, if no words, then images and interesting form or structure? Visual puns? Some intentional combination of images, words, structure, marks, and materials.

6. Strength. Could the viewer get the idea, feeling, message, meaning, and mood from just seeing a portion of the work?

7. Balance. This is about the overall work, and time spent on each of the areas. Are all the components working together in harmony? Are each of the components weighted to balance one another? For a book, that means the craft and design of the book, scale of the parts, the printing, the images, the words, the subject, the materials, and the box, if there is one. That is almost a ridiculous number of components that must be in balance. How much time will the viewer spend on each activity: looking, reading, touching, and contemplating?

A huge, beautifully made clamshell box with a thin laserprinted pamphlet inside, for example, is, in most cases, out of balance. The viewer would likely spend more time admiring the box than reading the pamphlet.

In a balanced written work that is two pages, for example, every word will count, and every paragraph will keep moving and add something new. The craft comes from knowing where, when, and how long to linger.

Art and craft. Message and meaning. All the layered pieces must work together. Layered. In balance.