Lesson 56

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Art Prizes

Competitions are for Horses.

There was a symposium at Coventry University on Art Prizes a few of years ago. Representatives of the John Moores and Marmite Prizes were in attendance along with Graham Crowley on the panel. I suggested that they should put all the names of the people who apply to these prizes in a bucket and pick the exhibition at random that way, saving on paying a judging panel and admitting such competitions are a lottery and though you would reject some very worthy applicants by doing this, that happens with the current jury system anyway. They did not seem to like my suggestion. Nobody even laughed! So I asked “who decides upon the canon and what criterion is used“; the answer was essentially that the judging was subjective and that no objective criteria could be made. I pointed out that at Art School we construct assessment criteria in Fine Art so it’s perfectly possible to have established values and standards in order to categorise and even benchmark. We even publish the Fine Art assessment criteria.

Generally, most painting entered for such competitions would fall well within the contemporary British canon and should be familiar to any judging panel worth it’s salt. So designing criteria would not be difficult. Within these constructed parameters it is possible to be objective and though there isn’t any overarching and dominant ideology such as modernism to theoretically underpin this assessment criteria, it would still be possible within our current broad pluralist context to establish criteria that embraced such diversity. You could always add to the criteria a cameo that took into account the eccentricity of individual judges, who could choose one candidate to be in the show without any of the other panelists agreeing. (We used to do this at BA Fine Art interviews, if one member of staff wanted a particular student candidate, regardless as to what the other members of the interview panel thought, the student was accepted).

Poetry, literature, architecture, music, painting and sculpture were competitive categories of the modern Olympic Games from 1912 until 1948, which would today be regarded as bizarre. In 1949 it was seen as inconsistent that professional artists competed whilst only amateurs were permitted to compete in the sporting events and by 1952 non-competitive exhibitions were held. Many would think this cultural aspect was too subjective to be judged but athletes in the Ancient Games were scored on the aesthetics of their performance and not necessarily the first past the post. Many sports in the modern Olympics require a panel, judgment and opinion, where the stopwatch has no place: diving, gymnastics, ice skating, dressage, synchronised swimming and even boxing and wrestling, etc. However, criteria is well established, and to guard against any bias and to avoid irrationality, subjectivity or simple prejudice, a sophisticated marking system is employed, such as removing the top and bottom scores and averaging the middle. This is not unlike the marking system used at Art Schools in averaging marks, with the additional input of External Moderators whose job it is to consider the parity of standards with other institutions.

I also pointed out at the symposium that a subjective view is a value judgment in itself, only that the person making this subjective judgement is not consciously aware of quantifying that system. Anyway, a few months later, on receiving and reading the letter of rejection from the Marmite Prize, I noted that the usual stuff was stated – that so many hundreds applied and that ‘the standard was very high‘. I thought, “what the fuck has standards got to do with it?” They had established that it was a subjective choice and that I was the one banging on about standards. You cannot have it both ways.

The John Moores prides itself on its anonymous judging, that is, that the panel does not knowwho the artists are;they judge ‘blind’. However, the judges would recognise many artists on the London scene.Don’t tell me that none of the judges recognised the distinctive work of Rose Wylie, the winner of the 2014 competition? The hype was that she had been rediscovered after years of neglect, but just the year before Rose had paintings in an exhibition at Tate Britain, she had a retrospective in 2012 at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and was one of the winners of the Threadneddle Prize in 2009. This does not look like invisibility to me. Attending the RCA late in life Rose Wylie has been well known amongst the community of artists. It is just that she had not had great commercial success or reached a wider audience. I am not saying that the John Moores claimed to have rediscovered her or that she was not a worthy winner. But I am saying that it is dishonest for the John Moores to claim that the judges selected the work without knowing who the artist was. Simply, Rose Wylie – along with many, many others – was not anonymous. You know who the artists are simply by looking at their work. Of course, if the judges were not acquainted with the art scene in London or what is currently regarded as contemporary practice, then they would not be experts and thus not qualified to make the judgments requested of them.

So what of the fake, or the copy of a recognised artist? How would this be judged? How would a painting that just looked like the work of a recognised artist fare? How would a fake be regarded or detected when the artist is anonymous? What if a pastiche of a Rose Wylie was submitted and won? Would such a painting be then rejected when the mistake was discovered? If so, why? If this fake painting was originally accepted, then its rejection would be on the basis that a famous artist did not paint it, that it was a copy, and that the style was appropriated. Here, the criteria of assessment would not be the quality of the painting, but a criteria more associated with the market.

In the 1960’s, artists referred to the ‘purely visual’. Well of course nothing is purely visual – everything has a context and everything has a text. Prior knowledge is always present; the viewer brings this to the art. Critical reviews, art history, artists’ statements, cultural theory and even life experience, add to what you bring to the art. If the artist is recognised then all of their literature and status will influence one’s view of the work. If nothing is known about the artist, if the work is new, the viewer or the judge brings their knowledge along with their baggage and prejudices to the art. It is not “I know what I like” but “I like what I know“.

The appreciation of the art, the understanding, the meaning, will come often or largely from beyond the work itself. If the artist is recognised then a whole set of associations follow with an understanding of the intentions and context the artist operates in, how the artist is rated and their popularity, for instance. Of course, there are applicants who are genuinely anonymous; these artists submit their work shorn of its context without the panel knowing their back-story, the artists context, the intentions of the work. Their painting has to stand up as a painting in its own right and the judging panel will supply the context. Naturally, the panel do not at first see a painting, they see an jpeg, a photo, and this stage is probably the most difficult hurdle for the applicant to get over. As a photograph is not a painting, does the judging panel really know what they are looking at? Without the size, presence, physicality of the actual work, what do they base their judgments on?

I know – it’s subjective! Selecting subjectively a photograph of a painting is not very satisfactory.

However, viewing the painting as a painting, shorn of context, is not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever the context, whatever the artists concerns, whatever their intentions, the painting has to stand up as a painting. That is, what the panel think a painting might be. My objection is that it’s not a level playing field. It would be better for all artists’ statements and CV’s to be read by the panel during judging, as this would put the genuinely anonymous artists on a more equal footing with the readily recognised and established artists.

We could also ask just who selects the judges? What are the criteria for their selection? The selection of the panel is a very important part of the whole process of selecting the exhibition. In fact, the exhibition is selected long before the very first applicant sends off their jpeg, with the choice of the make up and complexion of the panel. Some panels are diverse, a mixture of artists, gallerists, historians, critics etc., but if the jury was too diverse, one might say genuinely diverse, they would never agree. So, the exhibition is largely curated before you send in your work. There is a system and an ideological position prior to the selection of the judges. All competitions are set up in particular ways, to achieve particular things – they have specific aims and intentions. They have criteria!

All competitions change with success, as we have seen with the Marmite and Turner Prizes. Competitions thrive on controversy, whether that be the inebriated Tracy Emin on television at the Turner Prize, the drunken antics of Roger Hilton at the 1963 John Moores, the Salon les Refuses exhibition organised by Adrian Henri in the same year or Richard Hamilton at the John Moores in 1969 revealing that the prizes are fixed. The Marmite Prize set out to be provocative – subversive even – and is still the only art prize to be judged solely by artists, and now with some of the panel being selected online by potential applicants. However, this is not necessarily a good thing and could in the end rule out controversy and probably encourage mediocrity. Still, Marmite tries, but the contradictions are difficult to get over and now Marmite has become an established career move rather than an interesting thorn in the side of the establishment. Too much success can be a bad thing.

The Turner Prize was not always the tabloid shocker it is now, but had established ‘old’ artists winning for first decade, with Malcom Morley winning the first competition. It was not until the mid 1990’s that it took on its signature controversial aspect. Recognising the importance of controversy it is claimed in the literature that the Turner Prize was controversial from its inception in 1984, and the PR myth states it was controversial even before the first prize was announced.

The John Moores was established by philanthropist and amateur painter John Moores, the founder of Littlewoods Pools in Liverpool. He was aware of the concentration and dominance of museums and galleries in London and wished to take the focus away from the city, as well as promoting painting. He established an art competition in Liverpool which was open to everyone. By the 1960’s it had become the most important showcase for painting in Britain. The Walker Art Gallery’s aim was to put ‘culture at the heart of the community as a focus for cultural life on Merseyside’.

The competition has changed over the years. At one point it included sculpture until the rules were changed and it became solely a painting competition, with wall ‘objects’ that protrude no more than six inches. The John Moores was one of the first art prizes in the country and became the principal cutting-edge show during the 1960s and was a champion of British abstract painting. Indeed, it’s early controversy was on avant garde abstract painting and with the coup of having the lauded US critic Clement Greenberg as chair of the jury in 1965, the John Moores was set for international acclaim. Winning in 1965 with his ‘hard edge’ sexy painting was Mike Tyzak (one of my tutors at Hornsey), Greenberg understood the power of fashion. It is argued that now it is a London exhibition up North. Ann Bukantas, curator of the John Moores, has admitted that the jury usually are all from London and the vast number of artists are also from London or have studied in London. Possibly 3 or 4 artists with a Liverpool connection are exhibited at each prize showing. This is what in 1963 Adrian Henri was protesting about and is not a new criticism. Bukantas’ answer to this is that the jury is ‘blind‘, that the judging is anonymous and the panel has no access to where the artists came from or where they studied. I have shown this anonymity is clearly a falsehood and many of the artists selected are known to the judges. Consequently, the original aspirations of John Moores to establish a Northern contemporary art and critical scene has been superseded by what many see as a patronising London exhibition in Liverpool.

I would argue that painting is not a single subject, rather it is a diverse practice and to categorise different intentions and ideologies under one banner, brought together simply by the media employed, is probably not a good idea. But we do this all the time, lumping and categorising ‘painting’ together in galleries and art schools; one just hopes that the staff at the art school are equally as diverse as their students. We could always develop painting schools with themes, like the British School of Abstraction and the British School of Social Realism or the British School of Romantic Landscape, or the British School of Primitivism, or the Art School for Working Class Kids, or the Art School For the Rich and Privileged and so on. Then a student applicant would at least have a specific choice.

I was interested to see some ‘conceptual’ drawing in one Jerwood Drawing Prize. The actual object was little more than a smudge, which could have been a product of a child or an animal, even a biological product at that. Here the judges had to know the artists work, as conceptual art relies on a text, a literary introduction. It would have been impossible to select this smudge if prior knowledge was not available, as it would be impossible or crazy to select this conceptual work solely on its visual qualities. The judges would have had to seen some text to know that the work was conceptual in the first place. The Jerwood Drawing Prize is interesting in that one of its criteria seems to be the redefinition of drawing, or radical definition of drawing in current art practice, considering the many functions of drawing and drawing not defined by process or media, and encouraging pluralist forms of discourse. Possibly the smudge was drawing as the ‘site of conception’. Consequently, anything goes as drawing, a video becomes a radical drawing. Knowing this it would be foolish to submit anything that looked like a drawing.

President of the John Moores Prize Peter Blake has said that he was looking for a ‘masterpiece’ when selecting work, a substantial work by the artist, not just one of a series. This is a criteria. These competitions have rules, they select the complexion of the judging panellists, they have aims, they have an ethos, they have a philosophy, ideals, an ideology. In fact, art prizes do have criteria. The criteria that is established even before the first judge is approached.

Rather than pretending that art prizes do not have criteria, we should take the example we find in education and sports. Clear assessment criteria could be established in art competitions rather than shrugging shoulders and just saying ‘well it’s all subjective isn’t it’ and leaving it to the vagaries of a selected panel or the whims of the professional art administrators and mandarins who select the selection panel and write the aims and philosophy of the competition. Subjectivity hides prejudice and political bias, masking personal agendas as to what is hip or currently smart or politically fashionable and acceptable. It would be a useful exercise to openly discuss how we make judgments, appreciate and experience art.

As stated in Lesson 33, “Art reinforces opinion, rarely changes opinion”.

Judging panels always seem to believe in love at first sight. Is this what they mean by subjectivity, that gut reaction, the knee jerk? The snap decisions of the academicians selecting the Academy Summer Show grotesquely sticks in the mind. My experience is that as with music, some art can grow on you and what you initially thought uninteresting creeps up on you, making sense and even eventually commanding your attention and vice versa. Like that ‘favourite’ tune very soon becomes an ‘ear worm’, irritating in your head, familiarity can breed contempt. However with judging panels it is this first response that counts, the gut reaction, love at first sight. This can mean the predictable and familiar are often selected, and rarely that which surprises, or the offensive, the difficult and the slow burner; these don’t stand a chance and are dismissed.

At a meeting on assessment criteria in Fine Artat University, as an attempt at humorous subversion, I suggested ‘surprise‘ as a criterion. I like to be surprised by art, I like the unexpected, something I had not seen before. A colleague, coming out of an installation said that he ‘felt as though he had just been somewhere. I thought that this also would be a good assessment criterion. So, ‘surprise‘ and the feeling you have been somewhere‘ were suggested. These were rejected as suitable criteria, and again nobody laughed.

Brass band competitions might improve the standard of playing but are they about music? Art competitions will only improve standards when these standards are known.

Bela Bartok said that “competitions are for horses, not artists“.

To enter a competition it will cost you not only the entrance fee but also the transport, and hiring a van can be expensive. So if you are successful you will have to pay to show your art, a very strange concept. You still pay if you are unsuccessful. To pay not to show your art is a even stranger concept. The odds are against you winning or just being included in the exhibition, and like casino owners, the real winners of these competitions are the organisers.

I once was a judge on a local open exhibition in the 1980’s and being mildly subversive I submitted two drawings by myself. The drawings were done in an ‘amateur’ style with my left hand, and signed with the pseudonym, Bifford Jelly. (This was before Biff became ‘famous’). It seems that I appropriated the amateur genre too well. The works were rejected despite my attempts to draw the other judges attention to them. So, I am probably the only artist who rejected his own work whilst on a judging panel!

Lesson 39: Art competitions are a way of getting your work ‘out there’. Competitions can impact positively on artists’ careers and result in critical acclaim, and they can introduce you to interested curators and galleries. But, if you enter an art competition do not be surprised if you are not selected. You must have a thick skin as they are a lottery, random, irrational and for many artists they seem very unjust. If you question the integrity of a particular competition or selection panel simply don’t enter, as there’s no complaining if you don’t get in. You know the deal. Even if you are selected there is no guarantee that it will lead anywhere; some exhibitions are cul de sacs, not even useful networking opportunities and simply worthy of just a single line in your CV.

Note: re Art Prizes Symposium at Coventry University – why did they call it a symposium? I’ve been to many ‘symposiums’ and they never have food or drink, so they are probably not symposiums. Doesn’t anyone read Plato any more?























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