Judging Art

Who gets to judge art? What criteria do they have to use? Is it objective? This is a difficult subject and I will probably step on some toes. Judging art is something we all do. When we see art, we judge it. How should we do it?

What is art?

A widely heard definition of art is that it is “an object created by human skill and imagination.”. This immediately eliminates AI generated “art”.

This is actually a pretty good definition, but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Basically if the artist says it is art, it is. This includes the picture on your fridge your 6 year old drew

But 2 people can go out to the same location and paint the same scene and we will look at them and say one is valuable and the other is much less so. Why is this? Does it have to do with the skill of the artist, their creativity, their choice of color palette?

Even if we acknowledge them both as art, we will judge that one is “better” than the other.

Is Photography art?

Let me take a side track to address photography; a subject near and dear to me. I am a photographer, so I may be accused of bias.

I will hedge some and claim that photographs can easily be art, but not all photographs are art. Billions of photographs are taken every day (yes, Billions). The vast majority are selfies, friends, or food shots. These are taken as a record of something. Even the person snapping the picture does not consider it “Art” in the formal sense with a capital “A”.

But a few images are taken to be art. They are created by human skill and creativity. These images seek to show us something new or in a different way. The photographer is expressing something fresh and unique.

These rare images are art. Every bit as much as a symphony or a sculpture or a painting.. You may disagree that much skill is involved, but try it. Try creating photographs at this level. This isn’t getting to the top 10% of the photographs taken, but rather something like the the top 1 in 10,000,000. I consider creating a great photograph a life altering exception. If you can do that regularly, you are truly a top performer.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

Ansel Adams

Is it good enough to just be “pretty”?

In Better Photography magazine* issue 111, Tom Putt describes the challenge of selecting images for his gallery in Australia. He laments that local customers want to see “pretty” pictures of the area, but he would prefer more abstract, edgy images that show off his artistry. He even clearly states that the prints that sell in galleries are not the ones that win awards in competitions.

I share the feeling. If I show what I consider a very creative, artistic image to most non-artists I get a polite “that’s nice”. But if I show a nice landscape to them I get a “Oh, wow; that’s very pretty!”. I can’t criticize them. The landscape is much more relatable to where they are. Mostly it is curators and avant-garde collectors and other artists who value the non-traditional work.

I used to get upset when someone said my work was pretty. Now I just say thank you. I’m glad to bring them something that meets their criteria for good art, even if I disagree with its true artistic value. I would be happy to sell them something they like.

Who gets to judge artistic merit?

So who’s call is it? Who judges the merit of art? Actually, we all do and nobody does.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion of art according to their criteria and values. Even if the intelligentsia with credentials and large followings disagree, what you like is good art to you. I will no longer try to educate people to show them how their opinion is immature or unsophisticated. Actually, it may not be. I have come to see how they may be educated and sophisticated enough to know what they like. I am happy for them.

And there will always be the self-appointed gate keepers who want to dictate style and judge competence.

It is impossible for art, or any of the higher creative activities, to flourish under any system which requires that the artist shall prove his competence to some body of authorities before he is allowed to follow his impulse.

Bertrand Russell

The artistic police always tend toward building up their cause and rejecting new or differing work. As a matter of fact, their blinders usually make them incompetent to judge truly new and creative work.

What is the criteria for judging art?

When people are honestly trying to judge art, how are they to go about it? They must have some criteria to raise it above just “I like it”.

This is an area where I feel the gatekeepers are doing artists a disservice. When I apply to a show or a contest or a gallery, I get back a “sorry, you weren’t selected.” or a “congratulations, you were selected.” But in either case there is no criteria stated up front or feedback as to why my work was selected or not. I am getting very frustrated with this.

In most cases I have to pay to submit to a show. For that fee I don’t get back much value. There may be a theme stated for the show, but no actual criteria for judgment. I feel that we should get back some useful feedback. I am not seeking a full portfolio review, but this should be professional practice. Artists are the lifeblood of galleries and the galleries should be taking a long term view to help develop upcoming talent.

But even if they are not going to take an enlightened long view like that, I feel that we deserve to know the criteria for judging and how we were scored. Even in my local camera club competitions way back, every photographer heard a discussion by the judges and knew how the evaluation of their entry was derived. When I was a new photographer that was extremely valuable. It should be taken to a higher level now for professional artists. Otherwise we are feeling blindly in the dark.

Why is some art good?

So 2 artists are creating art at the some time. Why is one significantly better than the other? It could simply be skill. One of them has studied and practiced far longer and better than the other. Or it could be natural talent.

I used to write software. Numerous studies showed that some people have a natural talent for performing at a higher level than the norm. In the case of software, even with the same education and experience, differences of 20 to 1 in productivity were seen. I suspect it is similar with artists.

Or is could be their vision and creativity. This can’t be measured or quantified, but it makes all the difference.

Where does creativity come in?

Imagine again the 2 artists standing on the bank of the Seine River in France painting a landscape scene before them. One is an acclaimed Realist painter of the era. He renders a very skillful, detailed representation of the scene. The other is Claude Monet. He sees the same scene totally different. The painting he creates looks nothing like the one done by the man standing next to him, even though the subject is the same.

Monet’s impressionistic style was initially rejected and unpopular, He was criticized and mocked by the learned critics of the day. But today a significant portion of the people on the planet know Monet and recognize his work. Even after 100 to 150 years we still line up for hours to see a collection of his paintings. On the other hand, I bet you can’t name even one of the popular and well regarded Realist painters of his day.

This is the edge that creativity brings.

How about feeling?

We constantly hear that an artist needs to convey what they felt about the subject. I usually agree with this, although it is hard for some subjects. Most of the time, when I make an image, I am asking myself what I am feeling and how I am showing that to a viewer.

How does a viewer judge feelings? Isn’t it totally subjective? One viewer can look at a picture and break down in tears because of the associations and meaning it invokes in them. The viewer beside them may say “yeah whatever…” Obviously one was touched and the other wasn’t.

Was the problem of not reaching the second viewer the artist’s or the viewer’s? Maybe neither. If the artists did what he could, that’s all he can do. We don’t all react to the same things. We all have different criteria of “goodness” in art. Let’s acknowledge that and make it more transparent.

So, judging

We all judge art when we see it. Most of us probably are not practiced in introspecting and analyzing our response. So all we can say is something like “I like it”.

The professional gatekeepers who judge shows and contests and gallery submissions should be held to higher standards. Artists should get better feedback on their submissions. Even if a juror told me “My training and curation experience is in post-modernism; your entry did not fit that style so I was unable to evaluate it well.”, that, at least, gives me some good data. It is an honest response. I know I will not be accepted in a show this juror is judging. Even better would be for the show publication to state clearly that the theme is Urban Decay and the juror will be giving special consideration to post-modernist work. Here is a link to see other shows she has curated.

If criteria were made clear, even at such a rudimentary level, we would have much better guidance. I would know not to not submit a lovely landscape sunset to a show that was only going to consider gritty post-modern images. Even better, if I got actual feedback from the juror on why my image was or was not rejected, I could learn. I could evaluate where I stand against their criteria and decide if I need to change or find a new venue.

What judging counts?

Judging happens everywhere and all the time. What is important?

As I see it, there are 3 primary audiences to consider. The first is me. I, the artist, must decide how I feel about this image I have created. I must be able to express why it was made and how I felt and what I was trying to say with it. If I can do this and I am happy with the image, that is of first importance.

The second consideration, I think, is the viewer. They are the intended audience for the image. If someone likes one of my images and purchases it to hang on their wall for their pleasure and to show other people, that is high praise and it does not matter what any gatekeeper may say about it.

Lastly and least are the myriad of gatekeepers. Those who give anonymous judgment of our images according to secret criteria. Since they are working behind the scenes in secret, they are basically a Star Chamber court.

I am disappointed when I am voted out by one of these secret courts, but I refuse to take it as a judgment against my work. Since I don’t know the criteria used, I assume my work did not fit the pattern they are “promoting” in their curation.

So, we are all going to be judged whenever our work is seen. Accept that. Art judgment is not objective. It cannot be. But when someone other than a potential purchaser “votes” us down, ask what criteria was used. Understand the criteria and we understand the judge. Know that these 3rd party judges generally have their own agenda they are following.

And remember, when we get bad feedback, the judgment is on the piece of art, not us personally.


  • Better Photography magazine is a lovely publication edited by Peter Eastway. Peter is an amazing Australian photographer who justifiably has multiple Professional Photographer of the Year and similar awards. I get no compensation from them. I just want to point this out as a fresh and interesting publication run by extremely knowledgeable and talented artists.

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