The Artful Doodler

October 2, 2007 at 10:25 pm · Filed under Drawing / Illustration

There are two types of competition: objective and subjective. Most sports and games are objective: Whoever goes the fastest / gets the farthest / scores the most points / captures the king wins; the rules are well-established, and, generally, blood simple and crystal clear. That’s why athlete interviews are so excruciating to watch: There’s nothing to talk about. They have to resort to a bunch of standardized, time-filling, nonsensical platitudes about how they took the football down the football field (obvious), how their coach, teammates and/or sponsors deserve most or all of the credit (unlikely), or about how they had to give 110% (not possible). Subjective competitions have parameters but no clear qualification for success; success is judged by somebody or a panel of somebodies deemed experts in the field. These make for much more interesting conversation, but the results are always biased and sometimes downright arbitrary.

In terms of competition, it doesn’t get more subjective than a juried art show. It also doesn’t get much more incomprehensible. The primary point of bother is that nobody can even agree on what art is. A lot of people confuse the medium with the message. Just because something is painted doesn’t make it art. Great art reveals before-unrecognized issues; the medium is just a way of delivering the message. To be clear, I also don’t believe design is art, and this is not to say that it is any more or less important. Design’s role is to reconcile the issues revealed by art with pragmatic needs of society.

So, how do you judge art? Assuming you can get beyond the initial hurdle of understanding what art is, it only becomes less simple, because great art breaks rules and redefines those pesky parameters. How can you say whether it has broken the rules and redefined parameters sufficiently? And how does someone become a recognized expert at determining that?

I’ve entered a few design contests (and been entered into many more by firms I’ve worked for), which have their own issues (design can rarely be judged objectively in common show formats because they never allow for enough context to be known). However, I’ve only ever entered one juried art show, and that was in high school. I submitted three pieces…

One piece was really more design than art. Still feverishly obsessed with automobilia, My drawing here was an isometric view of a cockpit of a contemporary take on 1960s race cars, with an open roof, headrest fairing and button-down tonneau cover over the passenger seat compartment.

race car cockpit illustration; pencil on paper; approx. 10 x 8in. / 1995

Nobody seemed to understand what it was, so I amended the drawing mid-show with an explanation (“It’s a car, dammit!”). No prize.

Another piece was a decent illustration, I suppose, but pretty crappy in terms of art (I just copied it—not traced, but copied verbatim—from a photograph in a popular magazine).

Pick-up B-Ball illustration; pencil on paper; approx. 8 x 10in. / 1995

No interpretation (or thought) needed. No prize.

The third piece was certainly the most interesting and definitely stood out from anything else in the show. It was not a school project. In fact, if anything, it was an anti-school project. It was a doodle I had done during class.

Dan illustration; ballpoint pen and correction fluid on photo paper packaging; approx. 10 x 14in. / 1995

People doodle in class all the time, much to the chagrin of teachers everywhere. The quality in this piece was that I framed it and put it in a show (curated by the school), which made people think about what it meant. What did it mean? Perhaps that I was bored in class? Perhaps that I was rapt with some sort of undirected creativity that needed to be put on anything that I happened to be in front of me? Perhaps that this white boy shooting fancy black and white pictures had been struck by the influence of hip-hop bling? Perhaps that I was tired of people stealing my very expensive photo paper?

Whatever people saw in it, I can take some satisfaction in that it snatched up second place in the show. If only first prize wasn’t just some pretty painting copied from a photograph.

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