The Quality Instinct – Seeing Art Through a Museum Director’s Eye was published in 2012 by the American Association of Museums in Washington DC. This in-house, soft-covered book, 26 by 18 cm, holds 226 pages of quality paper for all the still photographic reproductions of art, most in color. Its design has a few shortcomings. As always, the margin at the spine is too narrow (about 2 cm) compared to about 4 cm at the top and bottom of each page. Why? Don’t book designers read books? I find upper case words more difficult to read, and they are widely used. The worse usage is for the captions. Not only are they all upper case, but they are incredible small and faint. One more point size smaller and they could only be read with a magnifying glass. The footers and page numbers are also too small, but oh so sophisticated. The subheadings are all upper case. An extra space between the words would greatly increase their readability. Why did the scholar and author of this book, Maxwell Anderson, approve this poorly designed book? For its design I give it 2 out of 5 stars.
The cover is a close-up, still documentary photograph of a carved stone face of a young woman, artist unknown, from the 4–3rd century BC. Chipped and with a large piece missing from the chin, her face is displayed over the 2 covers, with hair and one eye on each. It has a modern history. When it was found and by who was not revealed. On the suggestion of an expert it was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC in 1916. Ten years later, another expert declared it a forgery and it was banished to the Met’s basement for 60 years. Along comes Maxwell Anderson, another expert, and declares it not just authentic, but a masterpiece. Back it comes upstairs, to be prominently displayed and included in a 1987 monograph. Better yet, it was photographed and printed as a postcard, a status reserved for only the best of the best at the Met. This statue of a young woman was not treated very well during her 2,000 year life as a masterpiece. She was ignored, dropped and hit numerous times by her caretakers, not realizing what an art treasure she was. Thankfully, the Met has it protected, and we can adore it whenever we visit New York City.
Anderson’s book is about judgments; how to train ourselves not just to look but to see. He begins with an example of a show of the impressionist painters in 1874. The reviews were not pleasant toward this new style of painting. Today, some academic experts remind us that how we judge art is subjective, based on how much we read, visit galleries and generally know about the art world, past and present. Contemporary art is particularly difficult to judge. Many of us don’t trust the so-called experts. Anderson believes we can learn to judge art by following certain guidelines he provides.
First we should look at an art object for more than 5 seconds, at least art that really interests us. We should ask 6 questions – Who made it? 2) What does it represent? 3) When was it made? 4) Where was it first displayed? 5) How was it made? and 6) Why did the artist make it? This is well and good if you are an art historian like Maxwell Anderson, are researching one piece in particular, and have access to this background information or even the living artist. Most museum goers, as he points out, will look at each piece of art for a few seconds, visit the bookstore, dine in the Museum’s cafe, and listen to what other people say about the art. He even advises a delay in reading the label of the art while you make your first judgment. Since most labels are decorated with too small print, I often delay reading the labels forever.
When examining a work of art, Anderson looks for five features – Originality in its approach 2) Crafted with technical skill 3) Confident in its theme 4) Coherent in its composition 5) Memorable for the viewer. I now ask how this applies to photographic art, where an image by Jeff Wall or Angreas Gursky, both of whom have been shown at MoMA in NYC and added to its collection, is no different from thousands of other images by unknown still photographers? Both of these well-known photographers manipulate at least some of their images in Photoshop. This is perfectly acceptable to expert directors and curators that control the art world and what we see and are supposed to admire, based on their taste and subjectivity. Only a tiny fraction of the great photographs being taken today are recognized by the so-called experts. By allowing still photography into the realm of fine art and worthy of shows in art museums, the people who like to control the medium, have subjected themselves to immense pressure to maintain the status quo. That is why the photographic competitions online are essentially the same. The same categories are used and the so-called expert judges are chosen from a pool of magazines and galleries that show still photographs, for example the revered photographers or editors of National Geographic. The photo contests rarely include conceptual of abstract categories. They may be too difficult to judge subjectively. When I had my image God Laughing exhibited in the window of a framing shop in Winnipeg, one passer-by looked at it, then went inside and complained to the shop owner that it could not be a lens-based photograph. He had nothing in his mental photographic files to compare it to. Anyone working for National Geographic would face the same dilemma. They can only revert to abstract paintings to judge my anti-still photographs. That would be unacceptable. Photography, they keep telling us, stands apart from the rest of the art world and must rely on its known strengths, such a rich detail of things we recognize, to maintain its vital position in the rarefied world of fine art. It cannot resemble a painting. Yet it does so every day in its choice of subject matter. Simply pushing a button once an image is in focus makes it different and the same in the history of art.
Anderson’s thoughts on still photography, which don’t really tell us anything new, appear at the end of the book under the subtitle Photography’s Meteoric Impact. Now that is dramatic, even life changing one might say. Anderson begins by stating the obvious. Because still photography reveals the world in recognizable collections of pixels, still photography is deemed accessible, compared to abstract images I assume. The human hand is not involved, except to push the magic button. Anderson has obviously not seen or heard of my abstract drawings, or if so, has ignored my contribution to the evolving medium. He mentions, and rightly so, how the so-called great photographic artists’ images don’t look any different from the billions of still photographs on the web and computers. Anderson suggests there will be a shakeout which will separate art from non art. Curators and art directors, and critics are supposed to do this job for us. Their training, the quality instinct Anderson’s book is trying to explain, doesn’t work so easily with still photography. However, the visual difference between still and anti-still photography are dramatic and real, even though both are made with a camera and light. Movement is what separates the two styles. Still photographers are brainwashed into believing there is only one still way to take a photograph. Judging quality in photography is difficult. Everyone is an expert, because everyone is a photographer, even some curators of still photography, which is very unfortunate. To cope with a billion images, art gallery owners subjectively choose a few dozen photographers as stars, often those with the proper education like Jeff Wall with a PhD in art history, and Andreas Gursky from a top art school in Germany. They are elevated above the rest of us snapshooters for no obvious reason.
Maxwell Anderson also believes photographers and other artists will eventually bypass the commercial galleries and sell the works to anyone in any number. This I am trying to do, without success. So I will give my abstract images away for FREE. I already have over 750 anti-still photographs in private and public collections in 5 countries – all gifts. If any of my readers would like a USB of 129 of my anti-still photographs, all you have to do is ask and I will mail the stick – no charge. I am retired and hoping for a beautiful death. You can keep my art alive until the photographic community learns to accept my style. You can print whatever you like and delete whatever you dislike. Or keep them as digitals on the stick. Limited edition prints may soon be meaningless. Many artists have already abandoned the concept.
Some critics of art shows are often vindictive and trash anything that goes beyond the status quo, just as critics of the impressionist did in the late 1800s. Human nature hasn’t changed. Critics have their likes and dislikes, and are subjective in their assessments. A few kind words from an influential art-world person with access to top media channels, and the career of an artist is launched. Then everyone goes to a party and pats each other on the ass, just like in sports.
Anderson talks about the puffery of the art world, the bullshit from the promo people at art museums. Most descriptions from the commercial galleries describe their show as critical in the history of art. What a joke. Near the end of his wonderful book, which is worthy of a careful read, Anderson “I suggest striving to make more informed, self-assured judgments about the fruits of visual creativity, worrying less about being judged by other people. You've seen how tastemakers in the art world are not always right, and often spectacularly wrong.” Anderson points out that a household name attached to a work of art is no guarantee of quality. Many unknown artists can create art as good or better than the chosen few artists hanging on a museum’s walls. This I might add, is especially true of still photography. Piss on the images by Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky.
Tom Reaume, [email protected]