How do you grade art?


One of the reasons I am not even remotely interested in pursuing the stable teaching job in academia is my aversion to grading art. Staley gives us four value systems, but each is independently relevant: Craft, creativity, composition, and content. They are not coordinated. They are not sympathetic. They are not necessarily even related.

For instance, there is plenty of good art that is poor craft, plenty of excellent craft with little content, many great compositions that are not creative, etc, etc…. And all these things in their own ways can be profoundly moving. Its possible to scale well in one area, not so well in others, and still come out fine. Then again, if you get some things wrong it sometimes doesn’t matter how well you did in the rest….

So that’s still confusing. There is simply no one universal system that weighs each variable consistently for the breadth of every creative possibility. It is and ever was only a case by case source of judgment.

So Staley misrepresents the difference between objective and subjective a bit. He takes ‘objectivity’ to mean “Universal truth that basically everyone can agree on.” This is a rather narrow interpretation if you consider that it essentially implies that it is either physically or logically impossible to disagree with statements of these sorts. Universality demands nothing less. You agree, not because it makes sense, but because you have to agree. Its not optional. Its not a preference. No personal wiggle room.

But if you consider the history of even a few concepts you will find that they all evolved over time, that even the most convincing truths of today were not always accepted as fact. If you know about different cultures you can see how few things are truly shared ‘Universally’. There ends up being far more wiggle room than Staley seems to suggest. Objectivity either ends up meaning nothing, or it must mean something entirely different. It seems obvious that Staley’s idea of objectivity fails its own test of universality. “Objective” is far from objective in that sense…..


My take: Its not just that people agree, its that they CAN agree. Things that are subjective only have a personal frame of reference (and ‘personal’ is not the same thing as ‘subjective’). They are not amenable to confirmation of disconfirmation because they essentially write their own rules. Its the difference between playing a game of chess and messing around with toys in a sandbox: There is a certain kind of agreement implicit in a game of chess, but there need be no agreement whatsoever for two kids to push around toy cars and plastic dinosaurs. Agreement is irrelevant. They just do what they do.

So, agreement is often conditional and contingent. Its attempting to be on the same page. Universality is a great idea in theory, but a bit nebulous in practice. Ask any infant how far universality stops short…..

But even if we fall short of absolutely everyone always agreeing its still amazing what things we can agree on. We can still have provisional agreement, say, that something tastes sour, but what it actually tastes like is our own experience. That part is subjective. So where does agreement obtain with what we think of as subjective assessments? Something can taste sour to several people and sweet to others. It is both ‘non-subjectively sour’ and ‘non-subjectively sweet’ in that sense. Confusing!

But then we are no longer talking about what it actually tastes like to each individual. We are not talking about the experience itself: We are talking about how those sensations are described. We are talking about how we learned the world and how we negotiate meaning with other people. We are talking about where agreement overlaps. It oversimplifies things to suggest that either everyone completely agrees or there is no agreement. All or nothing. Disagreement isn’t the sign that its all in our heads. Rather, we agree because we agree to use the same terms for describing things. Its an agreement to agree. Anyone else see the dark humor in that?

The middle ground turns out to be the only place we can pin anything remotely ‘objective’ (especially if all it took were one person’s universality defying disagreement to overturn it….). If people can disagree about the qualities of craftsmanship (true), the nature of the content (true), the creative uniqueness (true), and the strength of composition (true), just what do we have left? The canons are not inscribed in the heavens for us to appeal to. And if each culture- and each person- has to invent or learn their own standards, at least we can do so in ways that sometimes agree with others. The world simply admits to multiple interpretations. Isn’t that just dandy!

Its the very same idea with beauty. Beauty is really out there in the world. Its not just in our heads. Its no less real than ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ or ‘composition’ or ‘fear’. Its not something we are making up as we go. We are acting on information that is out there. We see the world and we respond to it: Beauty. We don’t all have to agree for that to be the case. Its enough that some of us have learned to see it that way. But its not the only way.

The shared world doesn’t always line up perfectly with others’ takes on it. We get by on this imperfect agreement. We are not continually looking over our shoulders for others’ confirmation that we are not simply lost in a flight of delusion and pure subjective fantasy. Some things we fail to see are also legitimately seen by other people. The potential for disagreement is the nature of human existence. Our own interpretations are often just as valid as others’. There are reasons why we interpret things differently. Sometimes there is nothing independent to choose between them. Sometimes there is (Einsteinian Physics explains more than Newtonian Physics explains more than Copernican Physics explains more than Aristotelian Physics)…. Isn’t that grand!

The picture of things like Mathematics and Science seduces us. Even though math is a human invention it describes the world tolerably well. Its the ideal we feel all other explanation must live up to. And unfortunately ‘beauty’ is often also disrespected in the Arts as simply ‘too subjective’, a quaint personal reference that has nothing much to do with the ‘real’ world. There is no mathematical calculus for beauty. Not since Dada, at least….. But we can’t forget that there was an agenda that made it necessary to kill off beauty. Dada reminded us that the traditional canons of beauty were as arbitrary as the next. Beauty had to die for Art to move forward. Those institutionalized standards were unconscionable to a generation that had just lived through The War to End All Wars….. Those forms of beauty were an affront to the newly developing sensibilities. Can we blame them for such a strong reaction to the horrors of the world?

We seem to have digested that notion properly. “God is dead” and with him the ideals of “the physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe depicted by the 18th-century Enlightenment.”  Those standards have mostly been put to bed. But we are somehow still hung up on these other qualities that, not uncoincidentally, were just as antithetical to the absurdist agenda of the Dadas. You can’t kill beauty and expect to retain these other hobgoblins. Its hard to claim that these hard truths of Art (Craft, creativity, composition, and content) are ‘universally objective’ when just about everything else seems up for grabs in some corner of the world.

If ‘beauty’ failed in an absurd world, where precisely does composition fit? Craft? Staley’s Four Cs are as much the bias and preference of his own present day Caste (a quality he himself refers to as implicating the subjective) as almost any tool for grading art….. Hoisted on his own petard, I say! Verily!

Grading art has standards, but those standards are always linked to some set of disputable principles. Sound from where we are looking, but from another point of view they often seem arbitrary…. The Four C’s are as much an historical accident as the 19th Century cannons of beauty were. And art (unlike math and science) that only strives to live up to the standards is a poor excuse for art (in my meta standardization).

Engage whatever standards appeal to you. There is no ultimate ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to human creativity. But don’t expect them to rewrite the history of art in your name. The great thing about art is that it is unfolding human potential. It evolves as the human context evolves. There is no final version, no end to ‘art’. It changes. Anyone who disagrees with you may have a point….

Evaluating and grading art is not so much about imposing your standards on other people as it is listening to what they have to say. And why would you put a ‘grade’ on that?

This is why I teach in a community arts center!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How do you grade art?

  1. “Postmodernism in the arts repudiated many of the basic teachings of modernism: the myth of individual genius, for example, and the concept of originality. Yet arts institutions continued to operate throughout the postmodern period, and do so right up to the present moment, as though that critique never happened. Museums, foundations, government endowments, and university art departments all effortlessly absorbed a movement which was more or less devoted to destroying their conception of the arts. They treated the postmodernists exactly the way they’d treated the modernists.” Crispin Sartwell

    Just to demonstrate that the pressures of conformity tend to overrule and often end up including the voices that stand in opposition. The art world is one such institution. On one hand it cheers the Dada impulse and on the other it co-opts its platform as a new part of its organism. This should be a lesson in not taking our convictions too seriously when they simply express the world view of the dominant system or authority. ‘Objectivity’ and ‘universality’ are occasionally just the convenient mantras of a certain dogma or agenda…..

  2. Carter, I’m bothered by the easiness by which you dismiss objectivity. This is a bias that Art has been having to endure in our populist times; the conclusion that nothing really matters because it’s all so subjective. Really? Do we feel that way about science, banking, even gravity?
    Everything in life isn’t simply a matter of being subjective and neither is that the case in Art.
    I like to say that Art isn’t subjective- people are.
    Many people, including Sartwell it seems, misrepresent Post-Modernism as the ideology that replaced Modernism. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact most thinkers who think about Post- Modernism don’t even completely agree what Post-Modernism really is other than for the fact that it was against Modernism.
    Andy Warhol, as Sartwell points out, did something that was different in idea than what Modernism was. I’m not sure his intentions was to do something against Modernism. It’s all part of art history and it’s all still worthy of our objective attention.
    I would argue that what is ailing us as a society and maybe what ails the fine art world and the fine craft world is not that we take ourselves too seriously but rather that we are not taking ourselves seriously enough.

    • Richard, I am amazed at how poorly you understood what I was arguing. Go back and read it again with these points in mind:

      Subjectivity is things that are PURELY personal. They are the things that do not admit to connection with other people. Which means that our shared reality is basically NOT subjective. But the fact of agreement does not indicate that what is being agreed is UNIVERSALLY the case. If we take objectivity as only those things that are universal truth, then we have only a very small handful of things to talk about. Can you name more than a few dozen things out of the trillions of human ideas that are shared universally among people? That’s a hard task. And you might still find people who disagreed with your selection….. So what does that say about the strict definition? Mostly that it is a poor way to proceed.

      So my point is that ‘objectivity’ HAS TO MEAN something different, or it means almost nothing at all. Read the post again with that in mind.

      Which has NOTHING to do with how seriously we take ourselves and the world. In fact, for many people the more subjective elements of their understanding are perhaps some of the things they take MOST SERIOUSLY. Think about it.

      It seems that you feel the only way to take things seriously is if there is no possibility for disagreement, objectivity in the sense of ‘universal truths’. But just think about it. People are most passionate about things that seem contested. They are the most passionate, care the most, about the things that others confront them on. Just like you and me, right? We go round and round with our passionate zeal about things we very much care about. But the very fact of our disagreement proves that these ideas are contestable. If what we were arguing about was objectively irrefutable then we wouldn’t get so hung up misunderstanding the other. Think about it. Either objectivity admits to confusion or very little we can talk about is objective in the sense of universality.

      So let me say this again: Objectivity surrounds us. It is everywhere we are and in everything we do. But its also possible that these objective things are misunderstood, or interpreted differently. THAT DOESN’T MAKE THEM LESS REAL. If subjectivity is things that are not real in the world, then objectivity is things that are real in the world. But reality wears many faces. If your only criteria for objectivity is incontrovertability, then you have poor pickings. Everything seems pretty much up for grabs. And that’s not a bad thing!

      Which leads to your point about Postmodernism. You seem to hold it a flaw with postmodern stances that they seldom fully agree with one another, but why should they? Isn’t the whole idea of postmodern thought that there are choices? That its not inscribed in the heavens for us? And also that the fact that we have to invent meaning is liberating? We get to choose.

      Ideas are like tools: they help us achieve things in the world. And the great thing is that for different purposes you can often find a variety of different tools. The tools can conflict with one another, but that’s irrelevant. The real point is “What can this tool do?” So look at postmodern ideas themselves as different tolls for different jobs. The jobs are not the same, and even if they were we still have choices on how to proceed.

      The world is full of meaning. We can find meaningful things all around us. And quite often we will agree about some of them. Whether that agreement is universal or not is beside the point. we agree and that means we can act in relative harmony with regards to this thing. Its ‘true’ for us.

      So my thoughts on art is that we artists find these great new ways of looking at the world, ways that other people had left undiscovered. And now its up to us to teach the world what these new things mean. That’s not a poor man’s version of objectivity. It IS objective reality we are exposing for their inspection. These things ARE beautiful in whatever way. They have these meanings, this content, regardless of whether everyone immediately ‘gets it’. But the truth is that they potentially have many more than what we intended. Our intentions are not so inclusive of the breadth of possibility that we never fail to embrace some other possible interpretations. And isn’t that a good thing?

      Embrace multiplicity.

      Think about it.

  3. Maybe I misread your post because…well frankly it’s all over the board when it comes to making a point.
    In your original post you claim Staley’s idea that “Universal truth is something that everyone can agree on” (which I don’t think is correct) is a narrow viewpoint. Then you tell me it’s “everywhere and in everything we do” and you even contend that objectivity has all kinds of meanings.

    “But the truth is that they potentially have many more than what we intended. Our intentions are not so inclusive of the breadth of possibility that we never fail to embrace some other possible interpretations”

    That sounds like much more of an argument that suggests everything is gloriously subjective rather than some position on objectivity.

    And no it wasn’t the point of Post-Modernism that “whole idea of postmodern thought that there are choices?” If anything a true Post-Modernism might think that there are no real choices, that Modernism was shit and everything after modernism was shit.

    So what do you say to a racist or tea party nut case who believes what they believe because it is “true” for them? I would objectively show them that they are wrong.

    • If ‘Objectivity’ can ONLY mean ‘universally true’ then it fails to stand for much of anything. So objectivity has to mean something else, right? So lets take subjectivity first, to see what objectivity is not. Subjectivity is things that belong to the subject only, right? They are not things that are shared, by definition. But the world is full of things that are shared. In fact, if you can make sense of some of these words, we can be said to share much of what their meanings are. So there is the opposite of ‘subjective’, the things that we do share, right? They are the things that are out there independent of us.

      It seems to be your position that only some of the things we share are objective and that the rest are subjective, but how do you tell the difference? Because you, Richard Kooyman, are smarter than the rest of us and have the only real insight into the world? Is it possible for two people to be partially correct but in different ways? Clearly it isn’t the case that anything goes, but that doesn’t mean that only one version is ‘right’. Being right just means that you’ve found something that works. Its provisional and contingent in the muck of the real world. Only pure logic and math seem to be untainted by flexibility and contingency……

      So sometimes our ideas fail but they don’t always fail on the grounds of subjectivity. Subjectivity isn’t the only thing that leads us astray.

      So the nut jobs have all these beliefs that they share with other wing nuts and take as objective facts, but clearly they are wrong in important respects. Its not my point that anything goes. Misrepresenting the facts is an error. Drawing the wrong conclusion is an error. Mistaking assumptions for reality is an error. Life is strewn with these pitfalls. How do you, Richard Kooyman avoid them all? How can you be sure you have?

      The truth isn’t always what it seems. We rarely have a good enough grasp on what we ourselves believe much less on why other people believe what they do. If all we can have at any one time is a partial view then that’s all we’ve got, and we’d best learn to embrace something short of omniscience. We can hope to get better views, though. Aristotelian Physics was good, but it didn’t explain everything that Copernican Physics could. Copernican Physics was a leap forward, but is could not explain everything that Newtonian physics could. Newtonian Physics was even better placed to describe things, but it couldn’t match what Einstein gave us. And so on, and so on……

      So where was the objective truth of physics in you mind? In all of them, in only some of them, or in none of them? Will objective truth come in our distant future, when we finally get it right for all time?

      The model of objectivity that doesn’t admit of wiggle room puts truth on a pedestal that very few things could ever aspire to. So it has to mean something different, right? I am attempting to explain one possibility and give some logical reasons why I’m not just plucking this out of the air.

      And even if you misunderstand the points I’m making, misrepresent what I’m trying to do, it seems to be a failing that isn’t just yours or mine. The difficulty is between us. What one person thinks of as obvious another can see as tremendously subtle, or even fail to see. When we lack agreement its not a problem of our understanding (which can be just fine on its own) or of the state of the world itself. Rather, a lack of agreement is a problem of the difference between how we variously interpret things, and the values we attach to them. Its not a matter of one person always being right and the other wrong. They can both be right in different ways and wrong in different ways…….

      As far as Postmodernism goes, it seems odd to expect an authoritative version of it that speaks for all the possible misgivings that inspires it. You seem to want to do a metaphysics of Postmodernism when the last thing on most postmodernists’ mind is metaphysics. Its not just one thing, for crissakes. Not every postmodern thinker believes the same things. Not every postmodernist will fit the tidy boxes that you appear to want to categorize them in. It may be convenient to think in those terms, but glossing over differences is hardly a credible practice of truth. Pigeonholing is a road to mistakes. If we only think in terms of black and white, just how much else in the world do we miss?

      Does any of that make sense to you? I’m trying! I apologize if I’m still not being clear enough in how I convey my thinking. Maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree, or admit that we simply can’t see the point the other is trying to make. Sometimes it just works out like that, that even the things that seem obvious to a reasonably intelligent person don’t make an sense to another reasonably intelligent person. Why do YOU suppose that is? You don’t appear to suggest that it means everything is subjective, and neither do I. Just why can two people legitimately disagree? I’ve tried to explain how I think that to be possible? What is your suggestion? Not just wing nuts. How do intelligent people disagree? How do different cultures disagree? How do we disagree with our ancestors? The smartest people from previous generations? Did they suffer a deficit of objectivity? It seems we either live in an objective world or we do not. My claim is that we do. Can you see why I ma saying that?

      Gotta go!

  4. John Bauman says:

    Just thought I’d interject here: Did you notice that “grade art” and “gray dart” sound exactly alike?

    I know, right?

  5. Philosophy is the most useful when we can make it apply somehow to our lives. I love philosophy when it helps us to think better. But you can see in our brief conversation how we have digressed into arguing over philosophical language and ideas rather than usage.
    I thought your original post was interesting because it touched on the subject of art in our world and how do we “grade” it, assess it’s quality. What I think is important is how we go about doing that correctly. And I believe we can do that correctly and the way we do that is through education and knowledge.

    • Absolutely, Richard! And I apologize for going off the deep end. I agree we got more than a bit sidetracked.

      I wholeheartedly agree that education and exposure are vital ways of encouraging an appreciation of art. And I think there are many important standards that are worth keeping in mind when ‘grading’ art.

      The problem I had with Staley is that he seemed to suggest that those standards were not a point of agreement between the history of art and the community it serves. The whole ‘objective’ idea made it seem as if these ‘universal’ standards could apply across cultures and throughout history. I think we can both agree that appreciation for art evolves, and that standards evolve with it. What makes sense artistically in Borneo might get overlooked in Stockholm. The things we admire today might find little acceptance in ancient Greece. Staley simply trivializes these important differences…..

      So I’m not saying this means there are no standards, simply that there are many. There are many things we can agree are important. Anything you like, anything that speaks to you does so for reasons that are often above the merely personal and subjective. Other people can share these feelings and values.

      That’s the whole point of education: We believe these things are important. Maybe not the only things, but at least things worth knowing. Its possible (though not necessary) to agree on that. We often find that its worth our efforts to share these things. They have objective (real world) value. They can matter to more than just ourselves.

      Thanks as always for sharing your insights and wisdom! You always keep me on my toes, Richard. You always force me to dig deeper into why I think the way I do. Thanks for providing the foil! These things truly ARE worth thinking through!

  6. Following Johns lead of injecting humor into the discussion I thought this was absolutely hilarious! From the Epic Rap Battles of History, Bob Ross squares off against Pablo Picasso:

  7. From the short series, Design in a Nutshell, here’s a short blurb about Postmodernism. Not every postmodern thinker or artist will agree with all of it, but it highlights many of the motivations and values that seem to be shared:

  8. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.