I’m interested in this question as a reflection of how we teach art, what we teach, and why we teach. It also seems important for artists navigating the larger world of the art industry. It’s only a question for artists trying to find their place in a larger context. It’s not something that would interest the hermit artist on a mountaintop, or even many beginner artists. It’s not a question that children always ask when they pick up a crayon……. What does that tell us?
Imagine this scenario: You’ve spent the last 30 years honing your art practice, perfecting your skills, improving, tweaking, and refining your forms, and you enter a show where beginner level work wins all the prizes and receives all the public attention. What went wrong? Has some objective measure of value been violated? We may feel an injustice has been committed, but what is the crime?
It seems the easy answer is that, yes, there is an objective difference between the quality of beginner and expert level work. That has to be true, right? The problem with beginners is that they are not very good at what they are doing (no shame in that), but with enough effort and perseverance they learn to get it more right. We don’t start out as experts. We start out at ‘square one’ and simply need practice to get better at the things we do. In a very real sense experts are better than beginners.
For instance, you don’t let novices perform major surgery when you have a choice. You don’t let your friend’s uncle who once read a law related book represent you in court. And you hire the best, most qualified engineers to build a bridge. You don’t hire beginners to teach the class. When you are aiming for quality it makes sense to choose someone who ‘knows what they are doing’. Almost everywhere you turn you see that experience pays off and that merit and talent are justly rewarded. Quality and being qualified seem to be related. Beginners, by definition, lack both those things: They simply lack experience and know how.
So when we see obvious beginner artwork score big in art shows the folks who have spent their adult lives honing their craft sometimes feel an offense has been committed. We can perhaps understand why they might feel disappointed. But what went wrong? Is it simply that the judges and the audience blew it? They chose some punk off the street to perform neurosurgery?
I’m going to suggest that while this disquiet makes sense on a certain level its not the whole story. I’m going to suggest that quality in art is too slippery a customer to explain everything in this way.
Art doesn’t obey the rigid expectations that surgery and bridge building require. It’s not held to an independent standard that everyone can refer to, for instance. Look around you to see how often and how quickly we disagree about the quality of even expert artists. Compare and contrast art between cultures and across the ages. The values of art don’t have the specificity of things like major surgery and bridge building. When the patient survives it’s good. When the bridge collapses it’s bad. The analogy to these other fields is far too simplistic. Rather, our disagreements about the different qualities of art are like a confusion about the rules for different particular games. Virtue is always defined by the rules and ideals that apply to specific practices.
For instance, insofar as beginners are engaged in primitive forms of practice (learning to walk before they can run) it makes every bit of sense to say they are on the road to improvement: They are learning the rules, digesting the nuances, and perhaps aspiring to identifiable standards. They are building a foundation. And the foundation carries with it the notion of its completion, what it should end up as. It’s not usually arbitrary or ambiguous: The foundation is part of an implied whole.
The truth is that the foundation is only part of the puzzle, and judged by the standards of a completed puzzle beginners invariably fall short. They miss the quality defined by the whole. The point is to complete the puzzle. You work to get the foundation right and then build something proper on top of that. You fit all the pieces correctly. The progression can be described as from a lack of sophistication and an absence of refined control to a level of comfort that eventually expresses itself as mastery. Making mistakes along the way is how we learn to do things right. A mistake is when we go off course, stumble, or come up short. We put the wrong pieces together. We can lay the foundation poorly or quit too early. Or we can launch from it in unacceptable directions.
But can we say this is something at all (or always) obvious in the fields of art? In pottery? In painting? In music? What things necessarily count as mistakes and who decides whether they are? Are the standards for foundations universally appropriate? And are the directions one can take these foundations already written in stone? Isn’t the point of art that it has at least some flexibility and freedom?
If art beginners often don’t know ‘the rules’ for what they are doing can they properly be said to even be aiming for the same sense of quality? Do they even need those supposed rules to be doing what they are doing?
Without the rules it’s hard to call anything a mistake. A mistake is always qualified by its context. Isn’t it true that unlike aspiring medical students art as a personal expression has no inherent qualification for its practice? We make art for a variety of reasons, not all of which are aimed at the standards of experts. Beginning artists don’t ‘fail’ in the same sense that beginning med students fail at performing cutting edge surgery….. A child’s stick figure drawing is not a failed painting.
Here is the point on which this turns: There is a difference between making a mistake and doing something different.
For instance, we like to say that beginners are like people learning to throw stones at a target. At first they are wide of the mark, but as they learn to calibrate and perfect their technique they get closer and closer. You do it right when you hit the target. You get it wrong when you miss.
Unfortunately in art all the possible rules are not spelled out. Really, few are. And there are a multiplicity of things to aim at. Many seem to contradict one another. The history of art, in fact, has been built by artists overturning the rules and setting out in new directions. And experts, much less beginners, can be forgiven for aiming at things other than our own or society’s accepted preferences.
Question: If we play chess against a person who has all the rules down, but moves the pieces with the sole objective of protecting their pawns, do we say they are still playing ‘chess’? They move the pieces correctly, but it’s as if they don’t really understand the purpose of the game as we do. If they feel they have done well depending on how well they protected their pawns, is it still the same game?
We sometimes like to think there is a broad sense of quality that should embrace all the possibility within a specific field or medium. We sometimes like to think that you can set all the examples of art within a medium side by side and measure them all against a consistent standard of quality. In other words that they can be ranked, one work better than another, one artist better than another. We do this all the time. It’s the basis of juried shows. It’s implicit in the commercial art game. We put folks up on pedestals and we trample the losers underfoot in the scramble to the top. We let cultural arbiters like the galleries and museum curators flex their preferences and consecrate the new next best things. This is how it works. There is a pretense of unbiased objectivity.
But is that really fair? Is it honest? Or is it merely self serving?
If different artists are aiming at different things do we judge them on how well they aimed, their expertise, or what they aimed for? Is there an objective list of virtues for what to aim at?
Is chess better than checkers? Is football better than rugby? Is painting better than sculpture? Abstract Expressionism better than Realism? Isn’t any expression to the affirmative simply an admission of chauvinism? Do we really think the cultural gatekeepers and the establishment are unbiased and egalitarian? Aren’t their credentials, in fact, evidence of their partisanship?
So back to the earlier question of the difference between making a mistake and playing a different game. We often judge the failure of bad art as having made mistakes. In other words, that they got it somehow wrong. But getting the rules wrong implies that the intention is to adhere to that specific set of rules. The incredible freedom of artists is that they have the liberty to invent new games at will. New things to aim at and new ways of getting there. The violence we commit is that we imagine everyone is or should be playing the same game.
Some practices look pretty similar. Some are divided by only slight differences in the rules or objectives. Thinking that there is one objective sense of quality that speaks for all intentions is not only preposterous but rude. Not every beginner even wants to be an expert. Mostly they don’t yet know the difference. Do they need to be judged by those exalted standards?
Wine is a ‘spoiled’ grape, but which is better, the grape or the wine? Vinegar is ‘spoiled’ wine, but which is better, the wine or the vinegar? Quality is always domain specific. There is no independent natural order it inhabits. It is always tied up with the purposes to which we put things. How we aim, in other words.
The main difference between the beginner and the expert is that the beginner simply doesn’t know very many things to aim at. Its not just about aim.
The scenario that kicked off this discussion more often points to the real and entirely justified preferences of the individuals judging. It doesn’t mean that obvious objective or universally agreed standards have been flouted. The audience and the judges are no more wrong than the artists themselves for making different choices and upholding different standards. Jurying a show is like asking one person to set out the standards and rules for the game we are playing. Is it any wonder that different people want to play different games? The criteria seem to depend on who is in charge.
This may take some getting used to. Its not the conventional wisdom. But the lesson (if there is one) is not to simply assume that we are all playing the same creative games. They are social constructs we sometimes share, but not necessarily. We can agree to play the same or same seeming games, but often our agreement seems implicit. Art, something that often aims at innovation, by definition frequently moves beyond the known, the only reference we might have for established standards of quality.
If we can accept that art is consistently reinventing itself, why would we need to be hung up on issues of quality? If you are playing some specific game, yes, it does matter. But if its a confusion between five card stud and jokers wild, or between gin rummy and go fish, the hand itself won’t tell you how well you’ve done or even necessarily what the game is: You can’t simply look at art and always know what it was aiming at. You can guess. You can interpret after the fact. But if you are trailblazing you ought not to be surprised that others misjudge what you’ve laid on the table. Even if it looks exactly like the game others think you are playing, it can still be something quite different.
So, what is the difference between making a mistake and following different rules? That seems like an important question…..