This is the first in a four-part series on critiquing art. Basic concepts will be presented in order to encourage the reader to evaluate an artist’s work in a fair and sensible way. These concepts are easily applied to fine art, but note that they apply to almost every creative outlet, from acting to music to graffiti.
The first topic is series. An even better word may be context.
I’m not a huge fan of group exhibits where each artist is represented by a single piece. I understand their purpose and have nothing against them as they can be a valuable resources for introduction to a large number of artists. But when it comes to viewing art, this is not my cup of tea. The pieces are often connected by the show’s theme or by a geographic region, but apart from that there is no context. I have no way of knowing if the piece I’m looking at is indicative of the artist’s larger body of work. It says something about the curator, but that’s rarely my interest. It’s very much like listening to the radio. You may hear a song you love, but is the performer a one-hit wonder? Will you be bored by every other song they’ve released?
When viewing a solo show you get an immensely better feel for the artist’s talents, methods, style, and reasoning. You have context in which to explore the meanings and values. Each piece speaks into the other pieces. Instead of listening to random songs on the radio, you’re sitting down and listening to an entire album.
The point is this: don’t waste your time trying to evaluate an artist by studying a single piece. Don’t get me wrong—each piece has something to say and can be evaluated and enjoyed on its own merit. I’m certainly not saying that museums are boring curations. But if you’re looking to understand an artist, you evaluation is little more than an exercise when there is an entire body available and untapped. Note that museums very often have multiple pieces by the same artist in the same room. It’s a kindness to the viewer.
The context then proliferates as an artist establishes multiple series. Each series may have very different approaches and styles, but in the end it all comes down to the same artist, which means each series speaks into all the others. Again, think in terms of music. U2’s Achtung Baby album (or series) is seen in a whole new light when you consider Rattle and Hum before it and Zooropa after it.
While this is a rather common sense concept, it’s surprising how often it is not applied. Not only can it help you appreciate an artist’s work, but it can also reveal glaring deficiencies. As an example, consider discovering a beautiful piece of artistry. You love every aspect. But upon researching the artist, you discover his every work embodies the same idea and execution. There is little depth to the conversation.
And from the perspective of a creator, a series can be very gratifying. I’ve found working in the context of a series to be downright exciting. The story you tell swells with increasing dimension as additional characters enter the plot. You find yourself learning uncovering aspects of your own creations. As part of my process, I never fully complete one work at a time, for it is inevitable that later pieces will reveal truths about the entire series that will require me to alter the earlier pieces.
Even in this four-part series you’re now reading, I made changes to this first writing based on what I discovered while creating later pieces. As one example, the original title was “Series is Essential,” but while working through the rest of the series, I came upon an alliterative title structure that worked across the entire series.
One final note. This topic goes well beyond the world of art into the everyday. We evaluate a person based on a single action we witnessed. We evaluate a public official based upon a single news report. Even if these events hold up as true when considered in context, they are single events that are part of storied lives. We need to be fair to others and we need to be sure that our own life series speaks of who we are. Context is king—everywhere.
Next we’ll consider the topic of familiarity.