Visual Arts

Juror This

What’s the deal with jurored exhibitions? Are artists guilty of something? Did they commit a crime? Maybe so. The crime of bad taste. Or being out of fashion: Or being just plain bad.

Whatever it is, jurored shows seem to be all the rage: The Utah Watercolor Society recently held one; the Pastel Society of Utah as well. And every art center in Utah holds them, including Springville’s Spring Salon, hanging now. And now I come to learn, in a recent communiqué, that Artists of Utah will join in the fun with their first exhibitions this fall.

The museums and art societies aren’t the only ones gone gah gah for the jurors. I’ve noticed a number of artists who, when they list their exhibitions, separate and highlight the jurored shows. I guess it’s a bit like Academia’s publish or perish policy. Maybe in the art world it is be jurored or be a joke. Entry into a jurored show is the stamp of approval. It says “You’re OK.”

Which would be fine and dandy if in the end art wasn’t really about opinion. Remember, most of the artists we see in big museum shows didn’t get into the jurored shows of their own day. A jurored show, on the surface, on the surface, seems to be an attempt to keep the visual art world “fair” and “democratic” — to make sure that artistic recognition is based on a meritocracy.

The idea is we get a group of judges, show them the work, and let the pieces speak for themselves. But let’s face it, in a state like Utah everyone knows everyone else’s work. Problem solved — we import someone, with appropriate credentials, to juror the work. But think about it, if you were accused of a crime, would you want a jury of one or two people deciding your fate? Not likely. What if they had a bad lunch that day, or just broke with their significant other, or if they were just plain idiots. I’d go with safety — impartiality — in numbers.

Despite the veneer of fairness, jurored shows are still about personal taste. It’s a couple of people saying “This is what I like.” I’ve been watching. Over the past few years I’ve seen artists who, for an annual exhibition, get an award one year, and don’t even get in the show the next. Let’s not be fooled. The art world is no meritocracy. Never has been.

Artists go in and out of fashion, both with the public and with the scholars. The most consistently well-known artists are usually “historically significant” regardless of aesthetic significance. The modernists of the last century didn’t finally learn their craft so well that they got the attention they deserved. They got backing. Some rich patrons and a few skillful dealers got behind them, promoted them and slowly began rewriting the history books.

Does that mean that Picasso, Kandinsky and Chagall weren’t great? No. But neither does it mean they are. All I can say is “I like Picasso and Chagall” but Kandinsky leaves me flat. And that’s about all a jurored exhibition tells us. These two or three people liked these artists.

Nothing more. Nothing less. Court dismissed.


This article appeared in the May 2002 edition of 15 Bytes.

Categories: Visual Arts

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