Quantifying, describing, and evaluating art

I feel as though I know nothing of art; no schools or movements, no artists beyond the most obvious, and no real way of searching, researching, or critically evaluating my own or anyone else’s work. It’s alarming; I should have some way of sparking from what I can see to what it reminds me of somewhere in the artistic canon, but I don’t. I can follow the breadcrumb trail of the course materials and ‘look’ at still life or shading or composition, but as yet I have nothing to say about it.

What encourages me is that I have a template from literature which has its own canon and ways of categorising writers and writing, and I’ve learned from this that there’s a difference between liking something and appreciating its quality. Sometimes these overlap but quite often they don’t and it’s important to recognise that ‘I know what I like’ isn’t necessarily a measure of quality unless it’s balanced by acknowledgement that the other thing I don’t like is just as worthy; or that it’s populist tat and the fact that I like it doesn’t make it great literature. There are other measures having to do with elegance or deftness of language, construction of the story and its resolution, and some sense of the layers of meaning, rhythm, and flow of the text. By these standards, I’ve read some truly beautiful language that went nowhere (see The Stinging Fly journal)  and left me with no idea what happened, and some good jobbing language that told a stupendously detailed and ultimately satisfying story (immediately Elizabeth Moon, a prolific writer of science fiction, comes to mind). Sometimes it’s the difference between appreciation of the way something is written, the journey rather than the end result, and the need to rollick along with a good plot towards some identifiable conclusion. I like some of both but not all of either, and I hope I can distinguish between what I like and what has merit in terms of its own aims, but it took a while and an MA to make that realisation which means I’m well behind when it comes to art.

But that learning isn’t irrelevant and it is transferable so if the same kind of thinking applies it will be valuable. As a concept, it seems to me that it should have currency in this other world and this gives me a foothold even though, for now, I’ve no real idea what I might be evaluating with it. I believe that will change because it did with writing – I suddenly understood the difference between smart writing and readable writing; that clever-clever, which asks the reader to admire it, isn’t the same as clever which should be barely noticeable; that people judge from positions of ignorance, knowledge, unconscious (and sometimes very conscious) motivators, that ‘murdering your darlings’ is a thing, and that nothing is ever finished.

So are there clever-clever artists, pulling the wool over our eyes by doing something that looks ‘arty’ but is really a cheap trick? Are there literary artists to be appreciated even if I don’t much like them? What about the famed but somewhat imponderables such as the Campbell Soups and the piles of bricks? ‘I know what I like’ gives me Anthony Gormley, obsessed as he seems to be with his own body, and Grayson Perry who combines down-to-earthness and socio-political nous with imaginative dexterity. ‘What I appreciate’ gives me Egon Shiele whose line drawings (and lines) and economy of mark making I find fascinating even though I’m not much taken with what he does with them, and Tracey Emin whose insight into her material is so impressive but who again produces work I find hard to relate to. At a very basic level, I’ve watched three series’ now of Landscape/Portrait Artist of the Year (Sky Arts) and I’m beginning to identify, I think, the people who adapt to the material in front of them and those who seem to be one-trick ponies, making the subject matter fit their favoured technique. I admire the photorealists who paint from their iPads, but I’m very aware that it’s something I doubt I could do [which might be why I admire it] but also that I don’t want to do [because it seems so rigid but also maybe because I don’t think I could do it – ach!]. I like the blocky painters, the ones using large brush wadges of colour in an impressionistic way so that the person or scene to be painted is suggested rather than described in detail. I also feel it might be a bit of a con, a trick to avoid actual drawing, and maybe I like it because it’s what I’d do – or try to do – in similar circumstances. I also appreciate the painters using a classic style and who often come from a background of classical art training. Their work is impeccable and fully representative of the subject matter. But, like classical ballet, it often seems a little dead because it’s so stylistically constrained, so redolent of a time before photography when this was the only way to provide a visual record of a person or a scene. Personally, I value versatility, evidence of adapting style to subject, but I can see how that might appear inconsistent and so how would anyone become known and valuable if no one could tell a piece was theirs? Like literature, art seems bound up in the portals of its world – the people who commission, who buy, who display, who curate. I’m learning already about shaping by what sells – you can shift any number of cats for one frog – and how this could be limiting in both imagination and experimentation. But people have to live, appreciation doesn’t pay any bills, and both artists and writers often work a second job.


IMG_2019-1So, back in the present time, I have a pile of books I can use to begin my informed looking when I feel driven to go there, and I know I will. Meanwhile, I’ve had a turning point involving pencils and fruit. It’s not much but after stamping around in ridiculous indignation about how difficult this was going to be [fear of failure, much?], I got a grip and got to work. The results surprised me, I liked what seemed to be an emerging style, then I was even more surprised to see how that changed entirely with the next exercise using just tone. The colours excited me even though I’d been feeling happier in monochrome of late, and I realised that here were possibilities to begin hanging comparative hats on. I’m not sure which they are yet but I do know from past experience that once I get a sniff of a trail, I will be off down it, finding targets and subsidiaries and following, to borrow from my more familiar world, the evidence. I know I’m going to need a new vocabulary to describe and evaluate what I’m seeing, but I’m needs-led and I’ll find it as the reasons for it arise.


The Stinging Fly – a literary journal published by The Stinging Fly Press which is supported by Patreon subscribers. https://stingingfly.org/

Elizabeth Moon. I’d recommend the series about Heris Serrano if you like epic sci fi in two or three volumes, or The Deed of Paksenarrion if you’re of a more historical fantasy bent. Both have a predominance of female characters with agency and intelligence who treat their male colleagues with respect. For their time – late 1980s and early 1990s – the tendency for powerful women to trivialise men in literature (or films) when they’re in charge is refreshingly lacking here.

2 thoughts on “Quantifying, describing, and evaluating art

  1. A really interesting read, especially juxtaposing the literary world against the visual arts. I’m a sometime sci-fi reader, and film viewer, but it takes a good writer to keep me engaged, and I’m so out of touch with good writers being more directed to studying art related topics. So I’m already following up your Elizabeth Moon recommendations. If you have the energy to do 2 OCA courses in parallel, you will absolutely benefit from the Understanding Visual Culture (UVC) course – it will open the doors which seem only slightly ajar at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you David; my head has been composting this material quietly on its own for a while, I recognise the process and there’s always a series of flashes of what might be insight before the idea emerges as a whole. That one finally got me yesterday and my goodness does it help to have that tangle unravelled and stitched back into something I can make sense of. Phew!

    UVC has been recommended to me by someone else (Marija, I think) so I’m getting ready to look into that as an overlap to this one – assuming feedback doesn’t suggest I try the plumbing course instead!

    I hope Elizabeth Moon doesn’t disappoint. I doubt she will but you never know. For a shorter taster, try The Speed of Dark which is an SF story essentially about a group of people on the autistic spectrum, although that’s never mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

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