Today I received an interesting email from Maurice Hammon. I decided to respond to it in an open letter because the subject addressed by Maurice concerns many, if not all, photographers.
From: Maurice F. Hammon
To: "Alain Briot" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sat, 15 Oct 2005
In your essay, Being an Artist, you discuss the chosen or accidental audience to your images. I realize that I rely too much on the would-be judges that give their time and skills to amateur club competitions (time they have, skill, well I wonder). It's a deeper issue than that I guess. Club photographers who consistently score the top marks must be doing something right - or are they just working to please a specific type of audience - club judges? One thing is certain, one of my friends who consistently scores well does so, not because he is a natural artist, but because he works hard at producing images. Perhaps I'm lazy.
You mention "luck" - and reveal an interesting aspect of psychology when your consistent "yes" provokes a switch to defending you instead of a subtle attack! Quite fascinating that one, and with room for laughter there too. The relationship between luck and hard work is well established I suspect. A week ago I abandoned the armchair and took a quick trip out into the country as the weather was appealing. A clump of trees in the middle of a field caught my eye so I found a spot to park and a pathway running between the fields and up a hill. Age and small physical problems made the climb difficult and I arrived at the top needing 5 minutes to get my breath back (no tripod with me, and would not be able to hold a camera still). Anyway a chance splash of sunlight on the trees revealed a possible picture, now printed and awaiting an opportunity to see what the judge says - don't hold your breath! Now, was it luck, or was it the result of hard work climbing up that hill I wonder?
In response to your question about luck my answer if asked "was it luck, or was it the result of hard work climbing up that hill?" would be a resounding "yes, it was luck." I cannot, of course, answer this question for you. However, and based on my experience, I strongly recommend adopting my answer. (Note: you do need to read my Being an Artist essay to fully understand my position).
In response to your question about what I think of photographic competitions and judging, I was once invited to judge photographs for a camera club. I refused. I cannot do it.
Art is not a race, a match, a competition. Art is inspiration, skill, talent, personal expression and yes, if you ask, luck as defined in my essay Being an Artist.
How do you put numbers, how do you give a grade, to these values?
How can you say who is the most inspired, skillful, talented and expressive artist ?
Maybe some can. More power to them. I can't. Not even close. I am purely and simply unable to do so. Personally, I like or don't like a work of art. This is a personal opinion, not a fact.
Opinion and facts - big difference
An opinion is saying that I like or don't like something. I don't need supporting evidence to back up my opinions. I don't need to have logical reasons to have an opinion. An opinion is, well, opinionated. It is subjective, personal and dependent on my mood, what's on my mind, which side of the bed I woke up on, aches and pains, getting 10 bad news before breakfast and whatever else may be working on me on any particular day. An opinion comes and goes. At times it gathers strength and seems to be the absolute truth. At other times it wanes and starts to fade, like a bad memory, and one wonders how in the world he ever came to see things that way.
A fact is deliberate. In the context of art competitions it is saying: this work is good or this work is bad. A fact is giving a number, a grade, a ranking. A fact is recorded. A fact needs to be backed up by other facts, by evaluations or by data. A fact needs supporting evidence or it is not a fact. A fact stays, like a red wine stain on a white table cloth. A fact is a pain in the rear for an artist when this fact has to do with how good, or bad, his work has been judged to be.
A critic, a judge relies on facts. They rely on facts because they depend on a logical thinking process to establish and state their position. Opinions won't work for them. Opinions will get them out of office, dismissed, fired. They need facts to try and satisfy all the parties involved, stay in office, prove to their superiors that they are the right people for the job and climb the social ladder.
As an artist I have no such concerns. Opinions will do fine, thank you. I have no one but myself to report to. As an artist I am free to rely on opinions and emotions to decide what I like or dislike in regards to art.
Creating art is based on feelings and emotions, on inspiration, on the muses visiting me on a particular day at a particular time. The creative process is an emotional process, not a factual process. For this reason art is best understood from an emotional perspective and cannot be judged from a factual perspective. The same process that was used to create art needs to be used to evaluate art.
The artistic process does not involve factual thinking, a grading process or a ranking approach, all of which are by nature based on facts. A factual approach is therefore not only inappropriate but quite useless in determining how "good" a work of art is.
How to evaluate Art: as art, not as science
If I was evaluating the work of an scientist, I would use the scientific approach that person used to create his work and evaluate his results based on how well he followed the scientific process. But if I evaluate a work of art I want to be able to use the same artistic process used by the artist to decide how well that artist achieved his vision.
In other words, and to take a random example, why should we give Monet a 10/10 for his life's work and Picasso a 7.5/10 ? Which facts do we state to back up, support and claim as correct our decision? That we like Monet better than Picasso? Wouldn't that be an opinion and not a fact? That Monet had an interest in depicting the world as it is and Picasso as he saw it? But didn't both artists depict the world as they saw it? And isn't having a personal vision the first and foremost requirement for being recognized as an artist? Because Monet was a romantic, an Impressionist, and because Picasso was a revolutionary, a Cubist,? But isn't this a personal judgment that has nothing at all to do with how good their work is?
Wouldn't it be a lot easier, and make a lot more sense, to say "I like Monet better than I like Picasso. I find his work more pleasing, more balanced, more serene and less disturbing. I feel good having a Monet displayed in my home while a Picasso makes me feel like a poorly-performed surgical operation was conducted on me and I will suffer from its unfortunate consequences until I take the painting down" ? And wouldn't that be, without the shadow of a doubt, an opinion and not a fact?
As you see, and to return to this essay's introductory statement, I can't do it. Sorry. I tried but failed. Maybe you can do better. Or maybe we should call a Supreme Court Judge, or someone trained and experienced in passing judgments, for I fear I lack the most basic qualifications for the task.
If you know of an art competition which is "judged" on the basis of emotional qualities, opinions and the subjectivity of each "judge" sign me up right away. I want to be in. But if all the art competitions you know of rely on hard cold facts, I fear those are simply not for me.
You see, as an artist I don't want to have my work evaluated by critics, judges and other Cartesianistic souls, at least not voluntarily. I realize this may happen against my will and my knowledge but, at least I can revel in the knowledge that I am not the one asking for it, that I am not the one calling on the critics and the judges to evaluate my work.
That is why I don't participate in competitions, either as an artist submitting work or as a judge evaluating work submitted to me. As I explain in Being an Artist, I am not a critic. I am an artist. Make no mistake about it. Have no doubts regarding where I stand in this matter. This is the way things are, this is who I am. I photograph what challenges me, excites me, moves me, or otherwise generates powerful emotions in me. It don't want to give a grade, a 7.5 instead of a 10, or whatever number on whichever scale, to my work or to anyone else's work. I cannot sit in front of the Masters' work in the Louvre and give a 9 to the Mona Lisa, a 7 to Carvaccio, a 10 to Turner, and so on. If I cannot do so with the masters, it would be inappropriate to do so with anyone else, be they painters, photographers, or practitioners of some other medium.
Yours wondering about the purpose of judging art,