Evaluating Art by Committee: A critical fine art project

Second year BA (hons.) Visual Culture student Dan Simmonds observed a recent satrical fine art student project that offers new ways of measuring the success of an artwork. Here he reviews the results.

The Committee ballot box, 2012. Photo by Dan Simmonds.

Hearing ‘You’re fired!’ is synonymous with BBC programme The Apprentice and the cut-throat world of business that it dramatises for viewers. The idea of success advocated by programmes such as this demonstrates a clear cultural preoccupation with defining what, or who, is ‘best’ or most ‘successful’. The words ‘You’re fired!’ and this business ethos is not often associated with the art world, but all these components clashed in late 2012 when second year BA (hons.) Critical Fine Art Practice (CFAP) students at the University of Brighton formed The Committee.

Seventeen members, each with a different role within The Committee, set out to discover what makes a successful piece of contemporary art, with each using a piece of their own work as a potential example of success. Their worth was to be judged against a set of six criteria which they had decided were fundamental to a successful artwork. These criteria were originality, a balance between accessibility and exclusivity, the effective use of medium, technical execution, emotional impact and finally the incorporation of cultural and contextual references. The use of reasonably complicated and ambiguous criteria such as ‘emotional impact’ and ‘effective use of medium’ made a nod to the grading criteria against which their works are marked in Higher Education. A subjective appreciation of art, as expressed by those who mark an artwork, surely cannot mean the same thing when applied to several different artworks. Marking processes may be flawed in this respect, which is something The Committee drew careful attention to.

In the way that reality television courts discussion from a panel of experts, The Committee discussed their art and each criterion at length, and through this, found that they redefined the very criteria they had initially developed. Attendance at The Committee was considered compulsory and failure to attend three meetings resulted in a termination of membership. The words ‘You’re fired!’ were directed to one member for that very reason. The potentially never-ending set of discussions demonstrates the satire in The Committee’s work and acts as a comment on the dour meetings, and meetings about meetings, which many of us attend, often to little consequence.

Each Committee member handed in proposal forms for the pieces which made up the exhibition, and then judged each other’s work on the six criteria with a combined 60% agreed as a threshold for determining work as successful. The results of this judging process revealed a piece which was designed to conform to the criteria called ‘Prints’ fell short. The failure of this work could amount to the previously mentioned ambiguity of some criteria or, more likely, to the doomed nature of work which sets out to conform to such ideals as ‘emotional impact’. The Committee also invited public comment through a ballot system when they exhibited their work in the foyer of the University of Brighton’s Grand Parade campus. Just as the government or large companies undertake public research surveys, The Committee encouraged visitors to fill out a paper requiring them to mark each artwork against the six criteria, and also to leave comments. The Committee is yet to gather information on public interpretations of the exhibition and this is crucial to further understandings of their work’s success.

The Committee, centred on discovering what makes a successful artwork, may be flawed from the beginning due to the very nature of the questions they ask. ‘Success’ is tough to measure when considering something as subjective as art and The Committee’s satirical application of a set of criteria as a means of discovering it make it even more difficult to decipher. The criteria used are a direct reference to the draconian rules, regulations and criteria increasingly imposed on artists when applying for funding or when entering competitions. The Committee summed up their achievements in a presentation given during one of their discussions: ‘To criticize the institution, we became the institution’. Although there were intended outcomes as part of The Committee, in my opinion the best outcome is something that I perceive to be totally unintentional. The criteria used are those which some members of the viewing public may not normally consider when looking at art. Normally in galleries we are only given small captions of factual information but the ballot forms direct the public to consider particular aspects of the work whilst still allowing subjective opinion. It encourages a new way of seeing which I believe could be a way of opening gallery spaces to a whole new audience.

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