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What Do They Want Anyway?

*The following is an article about judging competitions written by Portrait Society of America Chairman, Edward Jonas.

A toddler runs to you proudly holding out a paper that they have just put crayon to, you hold it up, and after a studious appraisal, you heap supportive praise on the creative scribble as though it were a Rubens. A smile dances across the child’s little face as they glow in your approval.

Now grown and our lives occupied in creating "serious art," we must admit that we still are striving for those acknowledgements of our successful efforts. As soon as the signature is placed, we anxiously seek other opinions of our latest work hoping, that if not strongly positive, there might be a suggestion about how to make it so. Should praise reign and our friends christen it 'your best work ever,' off it goes, entered in the next fine art competition. We are full of optimism that the work will be accepted as a finalist and possibly, if we dare dream, go on to take the Grand Prize. Now begins the wait and the decision of the judges that when it arrives can send us soaring to the heavens or crashing in utter disappointment.

So, when the piece doesn’t get in, what artist among us hasn’t bitterly uttered, “Well what do they want anyway?" A valid question which requires a clear and concise answer.

Honoré Daumier, The Critics, 1862 Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I wrote a position paper last year that outlined for our judges what is required of a good judge for our Members Only contests and the International Portrait Competition. The integrity of these contests, and the Society, rests upon whether our judging remains fair and unbiased, that only the artworks be considered and judged solely on their intrinsic aesthetic qualities.

Here are some of the judge’s directives from that article.

The Standards for the Judging of Works of Art shall be held to the following:

  1. Originality and uniqueness in concept and design.

  2. Technical proficiency within the potential of the medium.

  3. Aesthetic sophistication.

  4. Fundamental skill development.

The judging should be conducted without subjective nor stylistic prejudice under the mantle of providing each work a fair and honest assessment.

To further refine this list, the judge must start by asking:

  • What is the artist’s message?

  • How successful does it communicate?

  • Does the work follow a high aesthetic?

  • How successful is the work within its chosen stylistic direction?

  • What is the skill level demonstrated within the work's execution?

  • Does the work communicate well on a visual level?

  • Does the work fit within or comment upon the present cultural times?

  • How ‘creative’ is the work or could it be considered imitative?

It may seem logical to hold works that deal with the human figure against inherent anatomical correctness, but this negates any efforts where the forms have been purposefully distorted to follow expressive intent. If we hold to this narrow gauge, then would we not be required to exclude the works of such great artists as Thomas Hart Benton, H. Daumier or Edward Hopper?

The last consideration that a judge must regard is the aesthetic content of the work, and this is the most nebulous subject to define. What kinds of emotions are appropriate for art?

In an 1896 essay, What is Art, Leo Tolstoy outlined what he held to be authentic emotions for artistic expression. He felt that sarcasm, irony, cynicism, melodrama and sentimentality were not authentic emotions as they often come across as phony and contrived. He also stated that purely technical or intellectual works didn’t fulfill the universal strength that is required to contribute to the culture.

This may be one man’s opinion, but it is Tolstoy!

I can’t speak for all competitions in the art world, but the Portrait Society values the benefits that our competitions provide, allowing us to uphold and honor the ‘best of the best’ within our discipline and inspiring us all to continue our growth as artists.

Let me close by quoting one of my favorite writer/poets, W.B. Yeats: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing, nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

Be happy,

Edward Jonas, Chairman

*reprinted from International Artist

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