Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

PART II: The External Flippant Judge

I'm going to open with the Boomtown Rats because the song was inspired by a woman who ran amok and had flip answer for why she did what she did. Look it up.

The second type of judge is perhaps one we shouldn’t take too seriously. I have named that judge “flippant”. It would appear that the exuberance of youth and inexperience are what enable the External Flippant Judge to brandish an opinion about like a loaded gun. More often than not the bullets they attempt to fire are of the stealth variety (read invisible) and, upon close inspection, we find there were never any shells under the hammer.

The opinions are invalid.

We can make allowances for this judge if we empathize with his/her learning curve. As we define where we strand and where we want to tread, it is inevitable that we, at one point or another, vehemently declare what is NOT acceptable. However, judgment is defined as a decision made upon subjective and thorough evaluation. Sometimes it is far easier for us to walk around with a directional finger (you know the one) saying, “Not like me!” And because the object/image/individual/group we are judging is too far outside of our wheelhouse, we call it names: bad, not art, sculpture, pottery.

Ever heard the one about the potter who went to grad school and left making sculpture? Ever hear the disdain in someone’s voice as they describe someone who followed such a path?

Ever heard the one about the sculptor who dared to make a pot?

How about the long, long view from atop the porcelain mountain?

Where folks look with pity upon those lured by dirty iron-rich clay?

So many rules these flippant judges have!

"Segregation NEVER! Integration NOW!"

In 1984 Arthur C. Danto wrote an essay, which evolved into the book “After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History”. The publishing date was 1995, with the most recent printing in 1999, and while the debut essay was published a little over 27 years ago, his points remain relevant. Danto references one of Hegel’s guides for criticism/judgment, reminding the critic to, “…speak of [art] as the spirit in which the art was made.”[1] A tricky proposition, because who can know the mind of the maker.

And here is a sticky puddle of potential contradiction. The External Flippant Judge does not sound concerned with the spirit of the art in the delivery of a verdict. The only concern is for the object at hand. From the object at hand all manner of judgment about the spirit of the maker is made, without research, without a glance at an artist statement or background, without any attempt at objectivity. I assert that it is possible to assess the character of an object much like one would assess the character of an individual. The trick is…

Ahhh, I suppose the challenge, should we choose to accept it, is to begin unpacking the reasons behind our flippant judgments.

We can learn to deconstruct the rapid, non-verbal information washing through our brain and pouring out our mouths in the form of verdict. Malcolm Gladwell’s text “Blink” unpacks the validity behind rapid cognition, delineating good thin-slicing from bad thin-slicing. Rapid cognition is different from intuition. Rapid cognition is all about the snap assessments we make daily. Gladwell builds a case for why those decisions are usually spot on. Too much information can, in fact, lead us astray. We get overwhelmed with data.

Sounds like I’m building a case for the External Flippant Judge, doesn’t it?

But rapid cognition is not without hazard. Good thin-slicing allows that we are able to make sense of a situation with the smallest amount of information given. Bad thin-slicing is when our blind spots, like pre-conceived notions or prejudices, get in the way. Gladwell became interested in the idea of rapid cognition after he decided to grow his hair out and was briefly questioned as a rape suspect because of his natural fro. Call it racial profiling or call it bad thin-slicing, when we abandon or ignore information available to us we can judge our way right out of future opportunities, connections or (to bring it back home) developments in our field.[2]

Feeding the opinions of the External Flippant Judge can result in an absolute position. Danto uses the paintings of Ad Reinhardt as a cautionary tale. This is what can happen when a “pure” defintion of art is pursued. Eventually, art is distilled to blackness, stillness…

Where do we go from here?

And while this is certainly one way to go it is not the only way. Danto’s entire thesis is leading us toward an open playing field. He acknowledges that the idea was set in motion in the late 1800s, but being the species we are, we seem to keep forgetting. He again references Hegel, “What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment, but our judgment also…”[3] I concur. We do continue to instantly react with visceral enjoyment OR without enjoyment in regard to our judgment of art, but our contemporary mind, being flooded with information, can not--must not--stop there.

I fear the External Flippant Judge is camping out in the Age of Manifestos, but I hope this is just an evolutionary pit stop. So far in my reading, the passage from Danto that takes manifestos to task best, also illustrates my concerns about impetuous critical judgment,

“A manifesto singles out the art it justifies as the true and only art, as if the movement it expresses had made the philosophical discovery of what art really is. But the true philosophical discovery, I think, is that there really is no art more true than any other, and there is no way art has to be: all art is equally and indifferently art.”[4]

As I consider the External Flippant Judge, I think I must hold myself accountable lest certain individuals think I am publicly, albeit anonymously, admonishing them. I have seen all sorts, myself included, take on the role of the External Flippant Judge: fellow educators, fellow makers, students, even the most tolerant souls. While it is shameful to admit such a narrow view, I have often announced my disdain for painting. Painting holds firmly to the hierarchy of art, so there was no danger of my barbs knocking it down. Nor was I arrogant enough to call painting, “NOT ART!” I did summarily dismiss it though, with supporting accusations of, “When was the last time there was a breakthrough?” Painting was like Latin to me—DEAD. But, as an Art Appreciation instructor, over the course of seven years my mind was shifted.

I found Odd Nerdrum and was haunted.

I found Mark Ryden and was delighted.

I visited the Smithsonian and was reminded of George Bellows.

And I cried.

All this admission, is just to say, my admonitions are absolutely admonitions, but they are also reminders to myself to be open. Because, I really had the same feelings about wood fired pottery for quite a while. I suppose you either love it or hate it, but as I develop as an exhibition designer with an intent to spread the “gospel of craft” it would be heresy to cut out any part or fail to acknowledge the leaps that any area of the medium have made. Because Randy Johnston built his noborigama…

But it’s bigger than a kiln! What Johnston did was important because it was the embodiment of the contemporary soul. He was one of those folks who recognized he had the privilege to look back over history and CHOOSE which part of it he wanted to belong to and then he pursued his craft with unwavering dedication. His work is a by-product of his endeavors, just like the rest of us in this contemporary world. In the first firings, the work was not all he hoped for, but that’s the nature of atmospheric firing and most functional potters seem to accept that notion.

For me, crying in front of “Stag at Sharky’s” and feeling the quality present in a space filled with wood fire vessels wrought from 30+ years of experience is enough to shut my External Flippant Judge’s mouth, but I did have to walk in the physical presence of the poetry to learn.

Let's hope I keep learning.

[1] Danto, Arthur Coleman. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. 16. Print.

[2] Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and, 2005. Print.

[3] Danto, Arthur Coleman. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. 30-31. Print.

[4] Ibid, p. 34