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

Part III: The Wise and Learned Judge Collective, (better called CANON)

First, a note of thanks. For some reason this topic has plagued my mind. The thoughts were difficult to form, but when they came they poured out. I want to thank my brother-in-law, Mark Willis for helping clarify a metaphor and talk out some of the necessities and difficulties behind judgment. Also thanks to Mark Rothko. I read a lot of his words in writing this entry, but they never seemed to find the text. He does have many interesting thoughts on establishing a "way" that are worth consideration as support or foil.

The Parisian Salon

So, for the past two days, I have mostly built a case for not judging, or at least I’ve tried to build a case against judging too quickly. Throw the doors wide open, because anything is possible now!

In a 1963 interview Andy Warhol said, “How can you say any style is better than another? You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop Artist, or a Realist, without feeling that you have given up something.”[1] In my bio I declare that I have “an egalitarian perspective on the evolution of contemporary A-R-T”! And yes, I mean it with an exclamation point. I take the definition of Curator to heart as one who has the care and superintendence of something, but the role is applied to the development of the field of culture. Beyond the role of curator, I design exhibitions and that position leaves me free from the role of juror, but not all the time.

Not even close.

Sometimes judging begins with the premise of an exhibition. Red Lodge Clay Center just hosted the first of our Bi-Annual Juried Nationals, with the title--Craftsmanship:Content:Innovation. We really set our guest juror, Brad Schwieger up for a struggle. I’ve never met a juror who takes the role lightly and I highly recommend performing the thankless task for anyone who has yet to develop a thick skin. One sees there is really nothing personal about the decisions. In a world as small as the American Ceramic scene there are bound to be personal connections, but I’ve only seen proof of everyone doing their best to be above board. Schwieger had over 300 entries to proof in an effort to create a snapshot of contemporary ceramics.

Back to the title…

Without a required artist statement, we realized judging “content” was a highly subjective task. Judging “craftsmanship” can get dicey too. The truth is only as solid as the image the juror sees. Finally, “innovation” as a measure is probably the stickiest wicket of all. What does it even mean?


I can tell you our hearts were in the right place, but to be truly innovative…

I’m not even sure what that looks like or if we can even expect it to come around on a Bi-Annual basis. There are makers who are working with mixed media and I’ll grant the craft world can be rife with purists, although they don’t dominate like they used to; does that mean mixed media is innovative? The recently deceased Robert Rauschenberg would probably laugh and say that ship has long since sailed.

Is it innovative to use AutoCAD in designing an object? Isn’t one of the great things about art that it leads the way in developing technology? Now it seems the worm has turned and technology is developing art.

But maybe, it is the case in our contemporary age, that the potter, still humbly striving for efficient function and intimate form, who is the innovator.

My point, my point…

My point is our juror had a pretty high mountain to climb.

Brad Schwieger is a recognized and respected voice in ceramics. He is a gatekeeper and a mentor and in the end he did take the best snapshot possible from the work submitted. There is such variety in the field today and that variety is reflected in the exhibit. Even as complex or impossible as the premise of the exhibit may have been, how are we going to find Craftsmanship:Content:Innovation if we don’t continue to ask for it?

The trick is--if we ask for it, we damn well better be ready to accept it when it happens. I wonder if we are ready. Can any of us really embrace pluralism in our craft? In our medium?

If you are having a hard time imagining why someone would feel precious about adhering to a creative path, I want you to think about it in these terms:

I really love berries, but I have decided to focus all of my attention on strawberries for reasons I feel passionate about. Throughout my training and my life I see other berries, but I do not partake because I have committed to uphold a standard of strawberries. Other berries can be out there and I wish them well in their growth, but strawberries are my area.

Then along comes someone who runs rampant through multiple berry fields mixing all kinds of berries together. How dare they introduce blueberries and blackberries to the longstanding heritage of strawberries! Especially when I have given up so much, I would have liked to have blueberries too, but I have STANDARDS!

When I opened this series I said that judging was a nasty public disease. It can definitely play the role of dis-easing us. I also said judging was a necessary evil and helped to separate the wheat from the chaff.

If what Warhol says, essentially that anything goes, and if his words are a reflection of our contemporary world, how do we know what quality means anymore? What is the canon anymore? What if there is a golden hull amongst the chaff? What happens when the Collective Judge becomes too self congratulatory and starts to close off doors?

I cannot help but think of Manet and Whistler when these questions come to mind, or the Ashcan School or…

The learned salon of Paris rejected Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe because he did not adhere to allegorical standards which separated the acceptable female nude from the pornographic female nude. The painting directly refers to Titian’s Concert Champetre, but the woman looks unashamedly at the viewer instead of passively turning away. The men are dressed in contemporary clothing for the day, imagine them in Armani suits now. Worst of all the colors are bold. The contrasts are stark. It was garish and assaultive to the eyes of the salon, not to mention their souls.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold was a break through of pure color and mark making and critic John Ruskin judged it, now infamously, The ill-educated conceit of the artist ... approached the aspect of willful imposture, . . . I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.”[2] Whistler sued the critic for libel, and while his name was cleared he was penniless at the end of the fight.

Two innovators, never imitators, and they received nothing but ridicule. Without them George Bellows never would have painted Stag at Sharkey’s. Without them Jackson Pollack might have never said action. In the world of craft where would that leave us? Would we have Voulkos, De Staebler or Takaezu?

We are a small world and one of the benefits of being a small institution is that small institutions are able to make change more rapidly. As the world of craft blurs between mediums and reaches for innovation; and as we strive to remain honest in separating the wheat from the chaff, we must not close ourselves off.

In a contemporary world, where ONE WAY of art is a moot issue, we have to develop new standards that perpetually evolve. We must strive to be the most conscientious jurors.

A last word from Danto on what is required.

“…an entirely different breed of curator is required, one who bypasses museum structures altogether in the interests of engaging the art directly with the lives of persons who have seen no reason to use the museum either as tresorium of beauty or sanctum of spiritual form. For a museum to engage this kind of art, it has to surrender much of the structure and theory that define the museum in its [other] modes.”[3]

[1] Swenson, Gene. "ANDY WARHOL Interview with Gene Swenson, Art News (1963)." Http://www.mariabuszek.com/. Web. .

[2] "Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket." John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. Web. 19 May 2011. .

[3] Danto, Arthur Coleman. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997. 17. Print.