Posted by Gregory Johnson on

When art jurors or art critics reflect on what they look for in a particular piece, they usually say that the first thing they look for is quality. Well, what exactly does that mean, as it relates to works of art?

I recently had a drawing of mine accepted into the Zanesville Museum of Art annual show. After I dropped off my piece, ("The Hair of Athena"), I wandered through the museum to check out what wonders they had on display. This idea of "quality" was bugging me at the time, and I thought, what better place than an art museum?

As you can imagine, every single piece at this museum was beautifully framed, and/or presented, and the quality of each one was obvious. I happened upon two pieces which really brought this idea home. The first was a painting by Anthony Schepis. What a strange coincidence, since Anthony had been one of my teachers at Cooper School of Art. Anthony was all about quality. I remember distinctly one day he noticed that a tiny dot of red was on the tip of my tube of white acrylic paint. "That's going to affect the tone of your white", he declared with solemnity. Needless to say, his painting at the museum was technically perfect. Artistic and just slightly surreal enough to compel the viewer to pay a little more attention. Whether or not he had been my teacher, I believe it would have drawn me in anyway. If there was a brushstroke out of place or lazy, I didn't see it. Then I came upon three paintings by Ralston Thompson. All abstracts, but two of them dealt with bold color and shape, with solid, unblended colors. I ventured closer, to within an inch, and saw how perfectly the borders of each shape touched, with no evidence of overlap or carelessness.

With all this in mind, I still find myself questioning what quality means in art. I have to admit that Thompson's paintings inspired me to be more attentive in my work, with the added aches and pains that come with intense attention to detail. The question remains, though, what separates quality from crap? What if the lack of quality is part of the artist's vision? How do we truly define it?

When an artist has work accepted by an art show, or a solo show at a gallery or museum, it is expected that the artist will properly present his or her work. That means a presentable frame, properly wired and prepared. When it is hung, great pains are taken to make sure it is level and the right height. This is true in every show or exhibition I've seen or participated in. It's an act that represents respect for the artist's work. And the artist must approach his or her work with the same respect by rendering it in a manner which reflects that respect. Or not.

Because what about the rebel? The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, and The Velvet Underground in music come to mind. These bands redefined what quality meant. To the uninitiated listener hearing this music for the first time, the first reaction might be this sucks! But upon closer listening we find how groundbreaking and brave this music was, and still is. The DaDa movement, the Surrealists, Cubism, and yes, abstract art were all considered crap at one time. Now they're all in museums, perfectly presented.

To me, it all boils down to the idea of respect. We as artists need to respect our work by defining what quality means and then demanding that very quality in our work. And that could also mean rejecting traditional ideas of quality and creating works that reflect non-quality as part of the artistic message. The art world, in all its rigid glory, sometimes needs to be given a swift kick.

This just gave me an idea...


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