“Would I say this was good if I didn’t know it was a Pollock?”

So what’s this about?

To some extent, it’s a follow-on from Brian Eno’s discussions on the matter of art and how to classify and value it. His thesis is that, so long as there is no taxonomic model for positioning different kinds of creative art (the things we do that we don’t need to do – like hair styles), value will always be dictated by a few people at the top who have established a reputation and a kind of provenance by being in the right place with the right people at the right times. This can only lead to a narrowing of the canon as their preferences trickle down through the hierarchies of other influencers. In the past it has almost ignored any art that isn’t western and male. Like beauty in the defunct (hopefully) Miss World contest where other kinds of facial and body conformations were almost always secondary to classic White features, ‘our’ art was the standard and, for example, the likes of African (I know, it’s a continent, not a country but tell that to the sweeping generalisers) art was described as ‘primitive’.

To break free of this, we need to develop an objective way of evaluating creative output and I wonder if this, from professor and medic Trisha Greenhalgh, who made her plea on twitter, might be a starting point. There are five components and I’d like to try translating them from the academic appraisal of worth (and therefore who to listen to) to the objective appraisal of artistic merit.

  1. “Don’t describe me as …”. Don’t think of me as Banksy/Emin/your neighbour
  2. “Ask about validity of premises/conclusions/contraindicative evidence”. Consider the quality of the work, its social and political context and social milieu, the questions it asks, the impact it has, and let any doubts surface so they can be addressed.
  3. Counting the number of peer reviewed articles may not have an equivalent but what about body of work? And how would an ’emerging’ creative fare in that context?
  4. “Wildly at odds with current opinion”. Well arguably that’s the job of art of whatever kind; pushing boundaries, making points, being different. But how far is the difference in this piece a significant change? Is it maybe a fancy gimmick that will wear thin very quickly, and how do you judge that?
  5. “Look at who funds me, who I associate with”. Maybe this is where instead we can look at the route this work has taken on its way to scrutiny; who were the enablers, the handy contacts, the people with money, the influencers (who may have no idea what constitutes ‘good’ but they know what will sell) who got it there? And where did it come from – the local market, someone’s attic, the back bedroom of a teenager with a laptop and a music app.

It seems to me that the final question, contained in the fifth tweet, should always be, would I judge this as ‘good’ if I didn’t know it was a Pollock?

A thought I came across recently pertained to the context of a piece of art, making the point that, if you didn’t know what went before or the social context in which it was made, you may miss the point of it. In other words, it makes the assumption that an artist’s output has something to say and that the something may be a reaction to what came before. I’ve a feeling the source of this view is ‘Ninth Street Women’ a book about the women artist partners of some of the big names in abstraction of the early to mid 20th century; Pollock, Rothko et al. These women were working in a context not just of two world wars and the social upheaval they caused but also the assumption that women could not be artists. Everything about their work then, is a reaction to those situations and their, very feisty as it turns out, approaches to making their own mark on the art world.

But how many do we actually know? Are they household names along with the men in their lives? I had never heard of any of them, which is either a commentary on my ignorance of art history (which would be a valid perspective), or a comment on the way the overwhelmingly male-led art environment has dealt with their place in history and still deals with women’s art in general.

Evidence? I don’t know how much there is in this specific context, but I do know that identical CVs, differing only by a male or female identifier – John Jones or Susan Jones for instance – showed significant discrepancies in who was called for interview. Take a guess.

This pattern is perpetuated at every level in an organisation, although I have to give a massive shout-out to Sussex Partnership NHS Trust which, for some years before I retired, had (and has again) a female Chief Executive and a majority female board of directors. It’s a different matter in the IT industry, the gaming industry, the industrial design industry, and even the health and safety industry* where men outnumber women significantly.

Gender bias is endemic in our society and while it is being addressed, along with all the other biases that essentially put white men at the top of any given tree (see again Brian Eno for his views on this), it’s still enough of an issue to raise credible suspicions that the progress of a work of art towards ‘greatness’ will be affected negatively where the artist is female. This seems to me to be a good reason to look carefully at how we structure the creative world and how access routes may be privileged by factors other than quality. Greenhalgh’s list of don’ts may represent a way forward, or at least a talking point.

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Gabriel, M. 2017. Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler; five painters and the movement that changed modern art. Little, Brown US. I have the Audible version which is narrated with lovely animation and story-telling expertise by Wendy Stathoplos.

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*Did you know crash test dummies are based on male bodies and that this can actually cause harm to women? That studies of all kinds use ‘Reference Man’ for their norms? From stab vests to public toilets to the effect of chemicals, AI voice recognition to the size of a phone and the focus of app development; men are the default models. This Guardian article by Caroline Criado-Perez in 2019 lists them. Years ago, I remember laughing at a report describing the discovery of the skeletal remains of ‘early Man’ – called Lucy!

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