17 December 2008
When I was asked to be one of a panel of judges for The Artist Project exhibition + sale (held at The Merchandise Mart this winter), I figured that I’d look at some slides, pick some favorite pieces, and call it a day. I guess I should have known better. After all, as an avid art collector, I’ve been judging art for years, with various degrees of difficulty.But reviewing the pieces of almost 500 artists, and picking those that I felt represented the best of the best, was a real challenge and a serious responsibility. Since the show’s purpose is to provide visitors with the opportunity to discover—and actually buy—interesting and affordable artworks, it attracts a wide variety of artists; some I was familiar with, but most I knew nothing about. In a sense, I was again a novice—only now with expert tastes—and I learned a lesson that was just as valuable to the art-buying neophyte as to the serious collector. Yes, I wouldn’t have been there if someone didn’t think I had a “good eye” (or two) and that I knew something about the work and the market and what it takes to succeed, but judging art should always be a more emotional decision than a pragmatic one. And I really do know what I like.I like art that makes you sweat. That seizes your attention and imagination. Art that’s hard to look away from and never fades into the wall. That tells a story with a certain strength and power. And, above all, art that is well made—because I believe in execution and excellence and that you can always tell the difference. So my choices were, for the most part, easy. But then the going got a little tougher. I had to decide whether part of my job was to also include “good” work that I wouldn’t have in my collection if you paid me. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with the work, it just wasn’t for me, kind of like that painting or sculpture you might inherit from a relative that, while quite valuable, just doesn’t have a place in your home. Then I started to wonder whether we judges also had some responsibility for making the overall show a success from a commercial standpoint. Should there be some art for everyone? I’d call this “novelty” art—like those cute butler sculptures that can also hold a drink or two—and it surely sells. Please. I couldn’t do it. Ultimately I got through the process, and I made my choices. I’m happy to say that the process worked and that the group of final selections looked pretty good. The most important lesson I learned is that good art is about passion, not rationality, and that you can’t think your way to the right results. It’s always all about how the work makes you feel. That’s the artist’s job, that’s the judge’s responsibility, and that’s the only way to get to the right answer. It’s no different if you’re a “civilian” looking to buy your first work of art for your home. Don’t do it for an investment. Don’t do it because someone else likes it. Don’t do it because it matches the couch. Do it because it’s important to you, because it makes you smile and think every time you look at it, and because you have to have it. You’ll never go wrong if you let your heart decide.