Wednesday, April 3, 2019

By What Criteria?

I have ranted about this in myriad forms over the years, and again, indirectly perhaps, quite recently.

There is, today, an almost complete lack of even the idea of meaningful criteria by which one might judge a photograph. What is fascinating about this is that, despite the lack of criteria, there is still plenty of judgement going on. Everyone, it seems, from the rankest newbie to the stodgy critic, seems willing to rule on whether a picture or a collection of them is good or bad. For, it turns out, no reasons whatsoever.

Newbies point to a failure to apply a rule of thirds. The slightly more sophisticated will natter about something "pulling their eye" or "my eye jumps all over the place" as if these were somehow criteria by which one might measure goodness. Who cares if your eye is all twitchy, idiot? Paradoxically, these sort of technical/prescriptive criteria are usually denigrated in the same breath, because even a tyro knows that they're not really very good criteria.

As you rise through the ranks, as it were, even these reasons fall away. Work becomes good because it is good, without explanation, and likewise bad because it is bad.

An unholy convergence of the camera-lover's desire for technical measures of excellence and postmodernism has conspired to eliminate anything meaningful from the evaluation of a photograph.

This is not to suggest that there ought to be a single universal standard of artistic excellence that we should standardize on. That would be absurd.

The history of photography, from the moment that someone realized that there might be something of Art in this process, until a few decades ago, is a history of well-known photographers thundering at one another in the pages of this publication or that. While they certain ranted on about technique and materials, also throughout the roiling argument was always threaded the needling question of what a photograph ought to do.

To what artistic goal should the artist aspire? Do we reveal the truth about the thing in front of the camera, or the ever-so vitally different truth about our emotional response to the thing in front of the camera? Ought the camera to moralize, or stand back from moralizing? Ought the camera reveal character, or conceal flaws and exalt the subject?

This sort of thing is simply gone from the debate, at all levels. From the lowliest forum, to the Review sections of the major newspapers, nobody seems to be interested in these details any more. We judge photographs, now, either on their apparent sharpness, or on the degree to which the artist agrees with out politics, and that seems to be about it.

This is not only depressing, but it leaves the aspiring artist somewhat in the lurch.

We are left to find our own way, without even the hint (unless we read a lot of history) that there might even be a territory for which the map has been lost. Obviously, success at the highest levels seems to require a pretty specific political position, but that is obviously not enough.

Of course, many aspiring photographers, upon hearing about this particular territory, reject it out of hand. They prefer the other territory, the one of technical excellence, and would like to learn a little more about color management, and perhaps to acquire another Sigma ART Lens or something. All this business about emotional impact, and how a photograph might interact with a viewer is a little alarming and probably just a bunch of bullshit anyways. Just go try to start a conversation about artistic merit, and the ways one might assess is in an internet forum on photography. Go ahead. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

Out in the real world, despite the more or less nihilistic approach to criticism currently in vogue, it is clear that actual criteria are still being applied, albeit silently, and not reliably. There is quite a lot of emotionally powerful work being pushed out there at the "highest levels," whatever that might mean. There is rather more emotionally powerful work in play than I would expect if the system were truly just nepotism and politics.

In contrast to all the other critics, I (of course) do much better. I do judge. I will tell you if it is good or bad but by god I will do my damndest to tell you why I think it's good or it's bad. I will attempt to lay out my criteria for judgement.

I make no particular claim to being consistent. I suppose I use these criteria here, and quite a different set of them over there. So, perhaps I am merely rationalizing what is after all a purely irrational like/dislike. That does not matter, it turns out, at least not much.

The point is that by explaining myself, on my better days I reveal the very idea that there might be criteria by which one might judge these things. I don't, in the end, care if you agree with my judgement, or my criteria. That's a fine and beautiful thing, because now, in this moment, you believe for a moment in criteria of your own -- namely, the opposite of mine, or anyways ideas that oppose mine. You have, in this moment, some notion of a judgement that is based on something rather than simply pulled out of the ether.

If we have no way to tell what course we are on, and no notion of what our destination might be, it is rather hard to get there. I hope that, from time to time, I can help someone to settle their compass, to give someone a vague shape of a destination.


  1. "The point is that by explaining myself, on my better days I reveal the very idea that there might be criteria by which one might judge these things."

    ... Or not. All explanations of aesthetic judgement are after-the-fact rationalisations of what is, essentially, a unique response to a unique combination of stimuli. The same painting on the same wall in the same gallery may be revelatory on Tuesday, but underwhelming on Friday. Tempting as it is, I don't think you can abstract and turn those rationalisations round, and apply them as predictive criteria for the same response, or as evaluative criteria of the quality of the stimulus, like someone who thinks, "The person I love has these measurements, and these attributes, therefore I will judge the attractiveness of all people against the same set of measurements and attributes".

    In the end we're talking about "taste" here, not science. As with evolution, there is no destination, just a series of more or less successful responses to the prevailing conditions. What counts as "success", of course, is subject to all sorts of criteria. These are not random, but they are subject to change, peer pressure, and personal preference, and may well result in nonsense when applied rigidly. According to Kenneth Clark, William Blake could never be regarded as a major artist, simply because his pictures were too small. Oh, puh-lease, Ken...


    1. Well, firstly I don't just look at the thing Monday and tell you about that. I try to look at it Monday, and then Tuesday, and then again on Friday, and pull together whatever the common threads and synthesis of my reactions are.

      Secondly I'm not saying "well, I spot of yellow makes a bloke happy, and I liked that, so stick some yellow bits in your pictures." I'm more along the lines of "look, these things seem to be to be revealing such and such and that's good" so you can say "gosh, I could do that" or alternately "what bosh, I will henceforth try to conceal such and such, because obviously THAT is good."

      Which, while not an algorithm, and certainly rooted in taste, shared cultural touchstones, and so on, is distinctly a step up from "well it's all subjective wot?" and "moar sharpness!"

      I think this is a fair middle road to take, I think it can be productive, and it is certainly very traditional.

    2. But if you're saying that your judgement of the value of a picture (or series of pictures) has an underlying rationale, and that understanding and sharing this will help others make "better" pictures (whether by agreeing or disagreeing), then that's really not so different from "moar sharpness!" / Rule of Thirds /etc., is it?

      It's certainly an intersting project, but I suppose where I disagree is this: there are no systematic routes to excellence. Competence, yes; excellence, no. But who cares about more, better competent work? As with sport, or music, or dance, beyond technical competence lie talent, self-belief, ruthless self-criticism, and practice, practice, practice.


    3. I don't think I'm attempting to systematize anything, really, and agree that would be a silly project.

      But I do think we can do better than "well, it's good, because."

    4. Of course! And there's plenty more where that came from, over on the Idiotic Hat blog, home of fine writing... All welcome, no dress code ;)


    5. - Mike is too coy, perhaps too damned British, to provide a direct link. As an American, however, I have no morals whatever.

  2. I have no idea how to easily research this question, but what correlation is there between contemporary criticism and longevity of a work of art. Did the people who first heard Beethoven's 9th like it as much as it is revered today. Are some works immediately recognized as significant and stay that way? Do some works need time to be "absorbed"? Has anyone studied this. Do the criteria used for judgement change much in the more established arts (i.e., those that have been around more than photography)?

    1. This is generally known as the study of "reception", and it is well studied in literary and musical fields, not sure about visual art. I heard an interesting programme about Bach's St. John Passion recently, and how it was hated by its original (captive!) audience, precisely for its originality. Bach apparently revised it several times as a result, but it was never loved by those Leipzig Lutherans.

      I always enjoy looking at the publisher's lists often included in the back of 19th and early 20th century novels. So many forgotten names... It's shocking to me, for example, how few photography enthusiasts today have even heard of Raymond Moore, once the epitome of British art photography, or even Minor White.


  3. I believe there is a criterion for Art: This is whether the work can provide the viewer with an aesthetic experience. With "aesthetic" I do not mean that it is perceived as superficially beautiful. Rather, aesthetic experience in a philosophical sense means a certain way of insight, of cognition. This cognition is gained not by means of logic and intellectual concepts, but on an intuitive, perceptual level. The notion of the Beautiful is closely related, though I don't know whether it is required to transmit the experience (intersubjectivity, the creator and the viewer "agree" that something is beautiful), or if the result of aesthetic experience is the idea that something is beautiful.

    I agree with Mike C. that taste is required to create something aesthetic. Since the aesthetic experience is not a conceptual thing, you can't "benchmark" it.

    And I believe that precisely that the Beautiful is missing is what makes us dismiss certain work. Probably in an attempt to avoid kitsch, folks with an MFA background often resort to trivially ugly subjects, sloppy composition and low technical standards. But taste is what makes one find beauty in uglyness and helps to tell beauty from kitsch. And this can't be learned at the university.

    Best, Thomas