Reaction and/or judgement? (by Olga Norris)

Deep thought

I have recently made two visits to a solo exhibition of a celebrated textile artist – one whom I have admired for many years and whose work I have loved.  But on seeing the show my anticipated delight was abruptly turned to disappointment and doubt.

In this post I want to discuss my response and ask questions of others out there rather than to talk specifically about the work in question.  I want to think out loud about how we form our critical responses to work.  I want to find out how others deal with instant instinctive reactions, quietly considered judgements, and gradually – or even dramatically evolving opinions.

As I say, the artist is one whose work I have responded to positively for a long time, and that admiration has persisted throughout  my own education within the field.  I understand so much more about technique on many levels now, but this work has remained up there as excellent and inspiring.  I would place the artist up amongst the special few.

This exhibition contains one large piece in the familiar style, but also many illustrating a new approach.  I found those to be ‘too easy’, taking advantage of technique perhaps to speed up completion.  I found that they appeared deliberately commercial – meaning made to make more product from a ‘name’ – rather than speaking with an integrity of their own.  I find that they are not good work – and by that I mean so much more than just that I did not like them.

I was downcast and confused.  Because these days I am in a precarious emotional state personally I wondered whether my judgement had gone haywire.  Was I dismissing these works because they seemed rough, and different?  Was I unwilling to accept that the artist’s approach had changed?  Should an artist not be entitled to take advantage of esteem and ‘churn out’ a few lesser pieces (if they are indeed generally accepted as lesser) in order to make a living?

I felt that here was an area for further pondering.  I can make use of my few free hours to make the short journey to visit the show again and again to examine and re-examine my reactions.  On my second visit I noticed that all the smaller pieces I find attractive -‘acceptable’! – have been sold, but those which I find unresolved and unsatisfactory still unsold.  But is that just good old convention at work?  Is that simply the market asking for more of what it already has deemed acceptable – and thus makes it so difficult for anyone with a well defined style of work to change in any way?

I don’t think that I am stuck in my opinions, but then perhaps I wouldn’t.   I would like to read what others think about this general principle of an approach to work, and how one gauges whether a work is good even if one doesn’t like it – or obversely judges that a work is slight even if one likes it tremendously.  Do changing tastes affect the integral quality of  work?


17 Responses to “Reaction and/or judgement? (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 Olga January 5, 2010 at 1:53 am

    I have very much enjoyed all the contributed comments, and this time especially wish that we could all have gone together to the exhibition to discuss the particular as well as the general. I return to your comments, and am savouring your points as I mull them. It is certainly a topic that deserves much mulling.

  2. 2 Beverley December 31, 2009 at 5:29 am

    What a wonderfully interesting conversation.
    The change in style of the artist may not just be down to artistic development, or need to explore. It could be physical, as in eyesight not so good as it was, arthritis or back pain means they can’t work in the way they did. Then there’s family issues, perhaps time constraints if there’s sick relative to attend. Even moving house, perhaps they don’t have the space they did, or everything is just not fully up and running as they’d like… all of these issues come in to play, and if you’ve got a commitment, often booked months, even years in advance, what do you do?
    I have attended conferences about being an Artist in business… and its perfectly acceptable to have 2 or more aspects to your artistic career, ie commercial work; that which you know you can produce almost conveyor belt type, you know costs exactly, time involved exactly and the price for the marketplace. This can very often be completely different to your own more considered pieces, which have a lot more of your soul in them.
    But a lot of how work is perceived, is down to where you’ve seen it, how you felt at the time, or why you went to view it. Sometimes we can have expectations and ideas in mind before we walk through the door, and then be disappointed reality didn’t match our imagination.
    Isn’t the need to explore and change, to look and inform ourselves, to question, at the very core of our being as artists. We can’t NOT do it…

  3. 3 Sandy Donabed December 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    I think that what is happening is growth in your own viewpoints. Just because you enjoyed a particular piece or an artist at one point doesn’t mean that you will always like her work. Perhaps,as you seem to suspect, her work is becoming a caricature of itself, then it is fine to move on in your tastes. Not all artists grow at the same rate, and certainly not all grow in the directions we would hope. Perhaps she thinks she has found a shortcut to sales, but it sounds like none of the newer work is selling, so hopefully she will take a few steps back and get back on track, but do not despair if it doesn’t happen that way! In your continued thoughtful observances of people’s work you will learn so much. It is always more important to find why you DON’T like something, and luckily it is easy to find work you can’t like very much, but why? Analise this work too and you will see what isn’t successful and be able to articulate the problems, usually much easier than articulating why you like something.

    In my hundred years of quilt making I have seen many artists fall by the wayside when growth doesn’t happen. Happily there are a few who are always renewing themselves and trying new adventures, growing and changing. Not every new idea is a keeper and sometimes it takes a while to weed them out- so give your favorite artist a bit of a break and see what happens in her future. Meanwhile keep looking at lots of other work because you may develop some new favorites! Good luck!

  4. 4 shiborigirl December 29, 2009 at 9:37 am

    i came back to reread this post today and enjoyed and learned from it all over again. i think the thing i like best about this subject was pointed out by donnastitches.
    -the practice of critique is an evolutionary process and one each of us goes through as we view not only our own work but the work of others. i am developing my own skills as i move ahead and coming here is one of those things i do to sharpen my critical thinking skills. thanks olga and Ragged Cloth Cafe!

  5. 5 June December 19, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    HI Olga,

    Everyone has said some things that I might have said, but I think the tangle is between yourself and the art (and maybe your prior relationship to the artist-as-artist). Your honest reaction and your questioning are invaluable; they set you apart from most people who view art.

    But you are only human, hence vulnerable from various directions that you are also well aware of. So perhaps your reaction came from (as Dickens might put it) a bit of bad mutton. Or perhaps it came from a disappointment about what you wanted badly to be soothed by. Or perhaps it came from inferior work. There’s no way to for us to know, or perhaps even for you to know. Wait and watch, as someone else said, is the only way to find the answer.

    But further, there is art I dislike, but must admit is amazing and wonderful. It might not fill me with wonder; I might want to turn my head away. But it is still good. So I always reserve the right to admire, but not to like, what I see.

    I have heard lots of negative things about Michael James’ turn, a few years ago, to a knottier, less decorative art. I always loved, in that instant sensual way, his early work. Who wouldn’t — his work, like puppies and babies, was lovable. But he’s now insisting on finding a new way and while there’s no instant appreciation on my part, I know enough about him and his work to figure that in time, I will appreciate it.

    I always find that new music doesn’t catch me — I seldom just fall in love with new music, particularly dense classical kinds. I have to live with it, listen ten times, in different moods and modes. This is easy with music, with recordings and CDS. It’s harder to return again and again to an artist whose work you don’t find appealing. Yet it might be even more essential to sort out what exactly is happening. This is even more important when you are an artist yourself, since you may need the support of your own knowledge when you stumble through new ideas and new processes, trying to suss out a way that works with knotty subjects and ideas.

    On the other hand, maybe this was just a need for cash. In which case, I guess I’d wish the artist well and keep an eye out, just in case something more interesting happened in the future.

    Good ruminations over a very difficult subject. Thanks.

  6. 6 Rosemary Claus-Gray December 19, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    A missing piece for me in this discussion is a recognition of how you are growing in appreciation of art, and an increased clarity about what you are seeing. It seems you are becoming more acute in your ability to see and to evaluate art. Looking to really see why you love it, why you hate it, asking what the artist is expressing, and whether he or she did that well are all important questions in your own understanding of art. Add to that the points you and others have brought up, and this is an interesting topic, indeed. And one without a simple answer. Thanks, Olga, and everyone. Rosemary

  7. 7 Rosemary Claus-Gray December 19, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    I understand so much more about technique on many levels now
    I find that they are not good work – and by that I mean so much more than just that I did not like them.
    On my second visit I noticed that all the smaller pieces I find attractive -’acceptable’! – have been sold, but those which I find unresolved and unsatisfactory still unsold.
    how one gauges whether a work is good even if one doesn’t like it – or obversely judges that a work is slight even if one likes it tremendously. Do changing tastes affect the integral quality of work?

  8. 8 olganorris December 19, 2009 at 3:00 am

    Gosh! Thank you so much for all these responses.

    I deliberately did not include the name or examples of the artist’s work because I was more interested in the idea of response and the mechanics of judgment, whether to do with experience and/or emotion. And I am so glad that it set off connections with you all.

    The work in question has not been produced to lower prices at all; but this artist has relatively recently had her profile spread over a much larger audience and thus has many more exhibitions and calls to produce more work. This is of course an extremely difficult position for someone whose pieces historically take a very long time to complete. And also, like Emily, I agree that trying to develop one’s voice is incredibly difficult especially when more people are looking on. It is tricky enough to pass muster with oneself let alone onlookers.

    In this exercise I am not condemning the work as such – it is lauded by the very prestigious non-commercial gallery showing it, and is the product of an artist long esteemed in the art museum and academic world long before she became more popular in the textile art world. I am certainly not condemning the artist herself, and I shall of course continue to watch her work with perhaps even more detailed interest. I sometimes think one can learn more from studying in the round work which one does not wholeheardetly love.

    I am trying to analyse my unexpected (to myself) negative reactions to the more recent elements in this solo exhibition, and thus at the same time look at what it is that makes up the elements of critique and judgment in such a subjective area. I suppose in some ways I was brought up short to realise that perhaps there was too much of an automatic positive in so much of my admiration for previous work.

    This experience is reminding me that I should go on to ask why when I come out with: ‘oh, I love that!’, or ‘no, that’s horrid!’. You see, what is most teasing about my negative reaction in the case in question is that I cannot as yet satisfactorily answer why. But I shall keep trying, and thank you for your help.

  9. 9 donnastitches December 18, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Your post made me reexamine my own reaction to work I saw earlier this year by an artist I have long admired. I could see what the artist was doing and why and appreciate that what I saw may be just a step in an evolutionary process. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t hate it, either, but it wouldn’t inspire me to follow this artist’s career like earlier work did. In this case, it wasn’t that the work appeared deliberately commercial or of diminished quality. It was simply that I expected resonance but instead just felt a hollow echo.

    The practice of critique sometimes gives us better tools for analyzing and explaining our reactions to artwork than we develop for explaining human relationships and emotion. I admire you for examining your response to the work and raising the question about how the integral quality of work is judged. We can and should weigh the design characteristics and virtuosity of execution in the work. It’s harder to quantify the emotional connection one has (or doesn’t have) with someone else’s work. And yet, emotion plays such a pivotal role in our reactions. It’s the 900 pound gorilla in the room — quite distracting when we’re trying form reasoned opinions about something as subjective as art and love.

  10. 10 Clairan December 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you Olga, not only for a thoughtful post, but also for being so faithful to Ragged Cloth. It’s like getting a little holiday present.

    I think there are many possibilities for what’s going on. When a beloved artist changes styles some fans move forward with her and others don’t: sometimes it’s as though they become a different artist — and we all like some and dislike or are indifferent to others. So perhaps you simply do not like this artist’s new work.

    Whether or not it is good work — well isn’t it too early to say? I always think about how ugly most people thought the Impressionists’ work was in their heyday. Now many people think it’s overly decorative. Change of perspective over time. There’s lots of contemporary art that leaves me cold right now, it seems garish, childish, cartoonish and unsubtle to me, but perhaps it will simply look pretty in 50-100 years. Who knows? For right now I try to understand what these artists are saying, and why they are expressing it as they do; what is in our culture and our “zeitgeist” that results in this art?

    Certainly if an artist must support herself with art there’s a tremendous pressure to do the commercial thing. That doesn’t preclude it’s being good work — it may be simpler or smaller and still high quality. It’s hard for us to judge this situation without some images. but if I were you, I’d take a wait and see attitude. You may be pleasantly surprised the next time you see the artist’s work. And if not, you can remember with pleasure the early work that you loved!

    Thanks again for posting.

  11. 11 Glennis Dolce December 18, 2009 at 10:01 am

    You ask “how does one gauge whether a work is good even when one doesn’t like it”?

    This seems to me to be simultaneously a relative and subjective question. I think the question could be rephrased relative to ones self by asking “What am I getting out of this work?”. Or “What is the artist exploring here?”. I would agree with Emily and allow for the possibility that the artist is exploring a direction that puts her/him in the position of a novice once again and only time will tell.

    A somewhat similar conversation comes up often around my household in regards to music. Musicians who have not mastered some basic concepts, techniques, etc. and who then are tempted to “play outside the box” shrouding their musical shortcomings in experimental music versus a player who dabbles/experiments outside the zone after proving reliably they can perform at very high levels. Personally, I generally give more weight to the latter (which also IMO is usually better). Either way, we as the listener/viewer can judge for ourselves. (But also as artists we might find insight or inspiration from either!)

    It seems though you reached somewhat of a conclusion in this case and are seeing it as a ploy to exploit the potential commercial aspects of the artist’s work.

    I probably am not one to comment on the commercial aspects of artworks. My personal history has been one of making things to sell. It does color (:-)) my work and I am OK with that. That doesn’t mean that I don’t allow for exploration, experimentation and growth in my work. Some of my favorite and most meaningful (to me) work is seen by very few. But my more commercial works(mostly everything else) supports that.
    I do have to say that what I do make to sell gives great satisfaction when a buyer completes a purchase and is thrilled with being able to afford something I made. Keep in mind, I am not speaking as a gallery artist but as a maker /craftswoman.
    I don’t know if I mentioned this here before but some of you may be interested in Hans Abbing’s book “Why are Artists Poor-the Exceptional Economy of the Arts”. He’s a Danish economist and artist.

    Interesting observations, all.

  12. 12 kate December 18, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Olga, thank you for your thoughtful post. This is a very intriguing question: Do changing tastes affect the integral quality of work?
    My short answer is “No”… the longer answer is: it doesn’t affect the quality of work, but it definitely affects the sellability of work.
    If an artist chooses to switch from hand beading, embroidery, elaborate stitching etc to something simpler or minimalist, the work can still be good as long as the change in technique has a purpose. If the message of the piece demands a starker approach, or the intent is to simplify or “quiet down” the work for the artist’s own reasons then a change in construction makes sense even if it is a harsh departure from their earlier work.
    However, if the artist chooses to go with a quick, simple technique and skimps out on his/her concepts in order to sell work to a mass audience, that is where I think the artistic quality suffers.
    With that said, an artist is perfectly justified to do this if their intent is to sell their work. And if someone wants to make a career and be represented by a gallery, they’re going to have to accept the fact: Galleries want sales.
    I believe art is communication. People who listen during a conversation usually know when a speaker is lying. And people who chatter and go on with small talk just to pass the time, generally won’t know a lie from truth and may not even care. The same is true with audiences of fine art. There are those who are waiting to hear the artist’s voice in a piece. Those people are not interested in being patronized, and won’t spend time looking at commercial work. They might spend money on something that really speaks to them, even if it is for-lack-of-a-better-word “ugly”. But more likely than not, this category of viewer is content to just see the work and not buy it.
    On the other hand, there are those viewers who want something colorful to hang on the wall above their couch. They don’t care what the artist is saying and they will buy the work that they like to look at.
    I think the artist in question wants to sell her work and has evaluated her audience. OR the gallery has chosen to display the type of work they know will sell. Together, they may have decided that they can make more money by addressing the second type of buyer. Hey, it’s a living.
    In my opinion, you may be in the first category of viewer, and are now kind of “left out” of the conversation. The new approach is not focused on you and does nothing for you. You need something more. Therefore you’re left unfulfilled by this new approach.

    Here is a related question to all, thinking of the artist’s livlihood: Say you have a house with empty walls and $3000 to spend for as long as you live there. Would you buy one single, seriously life-affecting piece of fine art or several beautiful, feel-good pieces to decorate every room? If I look myself in the mirror and am brutally honest, I may fall into the second category myself.

  13. 13 Emily DuBois December 18, 2009 at 8:46 am

    without knowing the artist or their work, present or past, I’d like to offer some alternatives to the idea that the artist is dumbing down their work in hopes of selling more. Even an experienced, respected artist has reasons to change styles and techniques; these reasons might not necessarily be commercial, in fact the artist might be taking risks by departing from a familiar style; after changing styles and techniques the artist in some ways becomes a beginner again, no matter how far the previous styles and techniques had been developed; and that time will tell how the new styles and techniques develop. Since art is a process of exploration, not based on what came before or what might come after, and ideally not on commercial viability per se, the works of even the best-known artists vary, along with the perceived quality of particular works. Historically, the importance of an artist is judged by the overall body of work over time, and its relevance to the larger culture. We all want to sell our work, and if we’re motivated less by our own process and more by commerce and pressures to exhibit, that can get in the way of the rigorous self-criticism and editing that has to precede an exhibit, but it could also be that in the artist’s own process this work has meaning that will become clearer over time.

  14. 14 Marg in Mirror, AB, Canada December 18, 2009 at 8:21 am


    A very interesting post. There seem to be a couple of issues at work here: 1) the artist’s change of style; and 2) *why* the artist changed her style. Robert Genn wrote one of his letters about the former — and the challenge that changing one’s style is for both the artist herself and for her audience. You seem to be raising the latter issue more in your comments, because it appears to you that the ‘why’ is to increase production and (hopefully) sales. This is definitely a dilemma for any artist.

    I am a starting-out fibre artist, waiting until my ‘retirement’ years to create a body of work. I do fairly small pieces, with a lot of handwork — and that takes time. The realization has hit me that if I want to work in this fashion, it will take longer to create that body of work than if I go into a more mechanized or minimalist mode of creation. I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with Jean: quality will win out over quantity in the long run. Whether or not an artist explores new techniques is her prerogative; however, sacrificing quality for quantity in that exploration is, to me, very sad indeed.

  15. 15 Jean Judd December 18, 2009 at 5:10 am


    An interesting post and I’ve been having some of the same thoughts concerning the increase in seeing textile artwork that I consider more aimed at commercial/manufactured work. There seems to be a move towards “how many pieces can I produce in a year”. Maybe this artist didn’t have enough available work so had to pump out some lesser pieces.

    In an effort to be “seen” in many venues, some artists may be over extending their available work and find themselves accepted for exhibitions, solo shows, etc all in one specific timeframe.

    I think that this is going to affect the sales of textile artwork if more and more work is “made to sell” at low price points. Textile artwork is on the verge of being much more accepted with fine art but if the prices go down and “commercial” aspect keeps increasing, we as artists will loose our forward progress.

    Maybe part of this is associated with more artists becoming full time artists and expecting to make an income from their art that is the same as their “other world” income had been. I don’t think that this is possible unless you were already making a large income from your artwork before leaving the “other world job”. Sales take time even if you have been producing work for a long period of time.

    It is difficult to keep moving forward with art creation if sales are slow, but I think that there are collectors out there who are willing to pay for quality artwork and it takes time to find them and for them to find us.

    Dumbing down our art or using lesser materials or faster construction processes just to produce 40 or 50 pieces a year is not going to help an artist in the long run, in MY opinion only.

  16. 16 Kay Susan December 17, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Olga, that’s an interesting post. Without knowing the artist and seeing the work I would simply say that care and quality in your work will always shine through and, whatever the reason and whatever technique you try out, if you drop it something is lost.

    Maybe your artist got cynical. I feel like that myself, sometimes, in a small way. I sell unsuccessfully at local craft fairs and I have tried to make simpler, less embellished work so as to make it cheaper and encourage people to buy but because I’m not happy with what I’ve produced, I am the loser even if people then buy it.

    • 17 jennie p December 19, 2009 at 10:24 pm

      Olga, thanks so much for your thoughtful blog. It’s always thought provoking and informative. In response to ‘reaction and/or judgement I would say this: In my role as a secondary art teacher I often find students’ response to art work comes from their own personal tastes (which is valid) but I am learning that it is important to ask why an artist has done what they have done. So much art making is purposeful…there is always more to it than meets the eye. Perhaps devling further into the artist’s intentions and purpose would provide you with the answers you are looking for. And maybe you would appreciate it a little bit more too? just a thought.

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