How to Tell Good Art? Will Peer Review Work?

I write about art and science, their similarities and differences, their struggles and conciliations;  how they are perceived…how they work together to make us who we are.

In Art – Science’s Poor Cousin?  I reported on how some in the arts desire a more scientific approach to art: Big Art, large installations, collaborations, full funding, just like Big Science. That art historians should not toil alone but share insights with their peers (like scientists do) as they write the art history of our time, (perhaps to come up with a single more definitive and convincing one?). It is also suggested that our new art should “subscribe to academic traditions of judgment and peer reviewand that today’s artists need education in physics and chemistry as well as history, philosophy and literary theory”. (My emphasis)

I must say though, laudable and logical as these ideals are, they won’t necessarily result in better art in the long term.* But the side effects – too much money with inevitable politics, ** would be devastating to those who prefer contemplation and work alone, as most poets and really creative people do. And worse, a ‘tradition’ or standard of judgment more often than not screens out the most far-out ideas. Collective efforts often produce mediocre and consensus art.

Furthermore, there are fundamental differences between art and science as process, and no one has put it more eloquently than the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970):

In science men have discovered an activity of the very highest value in which they are no longer, as in art, dependent for progress upon the appearance of continually greater genius, for in science the successors stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors; where one man of supreme genius has invented a method, a thousand lesser men can apply it. (My emphasis)

In art, there is no ‘method’ that a thousand lesser men can apply (could I be wrong?), and one does not stand on the shoulders of others. (Can the popularity of appropriation art be an exception?). Art grows horizontally, like rhizomes that pop up shoots on a fertile earth; it does not grow straight forward, in a predetermined direction. We know if a truly great genius has appeared only when his or her fame continues to grow long after death, as with da Vinci and Michelangelo.

*   Short term, fellow artists can judge the technique and skill in a piece of art, and its currency. But when it comes to context and social or historical implications of an enigmatic visual experience, much of it unconscious, they are probably just as good as the rest of us.

**   The fact that generosity of support does not produce good art cannot be better illustrated than the Dutch government’s artists stipend project that started in 1949, administered by Beeldende Kunstenaars Rageling (BKR). After the war, the government wanted to encourage and support struggling artists by buying their art. By 1994 the government had a warehouse full of rubbish art – good artists or good art didn’t get there because they could get better price elsewhere.

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