Monday, August 30, 2010

Room for Subjectivity?

I spent the weekend in San Diego attending the Art of Photography Show, curated by Natasha Egan (Associate Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago). It was great fun, and even more special because my dear friend and occasional Lit Lab commentor, Troy Nethercott, had a piece in the show.

On Sunday morning, Egan gave a talk about how she selected her pieces (111 selections out of over 13,500 entries). What immediately stood out for me was that many of her choices seemed very subjective. She said things like, "As you can see I like photos with fences" or "I like airplanes" or, really, "I think I chose this one because I have a personal connection to A1 steak sauce."

My initial response to this was "Huh?"

I was shocked to hear this curator admit to having picked things simply because she liked them. But, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The Art of Photography Show, like some literary publications I know of, have a new judge each year. If those judges chose their selections based solely on technical merit or some other objective measure* each year's show would risk having a similar feel. Having each judge be subjective made for a new artistic experience each year and, over the long term, probably gives more people a chance to get into the show.

Recently, SmokeLong Quarterly, the journal I work for, transitioned to a rotating editor model as well. Each week, a new person goes through the submissions and picks a story. Whatever they pick gets published. When it was my week, it was a great experience to get to fall in love with a story and decide on it all on my own. It wasn't so much a sense of power I was enjoying, but a sense of freedom. When selections were more democratic, I think often times the safest stories got chosen, those pieces that had a little bit of something for everyone. With only one judge, and a subjective judge at that, an artist who tried something unique has a decent chance of getting rewarded for it.

I used to be weary of people who judged art purely subjectively, but nowadays I think it definitely has its place.

*Okay, perhaps there is never any truly objective measure.


  1. Never, never a truly objective measure - I'd agree. So often I recommend a book that a pal doesn't connect to or sit at bookclub and have people rave about a novel that I just didn't 'get'. That's the blessing in publishing (and art) is what gives us all hope :D

  2. Subjectivity is so freeing when you're on the judging end...not so much when you're the one being judged, or chosen, or whatever. With our upcoming Notes from Underground contest, I can only see one way in which we'll choose winners, and that's by being subjective. I've glanced through those entries (really, really need to start choosing soon!) and there is only one way I can see how I'd choose, and that's by letting my own subjective likes and dislikes come into play more than they would on another contest like we did last year.

    Have you ever noticed how certain magazines publish the same type of material? Hmm, I wonder why...

    I think as writers striving to get published, we must remember this.

    I'm so glad you had a great time!

  3. I think subjectivity rules the roost in so many venues, it obscures the waters of objectivity every time.

  4. Tess, I've become very careful about recommending books because of this very thing. Now, I think I give people books they enjoy, which means I rarely suggest books I really enjoy myself. My tastes are so different!

    Michelle, You're right about it freeing on the judging end. As for the other end, I actually think it could be a blessing in disguise. First, it's comforting to think that a rejection is just the result of subjectivity. Second, if you write something that you know a particular judge would hate, there's a new chance next year that your work will be more liked.

    T. Anne, I used to hate this kind of mindset, but lately I accept it more and more.

  5. As a writer still aspiring to be published, the thought of subjectivity gives me hope.

    Maybe I'll be declined a few times because someone didn't like my book. But... it could still be that someone likes my book...

  6. Davin: thanks for coming to the opening of my gallery show. What you say about subjectivity is very true. I thought the curator was honest in her remarks about how she chose the work. In my experience, a lot of editors and curators and jurors will hide behind some veil of objective critical mumbo-jumbo in justifying what they like. I kind of respected her for saying "I like this because I like it." She trusts her instincts.

    I spent a lot of time trying to guess what images the judges would respond to but in the end I threw in one image that I just liked personally. And that was the one they chose for the show! I guess what I learned was that you have to trust your own gut, put out work that speaks to you on a personal level and then hope that it will connect with someone else.

  7. Actually I too have a personal connection to A1 steak sauce and I'm vegetarian. Make of it what you will.

    P.s. I like the idea of a rotating editor. Through subjectivity drives me nuts sometimes, I've learned to accept it.

  8. Misha, I'm glad you also see the hopeful side of this. I didn't for a long time, but now I do think it is advantageous.

    edithroad, two excellent points. It was nice to hear the judge being so honest. I have a feeling more people would sound like her if they were honest. I know I'm subjective in my own critiques, and maybe I shouldn't try so hard to justify that using objective excuses. Also, you mentioned a sort of x-factor that is tied up to emotion. I think that's a very important point and one I work to be more sensitive to.

  9. Crimey, I've always suspected that hand print of yours was A1 steak sauce. I was against the rotating editor idea for a long time, but now I also think it's a good choice.

  10. What, we're not supposed to have opinions or preferences any more? Pfft. Might not be democratic or politically correct to have actual aesthetic preferences, but a big fat whatever to that.

    Subjectivity is the new black. Or something. It's still cool with me.

  11. At the risk of both oversimplifying, how would you ever select art objectively? I'm not sure the idea is even sensible. Even if you came up with metrics, they would reflect a subjective starting point of values.

    That part that seems weird to me is not that her choices were subjective but that come across as very subject-matter based. Fences are cool. A1 is personally important to me.

    I'm all about subjective evaluation, but that seems a weird place to make that evaluation.

  12. In an earlier century, I attended a writing workshop, and while some of the critiquing was helpful, a lot of it was confusing and I had to put it down to subjectivity -- especially when half the people would say "I loved the characters but hated the plot" and the other half would say "I loved the plot but hated the characters" about the same story.

    I'm sure this is a huge part of why marketing one's work is so difficult -- how do you get inside the editor's head? There's only so much time in the day to do research (i.e., reading what your target editors have already chosen to publish).

    One year I was flogging a mystery novel which was set in 1921. I received one rejection letter stating that it "sounded too old-fashioned." The next rejection I got said it "sounded too contemporary." I had not changed anything. Go figure.

    Heck, if I were judging a photography show, the selections would no doubt be either birds or dachshunds -- I know what *I* like!

  13. What all of this means is that, when Domey, Michelle and I judge the Notes From Underground entries, we won't be able to explain our choices. Admit it or not, we'll like what we like and that's just that.

    I'll be happy to make something up afterward to explain my choices, though.

  14. Objectively anything artistic has no real purpose. It would be rather useless to judge it as if it did.

    On the other hand there's nothing wrong with studying elaborate jargon to explain why something apeals to our particular mode of subjectivity, thus sounding smart and opinionated as oposed to just opinionate.

  15. Simon, I like how you're wearing your new snark! I'm getting snarkier too. I'm going to be the Simon Cowell of the writing blog world.

    Nevets, so in the world of subjectivity, what would you cal valid? She mentioned that as a curator she preferred to go based on an artists intentions. In a museum, for example, she has the luxury of talking to an artist and then making choices based on that conversation. In judging this contest she was more blind to the intentions. It is about values, and which values are the best ones?

    Mizmak, Doxies are the best! I had the pleasure of going to UC Davis for college and every year they had a big Doxy racing tournament. It was the best! I've had similar mixed responses to my writing. What I like about it is that it sort of takes the pressure of me. Some people like some elements while others don't. I take that as a compliment these days.

    Scott, I consider myself an expert at making things up to justify my senseless opinions. It's one of my finest qualities!

    Taryn, I also tend to agree that art has not much value. It's a freeing philosophy! And, yes I study up on the jargon. :)

  16. I wouldn't go anywhere near the V word, Domey.

    But I do think that when you're developing an evaluative instrument, there are certain variables that are more useful to track for a stated goal than others.

    If your goal is thematic or topical, I can see subject matter weighing heavily. If your goal is either more vague or more technical, subject matter seems an odd choice.

    Not inv**** or wr*** or inapp********, but an odd choice.

    I have no problem with the idea of an artistic piece of mine being dismissed on purely subjective grounds. Matters of taste are always important and legitimate.

    But if my photo were turned away because it didn't have a fence or A1 steak sauce when it wasn't a Fence and A1 steak sauce show, I'd feel frustrated, no question.


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