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Juried Art ShowsThe life of an artist can be full of frustrations of various sizes and importance, from brushes that fall apart to paintings that do likewise (figuratively speaking, of course). Perhaps one of the oldest artist frustrations is the venerable juried art show. I use the terms "oldest" and "venerable" somewhat lightly because in fact, the juried art show is not all that old or venerable. They were virtually unknown in England before the 1850s and go back only a bit further to around the early 1800s with regard to the infamous Académie des Beaux-arts Paris Salons. In any case, both are the result of a felt need to exhibit the best work of living artists in promoting their careers as well as shaping and educating the tastes of the buying public. Of course the very fact that there WAS a buying public (in England at least) can be attributed to the sudden influx of spare change resulting from the first manifestation of the Industrial Revolution during the 1830s.
Wealth always begets artists who beget art and all too quickly all this begetting begets too many artists begetting too much art. Hence there develops the need for a "weeding out" process to wheedle down the number of submitted paintings for a proposed exhibition to something approximating the wall space available in the cavernous exhibition halls. Secondarily, this brutal (but supposedly healthy) competition is proclaimed as having the side effect of improving the quality of the national corps of artists and the art they produce (that's questionable, but we'll let that ride 'til another time). Thus, in the land that first gave us the jury in the court of jurisprudence, was now applied the same process by Royal Academicians to selecting the art that would be elevated to public prominence. At first it started out as a rather modest, informal process in which all works were hung, then the less noble ones were removed to allow for a pleasing (to Victorian eyes) exhibit. But as years passed and the number of entries doubled and then doubled again, this gentle, ego-salving process gradually became the heartless, brutal, coldly efficient cattle-call we all know and love today.
In fact, in England, the jurying process had pretty well arrived at its modern incarnation as early as 1875 (somewhat earlier in France). In that year, 4,638 works were entered by professional, Royal Academy artists in the Summer Exhibition. Of those, only 561 were accepted; 995 were marked "doubtful" (meaning if space were available after all the accepted ones were hung, this group would be considered); while a dismal 3,082 were rejected. In that year, Charles West Cope even painted a picture of the jurying process with portraits of those involved as they weighed the works and careers of their esteemed colleagues in the balance and found the vast majority of them wanting.
Rejected artist John Soden was so disconsolate he wrote a satiric poem about it:
"The toil of months, experience of years
Before the dreaded Council now appears--
It's left their view almost as soon as in it--
They damn them at the rate of three a minute,
Scarce time for even faults to be detected,
The cross is chalked; 'tis flung aside 'Rejected'."
And given what was an apparently fondness for children as seen in those paintings that found acceptance, Soden went on:
"...scenes of babydom immortalised
'Dear Baby's bath' 'Dear Baby--well!' 'at meals,'
'Baby's first lollipop'-- 'its little toes,'
'First 'ittle toof' and 'Blowing Baby's nose'."
I know how he felt. I'll admit, art show juries have befuddled me in much the same way at times; I just never managed to rise to such eloquence.
(Quotation from Victorian Painting by Lionel Lambourne)
Contributed by Lane, Jim
11 August 2000