attack_laurel (attack_laurel) wrote,

Arts and Sciences Musings

I had a lovely time at Atlantian University last weekend, seeing people, chatting with friends, and even doing a class (more of a discussion, albeit with me doing most of the talking) on judging A&S competitions, which is a perennial favourite in the "this is broken and we need to fix it!!" compendium of complaints.  I have ideas, but that's all they are - ideas.  Until the A&S community as a whole (MOAS', Laurels, Pearls, everyone who does anything artistic, or scientific, or just likes looking at pretty things, etc.) really wants to get together and discuss things, we're all just throwing ideas out there, hoping some of them may stick.

And getting people together?  Sounds easy, but it's not.  There's a lot of "us" out there, even in our little tiny kingdom.  :)

Anyway, I think the attitude that has grown up in recent years has put the judges and the contestants in adversarial positions, which is not necessary, or even wanted.  There's a lot of "my feelings were hurt, wah!" on both sides, and how do you get around that and still do a decent job as a judge?  I mean, you can always say something non-committal, like "nice work!" or "interesting!" (which could mean literally anything), but what are we looking to get out of competition?  If it's just winning a prize, then why bother with judge's comments at all, why not go strictly points system, and give a prize and be done with it?  It's not like anyone really remembers who wins most of these things.

(No, really - I couldn't tell you who won what in the last year, but I know lots of people doing great things.  It's not their competition winning skills that make them stick in my mind, it's everything else that they do.)

Also, only about one-third to half of the people interested in artistic pursuits actually like competing.  The rest would really rather just learn, display, and use their craft to please themselves and other people.  Winning a prize isn't their incentive for entering a competition, it's the fact that only competitors are likely to get any kind of useful feedback - displays are nice, but they rarely prompt people to sit down and write feedback.  In fact, I think the feeling now is that if you want to show your work but don't want any feedback (maybe because someone grumpy told you that all judges are mean), then put it in display.

What I don't get is why feedback from judges is so dreaded.  And why would anyone who doesn't want to hear anything negative about their work enter anything?  Show it to your friends; they'll tell you only the things you want to hear. 

We hold competitions for lots of reasons, and one of them is that it's difficult for a lot of people to walk up to someone well-known and ask for feedback.  I understand this; people are shy, and asking for things from strangers is scary.  They might say no (not that I know of this ever happening; most people are only too happy to be consulted as an "expert").  They might say mean things (also unlikely, unless you classify anything less than glowing praise as being "mean").  It's tough - so we have competitions, where an entrant can get feedback without having to have any scary conversations.

The trouble with this idea is that you cannot guarantee who will be providing that feedback.  Is the judge someone you'd ask for feedback in any other situation?  Does the judge even know anything about your art?  Is the judge someone who doesn't know their nose from a button?  We don't screen our judges for competence - we tend to take anyone who's willing to judge. 

As you can imagine, this doesn't always work out well.  Especially when the person running A&S hasn't actually arranged for any judges in advance, and is asking random people to judge that day. 

But, how do you fix this?  You can't fix things by dumbing the whole process down to the point that no-one could ever get their precious fee-fees hurt (and it's not actually possible to do this; some people can get offended over nothing at all). No matter what, there will always be people who like to enter competitions, but don't like being told their work is anything less than perfect.  Those people will always complain, being sure to describe the situation in terms that set  them up as the helpless victim of a monster who has nothing better to do with its time than be horrible to artisans.  While that may be satisfying to the person who is so insecure that they can't stand to hear that their work could improve, it contributes heavily to the whole idea that judges are only trying to "be mean", and scares a lot of qualified people away from ever judging anything.  It's a lot of work to judge well; it takes time, so a judge should not be forced to judge too many things in one day, and it takes writing skills to be able to communicate in a way that is helpful to the entrant.

When I judge, I write a lot to each person.  I want them to know where I'm coming from, and I want them to know I'm on their side.  We both want them to succeed as an artist, right?  How can we be enemies if we have a common goal?  It's important to me to show the person whose work I'm critiquing that I am supporting their efforts, even if I can't give them top marks (yet).

I've learned over the years that some people do not want to be told they need improvement, even if they want an award so bad they can taste it, and will not get that award without improving their skills.  I've learned that people who are really serious about honing their skills want me to give it to them straight, not patronize them with puffery.  I've learned that most people who enter competitions are somewhere in the middle, and need some sugar with their judging. 

I've also learned that some people should not be judges; anyone who feels like they're in competition with the entrant should not be judging that person's work, as they cannot be objective.  Objectivity is essential in judging.  I know that sometimes I need to refuse a judging job; if I'm in pain, I'm not going to perform my task well.  I also know that because of the way our kingdom runs, sometimes (okay, pretty often) I'm going to be asked on the day to judge, so I may as well bring supplies with me so I can work more easily. 

I'd prefer not to be asked last-minute, mind you; being asked in advance allows me to set the day up so I can judge and still enjoy the event.  I've had groups ask me to marshal for their event, and I don't see why judging A&S should be considered any less worthy of prior planning. 

Honestly, I don't know whether it's possible to "fix" the system to everyone's satisfaction.  I tend to think that there will always be unsatisifed, cranky people who complain that it's not fair, and judges are meeeeeeaaaaaan.  But setting the system up to bring greater benefits to people who are really serious about wanting good feedback - hand-picking judges ahead of time, arranging for enough judges so that no-one is swamped, encouraging discussion about ways of judging, and generally treating competitions as an opportunity for learning rather than a chance to get a prize - will help correct the mistaken impression that judges are the enemy.

But I'm just thinking out loud.  I've been a judge much more than I've been a competitor, and I like seeing what people are doing.  Hopefully my feedback is more helpful than hurtful, though I always include my e-mail and my full name so people can yell at me if they want (I actually tell people that it's okay to contact me and tell me I'm wrong).  As a judge, I appreciate feedback on my judging, so I can improve the quality of my work.  My goal has always been to help people achieve success in their endeavours. 

Anything else would be mean.

Tags: a&s, blah blah blah, deep thoughts, laurels
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