Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Artist's Artist's Critic's Critic

During 2023 I recorded most of my visits to exhibitions on a website called The Artist's Artist's Critic's Critic. On this website I scored each exhibition one to five stars on six characteristics: difficulty, entertainment, originality, legibility, consistency and craftsmanship. I also recorded the time spent at the exhibition as an indication of my affinity with the work.
Part of the reason I started this undertaking was to see if I could develop an alternative to the subjective and nonsensical star rating system that's used by various media outlets. By trying to formulate those aspects of an exhibition I adhere importance to, I thought it might be possible to provide some insight into my own viewing behaviour, while still having a numerical ranking system.

Now the year is over I have crunched some of the numbers and it gave some interesting results.

In 2023 I recorded 79 exhibitions. 65 of those were solo shows, of which 31 were at museums, 21 at galleries and 13 at other institutions. Of the 14 group exhibitions I recorded, 7 were at museums and 7 took place at other institutions. I visited no group shows at commercial galleries.

When rating something 1 to 5 stars on six different characteristics, the range of the total scores lies between 6 and 30, with an average of 18. This equates to a 3-star score on all six characteristics.
The average total score I've given to those 79 exhibitions is 18,25, with a median of 18 and modes of 12 and 22. This was surprising to me, to find that I ended up with the factual average as my personal average. That does mean there was some degree of consistency to my judgements, which could be interpreted as a degree of objectivity.

In terms of average score per characteristic, difficulty had the lowest with 2,6; then entertainment with 2,7; originality with 2,9; craftsmanship with 3,3; consistency with 3,4; and legibility with 3,5. Although all scores only deviate from the theoretical average of 3 with maximum 0,5 points, it was surprising to find that legibility scored slightly higher overall. Part of the reason I included legibility as a characteristic was to measure the degree in which the exhibition requires explanation beyond the works themselves. It's good to see I rated only 15 of 79 exhibitions with one or two stars on this point, as I definitely think this is a problem within art in general. But I guess by measuring I found that it's not as big a problem as I thought it was.
That difficulty is the lowest scoring metric doesn't surprise me however. I defined difficulty as the ability of the exhibition to make think and challenge me intellectually, and while I enjoy many exhibitions, these days its rare that they show me something I can't make sense of. In fact, only one exhibition scored five stars on this subject, which was Philip Metten's solo exhibition at Zeno-X gallery in Antwerp.

Broadly speaking, I rated solo shows at galleries the highest, with an average score of 20. Solo shows at institutions received an average score of 19 and solo shows at museums received the true average of 18. Group shows at institutions scored a slightly below average score of 17, but group exhibitions at museums on average scored a mere 14. This is also the biggest deviation from the norm with 4 points. These low scores for group exhibitions reflect my overall impression that curators aren't very good at making exhibitions and that this is especially true for curators working at museums. In fact, the only group show that scored above average was The insincere charm of things at the Balcony in the Hague.

Some interesting low scores came from shows by Anne Imhof, Jenny Holzer, Simon Denny, Kasper Bosmans, Helen Frankenthaler, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Elmgreen & Dragset. These are all normally considered highly rated artists, if not globally then at least in their respective countries of origin. Yet the shows I saw of them in 2023 apparently weren't exactly up to snuff.
I personally found it interesting that Daan van Golden at Micheline Swaczjer had a below average score as well. That just wasn't a very interesting show with works from an artist I otherwise greatly appreciate.

Of course I also have a top five of shows that I've recorded in the past year.
My top show, with a score of 28, was Tomma Abts at galerie Buchholz in Cologne, followed by Thomas Schütte at De Pont in Tilburg. The latter got there purely on the quality of the works themselves, as the curatorial effort was average at best. Third was Jeff Weber's Image Storage Containers at the CNA in Dudelange. I doubt many people have seen that exhibition, but it was very well put together on all fronts and punching well above its weight.
Fourth and fifth place are actually by the same artist, namely Aglaia Konrad at the FOMU in Antwerp and then later in the year also at Mu.Zee in Ostend. Once again just excellently put together shows that merely faltered a little bit on the entertainment factor.

Only one show actually got the average score of all 3-stars and this was Blank. Raw. Illegible..., curated by Moritz Kung at the Leopold Hoesch Museum. It was a comprehensive group show of 'empty' books and about as average as an exhibition can be. The presentation was adequate enough to be unnoticeable, simply unremarkable in every way possible. For an audience it's often hard to understand books when displayed in glass vitrines, but each book was carefully considered and shown in such a way to be as accessible as it could possibly be. The books on display presented a very broad, thoroughly researched overview and thus for every uninteresting work in the exhibition there was also a gem that got you excited. And as unusual the premise of the exhibition was, it was simultaneously also somewhat obvious. If you want to have a yardstick for what a neutral and average exhibition looks like, that is it. It was spectacular how unspectacular it was.

As a final remark I only found a very weak correlation of 0,28 between time spent in the exhibition and the overall score. The bulk of this number comes from the correlation between the scores for entertainment and for difficulty, with a correlation to time spent of respectively 0,40 and 0,32. All other metrics had a correlation of 0,18 or less. So if you make me laugh or think, I'm going to spend (slightly) more time at your exhibition. 

Keeping track of the exhibitions I've visited like this has been an interesting experiment. I would also say that I've mostly succeeded in my attempt to rate the exhibitions as objectively as possible on each of the six characteristics. When all the scores are added up, each exhibition is found in the quartile that corresponds to my more intuitive and 'unfiltered' opinion of that exhibition. I'm not sure if I will continue to keep track of the exhibitions I will visit in the future, but it's been personally interesting to systematically record one's thoughts and I believe it has given some indication that a more objective rating system for exhibitions is possible by using different metrics than those that are commonly used.