The Filters We Use to Decide If Something Is Good

March 1881 Auguste Renoir writes: “There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval. There are 80,000 who will not buy an inch of canvas if it is not in the Salon.”

The Salon (beginning in 1667) was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  Hundreds of painters would submit their work in hopes that it would be chosen to be displayed on the walls of the Salon. Having you art displayed in the Salon was like being one of the few to selected to be on the New York Times best sellers list. Surly if your book is on the New York Times best sellers list it’s gotta be good, and surly if your art was one of the few chosen to hang in the Salon, it must be impressive.

But what about the books that don’t make it to that list? Does that then mean every book that never makes it to the New York Times best sellers list is isn’t a good book? I’m not suggesting that the books that make it on that list aren’t good, but couldn’t it be possible that there is another book out there that is just as good and perhaps better that’s not on the list? If Renoir was an author living today he might have said, “There are in the nation scarcely fifteen book lovers capable of liking a book without the New York Times approval. There are 80,000 who will not buy a book if it’s not on the list.”

Were the people living in the 1700s just letting the Salon do the thinking for them? Are we just letting the New York Times best seller list do the thinking for us so we don’t have to figure out for ourselves what books are good to read? Are we capable of finding a good book and seeing it’s greatness even if no one else sees it?

Are we able to see value in things on our own, or are we dependent on others first to tell us it is good before we see the good in it?

Have you ever visited a new website and looked for the number of followers? If there’s a lot of followers then it must be good, but what’s if there’s only a couple? Then it’s probably lame right?

In Derek Sivers TED Talk he discusses how movement start. It’s not the the first person that starts the movement, it’s the first person to follow that person that starts the movement. “First a leader needs the guts to stand out and be ridiculed…His first follower (has) a crucial role; he going to show everyone else how to follow. The first follower is what transforms a lone (individual) into a leader.”

It’s the first person to say, “this book is great” that leads other to think, that book might be great. Also, there are people who have a huge influential power on “helping” others to see what is great. When Oprah Winfrey recommends a book, what do you think is going to happen to the sells for that book? I don’t think there is anything wrong with trusting someone’s judgment and being willing to consider something that they are saying is great. It’s when we let them do the thinking for us that the problems begin.

Then there’s the GRE test. For most Masters Programs one must take the GRE to be considered for admission. People score high, people score low. Are all the individuals who score high on the GRE the only ones truly capable of excelling in a Masters Program? The GRE is just a filter, and not the most accurate filter. It’s a quick way to sort through all the applicants to make a decision as to who to admit and who to turn away. [ Malcom Gladwell has a podcast that’s worth listening to about the flaws of using the LSAT as a filtering system for law students.]

I’m not suggesting that these filters we use such as the GRE and The New York Times Best Seller and Oprah Winfrey’s book list are pointless, just that they are no perfect. There are some books that never get published because they’re not good. There are some photography sites that have few followers because their photos are dull. There are some students turned away from graduate programs because they are simply not ready to undertake the rigors of the program. But these filters are flawed and not always reliable. Are you able to spot the good and the value in something or someone even if others have already declared that this isn’t any?

Painting Bitten by a Man, by Jasper Johns

I saw this piece when I was at the MoMA in New York. I was meandering through the museum slowly taking in all the art. When I came to this piece I looked at it a little confused trying to figure it out, then I read the title, then looked at it again and started laughing. Is it good art? It is meaningful?

After reading the title “Painting Bitten by a Man” I looked back at the painting and saw for the first time the teeth marks. I envisioned the artist drained but desperately wanting to create something. Spreading the clay over his canvas trying to make something new, something different, something that would fill him with satisfaction and fulfillment. And then after a few hours of nothing coming together the way he had hoped it would, leaning into his canvas with his mouth wide open and biting the the clay as if to say to it, “Take that!” And then walking away triumphantly.

This was my first time ever to visit New York. I was there with a group of good friends. At the time I was looking at this piece I happened to be standing next to a very dear friend of mine. We both had the same reaction. We both stood there quietly confused and then started laughing with the realization of what the painting was. This piece was memorable, it was fun, it was light and playful. It was the one piece I talked about with the rest in our group when we all met up later.

I feel in love with the juxtapose experience this painting created. I had been such a serious mood looking at all the art and studying it and contemplating the work and effort each piece took to create. And then I came to this. In a few seconds I went from serious to playful. It took me by surprise. It doesn’t minimize or diminish the value of the other significant pieces. It’s not the creative genius of it that draws me to this piece. I wouldn’t say that I love this piece because of the skill and talent that it took to create it. I honestly don’t think it really took skill to make this piece. My six year old son could have created this piece, albeit the bite mark would be a bit smaller. But that’s not the point.

Was it the artist’s intentions to make me laugh? Was he hoping that as I was walking walking seriously though a prestigious art gallery that I’d come to his piece and be caught off guard? Was he trying to say to me to not take art and life so seriously? I don’t know. But the experience I had made this ridiculous piece deeply meaningful to me. Will I ever hang of copy of it in my front room? Probably not. Do I love it? Absolutely! Is it good art? To me it is inspiring. And it’s hanging in New York’s MoMA art gallery, so that means it’s good, doesn’t it?

August 16 (and a couple other days), 2019

Today: 1 hour

Total: 7 hrs 30 min