Aesthetic Judgment and the Expertise Gap


Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait by her sister Cassandra, 1810 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sam McNerney argues in an article on Big Think that experts in an area of art develop an expert aesthetic judgement, to quote the article “a person’s appreciation of a thing or event varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it”.

He further writes “Appreciation is a function of knowledge because experts know what to look for. This is especially true in art. Think about Philip Glass listening to Arnold Schoenberg, Picasso looking at a Monet, or Rodin in front of Venus de Milo. My knowledge of modernism music, impressionism art and ancient Greek sculptures, in contrast, is next to nothing, so it’s nearly impossible for me do anything more than listen and gaze. If I took a class on these subjects I would appreciate them more. In the meantime Monet’s Impression, Sunrise is just another “famous” painting.”

The article is well written and worth the reading, I won’t quote it more, go and read it.

So what makes you an expert, an aesthete? I believe there are two elements, education and experience. You are taught by other experts what to look for and then sent out to experience it for yourself. This slowly develops your aesthetic sensibilities.

I am no expert on art but I know that after two trips to Italy and England where I was able to expose myself to a wide range of “masters” (the Uffizi in Florence and the Vatican Museum in Rome are an education by themselves) I returned home and was better equipped to walk around the Art Gallery of NSW and appreciate the qualitative differences between a number of the works. At the same time, since I have much less experience in modern art, I find that harder to do at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

My real field of study is literature. I have been an avid reader for most of my life, I was barely into my teens when my mother exposed me to Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen on top of a great deal of juvenile literature. I was also a keen student and always willing to learn and discuss literature with anyone who would take the time to talk to me. I continued my education at University as a mature age student.

Now, at the age of 53, I have a well developed sense of what is and isn’t good writing. I can enjoy the immaculate prose of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and see the rough spots that show ‘Sanditon’ is an unfinished work (though we should all be so blessed as to have such rough spots as Jane Austen).

The other thing that education and wide reading bring to appreciation is a better understanding. For example a long history of reading Greek myth and seeing such plays as Sophocles ‘Oedipus The King’ and ‘Antigone’ make it easier to understand the central nature of the character and imagery of Tiresias in Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs”. Indeed Eliot’s poem is the perfect example of necessary education, it is so rich and deep that it takes real educated study to even begin to understand it fully – every time I come back to it, my heavily annotated copy full of pencil notes, more is revealed to me.

There is a problem with such a well developed critical eye. I enjoy writing, after many years of doing it I’m not that bad at writing non-fiction. Any time that I try and stretch myself to write fiction, however, my inner critic immediately kicks in and I can see ever flaw in plot, characterisation, character development and structure.

The same is true of my drumming. With drumming there are a couple of gaps between the critic and the performer. The first is that now I have started drumming I am more aware or the drumming in a song and can appreciate great drumming more. I find myself now able to break the drumming down into its parts but not be able to figure out exactly what I’m hearing and how it is done. Then there is my performance when I find myself able to read the drum music and hear it in my head but I’m a long way from being able to perform it.

It’s true for many artist before they are experienced, the critic is developed well ahead of the artist and they find themselves blocked and frustrated.

The key, of course, is to keep on writing, keep on trying and eventually those muscles will develop, the writing will get better and easier. I went through the process with non-fiction but I’m still close to the start with fiction and still find it hard to plough on through ignoring that critic and practise the craft. You have to remember that everyone goes through the same stages.

Do you find a gap between your critic and your ability? Are you struggling to keep motivated when you know what you are creating falls short? How do you deal with it?

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