Agata Smalcerz 'The best one wins?'

Not only are competitions still present in today's world; their popularity is growing. Although we know that competitions are usually unfair, and that the jury's decision is often difficult to justify, most of us get excited about which of the entrants is going to be "picked" the winner. And we want that person to become a revelation that will give us a whole new perspective on a given discipline. Generally, the idea of a competition is to select gifted individuals and give them an opportunity to further develop their talents and become widely recognized personalities. The number of competition areas is growing continually; competitions are becoming more and more exotic and varied, and each of them aspires to become the only reliable one. 

Painting is especially vulnerable to arbitrary assessment. In the 19th century painting competitions were held in the form of prestigious salons, such as Salon de Paris. It was a time when venerable juries set universal trends by their decisions to give an award to this or that work of art. However, this way of controlling art soon began to be regarded as old-fashioned, or even pedestrian - especially with the emergence of new styles in art. In this light, Courbet's protest and the Salon des Refusés he initiated gained special significance. But with time even this "exhibition of rejects" began to gather judges among its ranks, who wanted to decide what is good and what is bad painting. Once again, this led to satiety, objection and search for a new formula. However, art develops independently of salons or other competitions.


Held for almost fifty years, "Bielska Jesień" is an event  that has become imprinted on the minds of artists, gallery staff, art dealers... and viewers.  For the first few years it merely served to present the work of various artistic circles in Poland. But very soon the need arose to appoint a selection committee that would get rid of the less valuable works. This, in turn, led to the temptation to weed out even more works and leave only those which the appointed experts considered the best; to recognise the artists and, by doing so, demonstrate what is currently important in art, or to be precise, painting.


The competition is addressed to Polish artists, understood in terms of both nationality (including Polish artists residing abroad), and place of residence (including foreign artists residing in Poland). Therefore, the idea of "Bielska Jesień" is not to diagnose the state of world painting, but to focus on its Polish representation only. Whether or not Polish painting has its own specificity is a question that has dogged many a curator and book writer for years. "Bielska Jesień" cannot offer any definite answer either. What it can do is act as a barometer of sorts, a sample taken in a given place, at a given time.

Just like in popular TV talent shows, there are judges to one side. The make-up of the panel changes from one season to another, the judges represent different sets of views, and their final decisions are often surprising for the viewers. The jury of the 40th Biennial "Bielska Jesień 2011" was made up of art critics and artists, all of whom act as curators and write about art. Therefore, it might be said that their decision was a vector pointing explicitly at a single painting that stood out from the rest by its distinctive way of expression. 


The judges of "Bielska Jesień" do not select artists but paintings. Arbitrarily, as is relevant to their role, they pick the works whose form is convincing for the majority of the jury. What matters then is not the artist's name, but the work they have created. For the viewers, too, it is important which painting and not which artist has been awarded a prize. But then it is the artist who becomes the focus of the organizers, sponsors, and finally - of the art market. We reward the artist, we promote the artist, and then it is no longer the painting but the person who has created it that becomes important.

And what happens to the artist next? According to the central idea of "Bielska Jesień", the organizer, i.e. Galeria Bielska BWA, invites them to a solo exhibition allowing them to present their work to a wide audience, and the painting that the artist exhibited during the competition becomes a part of the gallery collection. As in the case of other competitions, e.g. in music, whether or not the artist will make a successful career afterwards depends on whether or not they appear interesting to art dealers and commercial galleries. And as we all know, the market follows its own rules. Sometimes the artist awarded the Grand Prix at "Bielska Jesień" indeed goes on to make an illustrious career, but at other times commercial galleries decide to promote someone else who didn't necessarily make it to the finals of our competition. Similarly, the art magazines that act as sponsors of "Bielska Jesień" make their own choices about which artists should be given distinction.

An innovative form of promoting artists after the competition was the "Sfera Sztuki" Art Fair, which was organized in June 2010. Organized a couple of months after "Bielska Jesień", the event provided a dozen or so artists selected by Galeria Bielska BWA with an opportunity to hold their own small exhibitions, as well as selling their works. The fair was held for three days in a very popular shopping centre called Galeria Sfera where the exhibited paintings were viewed and purchased not only by art collectors who visited the shopping centre especially for this purpose, but also by casual shoppers.

All the above are attempts to ensure widespread promotion of art, especially painting.

Thus, it seems that the main assumption and postulate that have been underlying "Bielska Jesień" from its very beginning, have been fulfilled.

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