If those are the only two choices, then my answer is no, I don’t consider them equal, and I’m probably closer to your way of thinking vs the art establishment’s. You and I have a lot of common ground, actually.
But there is a third category, which is the one where we’ll find artists like Picasso, Matisse, and DeKooning: people who were formally trained in traditional techniques, mastered them, and then tossed them to the side because they didn’t feel traditional technique and realism were effective vehicles for expressing what they wanted to say. And that’s what it’s about I think, each individual artist finding what workss best for them in terms of what they want to say and how they want to say it.
So, getting back to the specific idea of making judgments in regard to quality, as you were called to do as a juror, I think context is key, and art can only be judged in the context of similar art, and by the standards customarily employed within that artistic sub-community, which means I really don’t see how an abstract can be compared to a realist painting in terms of judging for a competition, and I’m confused as to why the oragnizers would mix things up like that.
That’s a long winded way of saying I feel your pain, and good luck