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Critting the crit

Post #781 • May 2, 2006, 11:09 AM • 23 Comments

Jori Finkel on the group critique:

Last semester at Columbia, Lynne Chan, a second-year M.F.A. student, staged a boxing match called "Big Crit Brawl," pitting student against student in a ring in her studio and playing hip-hop music to set the mood. The performance drew on her training in Thai kickboxing and also served as a pre-emptive strike, as the professors decided not to interrupt the event to critique it.

Not long ago it occurred to me that group critiques have a regular structure, despite inidividual variations. The artist puts up his work. People discuss how the work is failing and succeeding. Then, participants suggest new options, pulled from the infinitude choices that the work didn't select. You can repeat this process forever to no meaningful effect. Fortunately, one graduates.

Telling people how to make art is like telling them how to live. When I was still teaching, I had to crit studio work. I would start by gauging their level of happiness. I had to see an excitable interest, a desire to chat about the work, a knowing smile, something that indicated life. If they felt bored, we had to take care of that first, because nothing is more useless than art generated by bored artists. Bad art comes from boredom, confusion, and frustration, which show up plain as day in the results. So first, you check to see if the student needs to be picked up off the floor.

Next, you see if the student needs to be pulled down from the ceiling. Sometimes the artist has an overly high opinion of what's going on in his work. That won't do either. This case is rare.

Once the student is standing upright, we can have a good talk about the work. When you're by yourself in the studio, you get hundreds of ideas. You learn which ones don't work by executing them. I've done that so many times that I hear the bad ideas coming. Sometimes I execute them anyway - it's the only way to know for sure - but I try to save the student some trouble. But I don't like telling people what to do, so I'd say this: "Go ahead and try that, but if it doesn't work, don't kill yourself making it happen."

When I realized that I was advising students to do what they would be doing anyway if they just spent several hours a day working, I knew it was time to take a break from teaching.

Comment

1.

oldpro

May 2, 2006, 12:53 PM

Our crits are specifically confined to suggestions about the content and physical characteristics of the work itself. No one is ever taken to task for making or not making work of any particular description; the effort is entirely directed to helping them make what they want to make better.

No radical suggestions of the "you should be doing something entirely different" sort are allowed. No invidious comparison to what is fashionable or unfashionable is allowed. No cosmic philosophical BS is allowed. No personal characterizations are allowed. No intimidation or putting down is allowed.

Making clear sense is encouraged. Making jokes and having a good time are encouraged.

It is up to the instructor to have a sense of the feelings and psychology of the students involved to keep the exchange upbeat and positive.

This works.

2.

Marc Country

May 2, 2006, 2:03 PM

Student group crits can be painful... sometimes this is due to students (understandable) ignorance, but usually its because of their apathy (which brings up the situation where one not only has to teach, but also, somehow, try to 'sell' that teaching).
In my studio, we have the occasional impromptu group (if 3 artists is a group) crits, and since everyone involved knows the language already (aren't students), it is pretty effective in finding solutions for artistic problems.

As they say, "There's no 'I' in 'TEAM'"....
(but tell me this, Franklin... how many I's are there in "inidividual"?)

3.

oldpro

May 2, 2006, 2:14 PM

Or even in "inividiuiail"

4.

oldpro

May 2, 2006, 2:17 PM

And as for TEAM, there's no I, but there is a backwards, schizoid ME.

5.

RL

May 2, 2006, 7:42 PM

Critiques are a good forum for creating a strong dialogue of discussion between artist.

They can create a fresh view points for an artist work
but opinions of other artist can also create undue influences making artist question their work
forcing them off track.

Maybe critiques are best utilized for college students looking for focus
and not for a working artist who has a direction.

6.

Gaspard

May 2, 2006, 7:56 PM

God forbid an artist should "question" their art work.

i

7.

Marc Country

May 2, 2006, 8:03 PM

Amen, Gaspard!

Such "Undue Influences" (like criticism) are liable to ruin a comfortable preconceived "direction", "Forcing" the artist to do things they don't want to, like stop mindlessly following along some "track"...

Scary!

8.

oldpro

May 2, 2006, 9:07 PM

When there is a "direction" is exactly the time when suggestions are most useful. Tony Caro, whom I consider the greatest sculptor alive, always encouraged and solicited suggestions and would often try them out. You do anything to make your art better.

The tough going is when artists are lazy, stubborn, resistent, afraid and otherwise need either a kick in the pants or counseling, whatever works. Or when their bad art is selling like hot cakes and they don't want to be told that it needs help.

9.

Gaspard

May 2, 2006, 10:16 PM

Or converesely when they're not selling, and they're making crap, and when you give them useful crits, hints, advice, blatant suggestions on how to make that piece of shite work, and they disregard it completely. Better yet, they don't listen. They continue doing the same boring old, unchallenginig, uninspired, insipid, blahblahblah crap.

10.

RL

May 2, 2006, 10:32 PM

Effective group critiques are always constructive.
but some artist are unable to be constructive
and to many can be opinionated, narrow minded and self absorbed.

A serious artist should always question their own art but not always accept the opinions of other artist.
If a concept is being taken by an artist an outside influence (such as an alternative opinion) can unnecessarily muddle that artist original vision for his art which could ruin the artist focus
and direction. The making of art is a personal experience which should not always need the
"suggestions" or "opinions" from other artist to make the art relevant.

11.

noah

May 2, 2006, 10:44 PM

The best critics offer honest response and articulation of what they see . The teacher is a consultant more than salesperson . For most people they will never get response of the same volume or regularity once out of school . I don’t have a problem with the age old model of learning from a master - though they’re a little tricky to find .

12.

Tommy

May 2, 2006, 10:52 PM

I agree with your approach.I certainly had flashbacks reading the NYT article Sunday to my Grad and Undergrad days. My feelings towards my experiences in art school left me with the impression that most professors gave no thought to the effects of their crits, unlike you did. Further research lead me to find that most professors never left the ivory towers(going from art students to professors without the experience of surviving in the real world) long enough to see how others provide criticism to develop the individual and the team. I believe we need to overhaul our approach to teaching art and developing artist because right now the status quo is the boy-in-the-bubble or the outsider-with-money. No emphasis is placed on business practices or cultural intregration. There has always been a feud between art and artisan and no mediation.

13.

noah

May 2, 2006, 11:08 PM

I agree with oldpro's idea about people who are already working with a "direction".. If you've been working alone in your studio -as alot of people do -it's easy to get trapped . A meaningful crit can be a breath of fresh air, even if it stings. If something resonates enough to influence me-bring it on.

14.

oldpro

May 2, 2006, 11:30 PM

Absolutely, Noah. Making art is very exhausting, mentally. I get blind to my work very quickly. I can easily run up a dead end and not know it. it is absolutely necessary to have some people whose eyes you can trust.

I get the feeling from those making remarks that they have not experienced much good criticism. Good criticism is not "criticism" as much as it is perceptive encouragement - "this works" or "try that", always pertaining to exactly what is actually there and only what is actually there, and always from someone who knows the difference. You know who they are after talking to them for 5 minutes. It's obvious.

15.

noah

May 3, 2006, 12:05 AM

The short lived danger of crits can be falling for positive response from a viewer because of the need for support .Short-lived I say because lookin' for love in all the wrong places usually fades the cold morning light of your own studio whereas response from a "good eye' even if it jars you briefly -keeps coming back . Sometimes even an eye you trust doesn't see what you're doing or doesn't see what you're doing on that particular day - so you're thrown a little . Chances are over time if your gut and not your ego keeps telling you to give it a shot - it's probably worth going through with it.It doesn't mean good crits aren't worth going after. It just goes like that sometimes.

16.

ahab

May 3, 2006, 12:45 AM

Nothing better than a critique from somebody who's looking. Okay, one thing is better: somebody with a good eye looking. Okay, two things: somebody with a good eye who can also articulate it.

Sometimes any old visitor can tell me a lot just by where they stand in the studio, and what they spend time looking at. It can alert me, the sculptor, to sticking points in the sculpture. Just because s/he can't tell me exactly what they see, or how what they see could be better, doesn't mean they don't see it or don't have an all-body response to it. But when I have a studio visit from someone whose eye I have learned to trust, there is so much more information to draw from. Any of which, from either visitor, I can utilize or discard at my discretion.

17.

ahab

May 3, 2006, 1:10 AM

But giving crits, to students at least, can seem to be a difficult task. I think maybe the best thing is to respond to the work honestly, I mean, without too much psycho- or sociological strategizing. During group crits when I was a student, I learned as much about how to speak of what I see as I did about what the commenter thought they saw. Interpersonal skills do have to kick in when relating to someone with no experience discussing art. Some artists have great interpersonal skills, some don't. Same with teachers.

18.

catfish

May 3, 2006, 10:31 AM

The art school "critique" is one of the most depressing subjects imaginable. I avoid them because I don't think much is accomplished. Students, up to a point, like them because they are a change of pace from the agenda of studio production. If someone picks up even one thing that is useful, I regard the exercise as a sucess. But I never let my hopes go wildy out of control. I assume no one will benefit, so if someone does, it is a pleasant surprise.

My most "successful "critique was conducted under peculiar circumstances.

A group of about 10 faculty decided to critique the work from a number of advanced undergraduate classes. I was quite relieved that there would be so many colleagues present. I figured I would not need to say anything, relief that I completely welcomed. So, to ehnance my enjoyment of what the others would surely say, I opened my stash of "Tom Reily's Gold", the strongest weed I have ever encountered. I rolled a very fat one - very unlike the miserly skinny ones I usually made with that precious stuff.

So I arrived in the room as zonked as I have ever been and took a seat in the back row, looking forward to passively contemplating the scene that was about to unfold. Somehow my colleagues turned the whole thing over to me. I do not remember how. All I remember is a stream of thoughts about how incredible it was that I could talk at all and yet here my mouth was right there out in front of my eyes, going on and on.

The next day I was told that I talked for 2 hours and that I was wonderful, full of insight, lucid, to the point, demanding, inspiring, and so on. Both colleagues and students were appreciative. I could not remember that day and of course cannot now remember anything I said. My only memory was my inner speculation about how I was able to say anything at all.

I thanked everyone for their praise.

19.

oldpro

May 3, 2006, 10:43 AM

Well catfish, at least your recommendation for critiques is very straightforward and clear. Unfortunately that particular self-help substance causes me to think I am uproariously funny when I'm not.

If I had to do a critique with 10 other professors I would be depressed too. Mine consist of me and my upper level & grad sudents, period. I do everything I can to make them not depressing, except handing out weed, which I have an ever-so-slight suspicion would not be approved by the administration. The students go into the crit with the expectation that all comments will be directed only at what is there to be seen on the wall and how to make it better, and a lot is accomplished.

20.

catfish

May 3, 2006, 11:59 AM

More reefer madness:

Early in my academic career, just shortly after being re-hired after being fired, my department faced a crisis of too many students wanting sophomore and above courses. Seems the school had hired 10 new foundation teachers (including me) the year before without thinking about what that would do to the demand for upper level instruction.

So I wrote a six or seven paged memo that proposed a solution in the form of a "freshman review committee". It really shouldn't have taken that many pages. All it needed to say was just let the best freshmen into the sophomore classes. But I had learned the academic mind likes longish documents for an assortment of reasons and I didn't want to lose my job again, so I delivered what I thought would work.

I was so sure I had answered every question possible that I assumed all I needed to do was pass the doucment around at the faculty meeting, let everyone read it, and ask them vote to approve it. So I got thoroughly stoned just before the meeting.

That's when I learned that academics appreciate long documents but are nonetheless unwilling to read them. They asked me dozens of questions (that were answered in the document) and I really struggled just to understand the questions. Again, I don't remember anything but my awareness of struggling and realizing they were not about to read what I had written.

They approved the committee (but never implemented it). A couple of days later I received a letter from the associate director congratulating me on my logical and perceptive presentation. I still have the letter somewhere. It is among my most valued momentos.

21.

oldpro

May 3, 2006, 12:31 PM

Sounds like you should be toking up regularly, Catfish. In academia, at least.

22.

that guy

May 3, 2006, 2:23 PM

I remember one crit from my undergraduate days. It was as depressing as catfish suggests. About 30 minutes in, I started in on a tirade about the sub par work that just about everyone had brought in. People still haven't forgiven me for the stuff I said about that work. I left with a pleasant feeling. About a week later I walked into my profs' office hours and apologized for acting out in class. He paused and looked at me for a while and then said "well, someone had to tell them." At that point I realized that crits are as fun as you make them. I've toned down my rhetoric some since but when something has to be said I try to find some decent way to say it.

23.

Marc Country

May 8, 2006, 9:39 PM

My cryptic question at the end of comment #2 was a (too) subtle attempt to point out a typo in your post, Franklin. Not that it really matters... I just have a compulsion.

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