Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Critique

“ You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't.” - Marcellus Wallace

Had to get in extra early to catch up on grading this morning; remove stuff from the hallway showcases and refresh with work from the last assignment, plus try to assimilate the reworks and late turn-ins, which is a logistical juggle.

Today’s critique was a little different than all the ones so far this semester, in my endless quest at trying different approaches in coaxing interaction out of the class ; I had the students each put their individual pieces up one at a time, and passed out sheets of scrap paper for everyone to first write down their comments after a few minutes of observation and analysis. I wrote on the blackboard a list of criteria to refer to as a guide/reminder/trigger of key points to consider: presentation (how the piece looks ie clean, ripped, use of page etc.); medium (graphite or charcoal, how successful was the choice and how well was it used etc.); composition (how the fore/mid/back ground elements were arranged and the panel border used for achieving pictorial depth); line (line weight and especially use of contour lines to describe the volume of the shapes in space); and value (in addition to line, how was use of shading and tones used - full range of values and smooth transitions between areas of darks and lights etc.). This list of prompts was helpful in laying out a groundwork to build from; even if by now, in theory, this should be a familiar routine it's still a useful laundry list for looking at and thinking about other works of art as well as their own.

Then someone was chosen to kick off discussion, and in addition I randomly picked a couple extra students to contribute some aspects that might have been initially overlooked or were worth pointing out again. This system of forcibly extricating comments from the silent minority and letting the dependably vocal people chime in every so often is a good balance - plus probably the fact that I happen to have the grade book out to record pluses or minuses that will determine the percentage of their final grade (5%) on classroom participation serves as a subtle hint.

I think alternating the approach on critiques is a healthy way to shake things up a tad; different processes are used when trying to articulate reactions in writing, sometimes it can help to stimulate a new perspective. It flexes different muscles (sometimes painfully atrophied) when a visual artist is forced to use words and language to describe art. Though for perhaps just as many people it might present a difficult speed-bump in their usual way of looking at/thinking of/talking about artwork, especially their own. Too often it's strictly an internal dialogue, rarely interspersed with occasional outside input from a friends or casual observers. Really this is one of the most important meta-lessons in the entire course; lapsing into introspective tunnel-vision runs the risk of devolving into solipsism - the value of an informed opinion can be worth considering. That said, I personally fall into a habit of not particularly caring too much who says what about most of my work, and have to take criticisms from friends & family with more than the usual grain of salt sometimes; some of most honest feedback I ever get is from fellow patrons at the neighborhood bar.
So one of the hardest things I did while taking graduate classes in comics was learning how to translate my instinctual visualization into words (mainly for script-writing). Being forced to convey the same information I'm so used to just doing with a simple and quick drawing for, to instead writing descriptive passages of the same, was a real mind-bender and quite frustrating at times. But eventually it became much easier and turned out to be a pretty cool alternative to the "normal" way of doing things. So I think applying this to critiques in the classroom setting was also an interesting possibility to consider, at least for one of the five scheduled over the semester.
Not to mention the obvious ratcheting up of stress in stepping out solo into the glare of the spotlight: now it's all you baby - no place to hide, warts and all. Not having the benefit of contrasting & comparing with all the other pieces means all the focus is instead directed at the one work up on the wall. Hopefully this experience smacked more than a few upside their artistic heads, and maybe just the potential of embarrassment will serve to shame a couple into taking their drawings more seriously. I'm not into publicly shaming people as a teaching method, but this is an art class, and the ultimate goal is to have their works shown and seen by others. So it follows one of the other important meta-lessons is to get over the hangups about putting yourself out there for the world to see. Granted these are drawings of plants and there isn't much in the way of deep, dark personal secrets exposed, but at the core, class critiques can cause some consternation.

And after the comparative high note of the last assignment, this critique fell far short of my expectations. Quite frankly it was a real downer to see some complete halfassed examples, still a few people just absolutely not getting it - like what part of following simple directions do you not get people? I mean, this is the half-way point of the semester and there is no excuse for thinking you can get away with crappy excuses that look like it was done while driving on the way to class. As one could probably guess, my benevolent patience sputtered dry, and I kept a few after class to lay it out bluntly what exactly is at stake. A couple even bailed out before I could corner them for the dreaded "final notice lecture" - probably just as well, and probably no great loss either. Sounds a bit harsh, but there is always a point when diminishing returns peter out to the point of no return, and as a teacher it's time to cut the dead weight free, just let it go, and console yourself you did what you could, no more spoon-feeding the baby. Still, it gets so disappointing, and at times downright baffling, as to just what in the hell is wrong with some people - but I suppose the day I get tired of bashing my head against the wall will be the day my heart goes out on the whole teaching gig. These are college students, and one would think it's not asking too much for just a wee bit of work ethic in stepping up to the plate as it were.

One example right off the bat was a student asking if they could turn in their piece tomorrow - well sure, but seeing as how I don't have an office, and won't be back on campus until next week, doesn't really matter what you do with it. That's the reason there's a deadline, see? And out of fairness to the majority who cared enough to get their work done on time, you lose! Next up, there's those who never tried to contact me through email, or another fellow student, to catch up after missing classes - clueless, and I have zero sympathy. There was a round of warnings a couple weeks ago that most folks have used up their "get out of jail free cards" as far as their attendance (and I'm one of the more generous faculty members in that regard), and one more absence = failure. Well, sure enough, shit happens, and sorry, it isn't my responsibility - that's that, bla bla bla. At times I feel like that teacher in the Peanuts TV specials; just some abstract, droning mouthpiece.
But you know it’s a bad sign when I start to get openly caustic, as when another student tried to turn in some late pieces while I was busy with someone else, and I told them to just put the work in my drawer; “which one is it?” – “the one that says bad motherfucker on it!” (which now it actually does). Sheesh.

Actually, I found out from a few other teachers later on that I guess for some mysterious reason this year’s “Post-Spring-Break Syndrome’ is affecting other classes too, so I’m not going crazy or alone in this. And definitely waiting at least 24-hours before posting my rant tempered the bitchyness and I chilled out about the whole thing (yeah, this was heavily redacted). Chalk up another lesson; just because I happen to really like what I do and love to draw doesn’t necessarily translate into infectious enthusiasm when casting pearls etc. One of the many facts you have to resign yourself too in both art and teaching – it calls for a certain level of resilience, and maybe a touch of self-delusion, to soldier on sometimes.

To be sure there were a handful of salvageable moments; given that this particular piece contained no linear perspective, and no content either - just a straight-up academic exercise, so many of the students got to explore some other artistic options in hopes of maybe discovering a workable method that’s comfortable and can focus on their strengths rather than weaknesses. Maybe this was one of those two steps forward/one step back days, and a weekend with no homework will be enough for a reboot. And next week we move into my personal favorite, pen & ink, where we’ll experiment with different subject matter and a new medium; which again, some will love and take to immediately, and still others will intensely hate. That’s art, no wait, that’s life

As a warm-up before the critique, I had passed out a copy of some comments cribbed from a recent posting on Boing-Boing: there is usually a thread every week or so on the evils of copyright that will provoke a debate between both sides of the issue. Usually it centers on the topic of file-sharing or music, but it has direct relevance to posting images on the web if you are a visual artist. The majority of students in this class are all familiar and to varying degrees accustomed to downloading free music – this is an opportunity to put their own work into the context of this cultural shift of expecting stuff for free and the perceived value of art. Personally I’m on the fence with my experience in this hot topic; most of the proponents of abolishing copyrights don’t have a vested interest or personal understanding in compensating creators, and the comparative few who are successful isn’t enough to base a business model on at this point. That said, I obviously am an absolute fan of self-promotion using the series of tubes to market one’s work, and believe maintaining a strong presence on the internet is crucial to artists (but not critical). There’s a balance that’ll eventually satisfy all parties, but in the meantime it fosters some intense debate on rights & responsibilities. Here’s a sample of the comments used as tinder:
“but what if that thing she's copying is my livelihood?”

There's a lot of assumptions built into this question. The most basic is that art should provide someone with a livelihood. There are a lot of things that people feel compelled to do that are productive and life-affirming that no one pays them to do (sleep, eat, go on vacation, have sex, have children, pray, etc.). Artistic production is not something easily distinguishable from other activities. Maybe I sing in the shower; I certainly don't expect to be paid for that.

There's also the assumption that copying equals lost sales. This is not necessarily true and is often false. Many artists have built careers around getting as many copies out there as possible and parlaying that into commissions and concerts.

As a society we have decided that new art and new information is valuable to our culture as a whole and so we want to encourage its production. Copyright is an attempt to do this, and to the extent that it succeeds (that is, encourages a variety of quality work) it's a good set of laws and to the extent that it fails (discourages the production of new work) it's a bad set of laws. Beyond these concerns, Copyright is a drain on society in creating a legal situation that necessitates a whole class of lawyers as well as criminalizing the behavior of almost everyone. Even if you aren't downloading pirated movies you are probably violating copyright every day in ways you are not aware of because the rights granted holders are so broadly defined.

… copying is not theft in that it does not deprive anyone of any real property. Perhaps it is objectionable for other reasons, but to call it theft is equivocating.

"Intellectual property" is a bogus idea because it doesn't meet the criteria of "property" at all; and in fact the Copyright Clause is completely separate from common law property.

You should be paid for your writing, not for copies of what you have written. People want new TV shows, you can get hired to write them. But what's been written is easily and infinitely shareable; that's not the part that has value. You (as a knowledge worker) are the part that's valuable (and scarce).

“And honestly, if an artist doesn't want you to use their work, you have no right to bully them into giving up their work for your personal enjoyment.”

They're not "giving up" anything. You cannot possess an idea or set of information. It isn't "yours" to control.

All logical and economic arguments aside, I believe this is the fundamental emotional error. People have attachment to the works they create. They just feel like it's theirs to control who and how it gets used.

Perhaps this is a twist on the endowment effect.

But the reality remains, it's not that everyone is "entitled" to use "your" work; but that you're not "entitled" to dictate how it's used once you've published it. The genie's out of the bottle and there's nothing you can do about it, ala the Streisand effect.

Copyright infringement is de rigueur on the Internet.
After class I went downtown for some meetings: this fall the Alaska State Writing Consortium is hosting the “Alaska State Literacy Conference,” a series of professional development workshops for educators, and over a thousand teachers from will attend it from all across the state of Alaska right here in Fairbanks. I was asked to submit a session proposal, which is exciting. Since I’m already scheduled to give a workshop on “teaching comics in the classroom” at a related function for the ASWC and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District - “Writer's Workout Workshops” that will be happening here next month, I figure it’ll be a good “training run” to see how much in demand and how popular of a topic it is. My guess is it’s pretty hot right now, and so I’m really looking forward to turning on other teachers to this genre that has a lot of potential.

Speaking of which, I got to take the executive director of the Literacy Council down to meet the owner of the Comic Shop before our board meeting. We shored up plans to have the Comic Shop sponsor a “Comic Book Day” at the Literacy Council, scheduled now for the weekend after the annual “Free Comics Day” on Saturday May 2nd. They’ll be donating bunches of comics + all the leftovers from their promotional event, and in conjunction with that, myself and (hopefully) about a dozen other local cartoonists will volunteer to be on-site doing demos. I’ll come up with a set of activities that involve both drawing and writing for all the kids to do, plus they’ll get to just hang out and see some real live artists doing their thing, and score some free comics to boot. Not going to anticipate that big of turnout this first time, but if it proves to be popular enough it’ll maybe grow into an annual gig, which would be so cool to help out any way possible in engaging more young people to get into reading.

For example, while checking out the shop, the director picked up a couple copies of a graphic novel I showed him a couple months back; “The Arrival” by Australian artist Shaun Tan. This one title is probably my absolute favorite to have come out in the past several years, as it excels at both storytelling with a powerful and moving depiction of what the immigrant experience is like, coupled with stunningly beautiful and evocative illustrations. We both figured it would make an essential addition to use in our English As Second Language/Adult Lit tutor training programs.

Finally, my girlfriend and I got to check out opening festivities for this weekend’s Festival of Native Arts, which showcases dance groups from all the different regional Native groups and lots of vendors who have all kinds of amazing and beautiful handcrafts and artwork for sale. This is probably my personal favorite of the cultural highlights in Fairbanks, as it’s a chance to experience some traditions outside my own from people I stand to learn a lot from in many ways. In particular I really dug the presence of some contemporary work in the form of carvings and even tshirts with cool graphic designs – the consensus was that this year there was some above-average quality work on display and more of it than in previous Festivals. So the epicenter is at UAF this weekend, and I’ll be going back to see some friends dance with their family, and hopefully also pick up a couple prints.

“And now, little man, I give the watch to you.” - Captain Koons

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