Friday, November 19, 2010

Critiquing Critiques

Artwork: Kayla Bishop
First off a special nod to this semester's Beginning Drawing class - a few samples posted here from assignment and critique pieces illustrate the
Sincerely regret not posting everything that these folks are cranking out - guess I'll have to write out a few more mullings to accompany more of the kickass pieces being produced.

As is quite often the case with innocent queries, an initial snowball at the top of the mountain evolved into a big ol’ issue by the time it rolls into our room. This one began with an email:
“I have some difficulty when it comes to critiquing. I can't bring myself to criticize anyone's work. What to do?”
One of the many reasons I love being in a classroom environment is precisely because toiling away out in a cabin in the woods there is a tendency towards solipsism and ingrown perspective on one's own work. It's very rare to have such questions involuntarily arise on their own - and a point of clarification here in that that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Unadulterated visionary efforts that aren't contingent upon public opinion are arguably much more rewarding than an image that has been crafted with one eye on its reception: this is a balancing act that I've long tried to reconcile as a practicing commercial artist, and also as someone who creates work that unequivocally clear communication is a crucial ingredient.
My (redacted) response to the above email reflects the desire to try have these discussions before the group, as more often than not, any answers (and ensuing questions in turn) will be more educational when everyone benefits from them:
“That's a good thing to bring up and I'll mention it next week, and walk through the process again, which is hopefully something that everyone picks up throughout the class in large part by observing others - same as with the artwork itself. We are fortunate to have several good, thoughtful commenters in this particular class.

One important thing we should say is what difficulty and perhaps more importantly, why?
Is it because you don't want to risk hurting someone's feelings, or can't think of anything nice to say about a really bad piece, or think that because you have so much problems with both creating a work yourself, and thus don't feel it's your place to criticize when you yourself can't do as good etc.?
All valid, hypothetical issues, and there are as many varying perspectives on talking about art as there are making it in the first place - we should warm up with an informal conversation for the next critique. It's a very personal and sometimes awkward process that can be stressful and I aim to absolve folks of that notion eventually. Thanks!”
The next critique went better than most, in large part I believe because we backed-up a bit and re-examined why, how and what we a trying to do when we look at and talk about artwork by other people and our own. Expectations based on both good and bad experiences they've previously encountered can come into play, so it's important to consider the influence each individual's past can cast over critiques made today.

Artwork: Kelsea Wester

While I've laid out the process by which we conduct critiques here on Ink & Snow a couple times before, as with many other artistic issues, there seems to never be any catch-all set of pat answers that will apply in all situations, and responses to such issues surely change over time and exposure just like individual style does with experience. Yet another side-benefit to constant immersion in a learning environment is the humbling realization that you will never be done learning, and there's always going to be some new, unexplored challenge. This can be disheartening to the people who are effectively trained by the system to believe that a strict, linear acquisition of skills graded in accordance with quantifiable criteria is the formula for success: welcome to the shady, squishy world of art.
Just recently over on his excellent and highly informative blog "Gurney Journey" the artist James Gurney presents a perspective on critiquing that's well worth checking out. 
When I peruse some of the textbooks I've collected that gather dust on my bookshelves, I can quickly see why it is that I still refuse to order students to waste their money on them instead of investing in art supplies. This doesn't jive with the academic, institutionalized approach in most departments, and to this day after ten years of teaching I only recommend one text to intermediate/advanced students (small, cheap and no pictures: "Art & Fear" - Bayles and Orland).
Most others I find either to be saccharine self-help books for the creative cripple or full of glossy pictures and rote exercises that studiously avoid any mention of the uglier and off-putting realities that are inherent in learning to draw (not to mention just being an artist). They all have their respective value and to varying degrees have something to offer in their own way, but collectively are useless in the classroom. A student is damn well better served instead by having a working artist, warts and all, demonstrate everything contained in these textbooks, plus gain the experience of how it all comes together in the big picture, and how it can also fall apart.

Artwork: Anne Meehan

From the Wikipedia entry on "Critic":
Particularly in the domains of the arts and culture, where judgements can be at their most subjective, a formally accepted critic can play a powerful role as a public arbiter of taste or opinion and can occasionally play a more or less defining role in cultural history. Also, because formal criticism is necessarily selective, the role of the formal critic generally intersects with issues of censorship and the construction or denial of canonical reputation in cultures. But criticism need not merely be perceived as a matter of building up or destroying reputations. Good peer-group criticism is an important part of developing or maintaining excellent standards of achievement in any art or discipline, whether at the level of apprenticeship or ongoing practise.
Artwork: Amara Simmons
I sometimes wonder what will eventually happen to the field of civic discourse when the generational influence of the internet seeps into how people interact with art. To some degree this is evident in the blood-bath of on-line commentary seen in threads where a fascinating (and often ugly) democratic experiment in leveling the playing field occurs. Quite a different set of dynamics emerge when discussing works in-person and in the presence of a creator: it's then the task of a teacher becomes not only said arbiter but must perform as both a coach, a referee, team captain, a corporate investor, and also a quarterback.

Artwork: Kayla Bishop
Lastly I'm left with an echo from an interview I heard driving home with Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney, who succinctly put one of the best pieces of advice ever to aspiring artists: "Don't be afraid to suck."

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