About thirty seconds pass by silence, then the suggestions start pouring in. It’s usually lazy, ill-thought out advice such as “make it bigger,” and that’s only from those who are paying any attention anyway. Some dude, probably with a beard, starts spouting off the names of artists tangentially related to the work, and not because it’s helpful, but because he wants to show everyone how many artists he knows. And with that, the increasingly defensive student artist, in his or her studio, fends off this passive-aggression with the deftness of a defense attorney at trial.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably participated in an MFA or BFA critique. But what often happens in critique is, of course, not what’s intended. Ideally, engaged peers who are in the room — fellow students — spend time and invest consideration into the work they’re critiquing, providing valuable feedback that the artist internalizes and reflects upon, rather than immediately defending against. One problem with critiques is not that they are ‘misused,’ exactly, but that the model is fatally flawed in the first place.
One of the first major readings we all read in art school was Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. Yet, with all this touting of not interpreting the work, the college-level critique quickly devolves into some watered-down version of the Edmund Feldman model, the basis of which is… interpretation. It often even skips the important first steps of what I believe is this flawed model, which is to state objective facts about the work — instead visitors immediately leap to interpretation and judgment. In this, a green artist’s peers settle for a lax (or non-existent) “critical inquiry.” I often hear non-art people describe art as purely subjective, or that its meaning lies “in the eye of the beholder,” which is of course garbage. Art is abstractly objective, and its meaning requires an argument of facts and context. But this is too often lost on young artists who, when regarding the work of fellow artists, prioritize their feelings and (not very formed) opinions over structuring a case around the work, and in doing so they feed into this insidious stereotype.
But let’s say critiques ran purely Feldman-esque. Let’s say the studio visitors don’t jump to quick conclusions — that they spend time with the work, teasing out some facts from the artist and developing a critical argument that’s incisive and objective. The problem then lies with the recipient of all this thoughtful criticism. In the face of thoughtful critique, the artist may become defensive, or quietly internalize the information and decide, maybe at a later time, whether it’s good or bad advice. Or it’s a combination of the two. I feel like the problem with all of this is that, still, nobody knows what they’re talking about during the actual critique.
Why are we asking students to concretize a premature judgement of the work when they’re still learning themselves, still absorbing a basic foundation of art history? More so, why do we ask an artist to defend her work when she isn’t even supposed to know what she’s doing yet? And perhaps, most importantly: Why is anyone okay with an art student having such a solid grasp of her own work that she can fully articulate it while she is still in school? If any artist, much less an art student, can easily and specifically enumerate exactly what she is doing and why (in the spirit of “professionalism”?), the work is probably too obvious, and therefore fundamentally problematic.
Young, impressionable, eager-for-validation artists are being asked to articulate their work when they aren’t and shouldn’t be ready. This form of critique does not mimic the behaviors of working artists, much less basic critical thinking skills. Instead of making snap judgments, visiting peers should focus, simply, on asking questions — and instead of having a smooth response, the student presenting her work should be encouraged to be inarticulate and confused, and fail.
Think about this: Do you sit down on that nice, earth-toned couch at your therapist’s office and, within five minutes of your opener, she provides the answers to all of life’s burning questions? A therapist’s job is not to dole out answers like an advice columnist, but instead to ask incisive questions, tailored to you, that are often not easy to answer. It’s common for a patient to trip over their words, because translating fractured thoughts and emotions into coherent sentences, much less a broader understanding of oneself, is hard, and it requires time, work — and failure. A person’s individual psychology is beautifully complex and strange. And art, which springs from this, is the same.
A critique that encourages pointed questions rather than comments, that raises more questions than answers, is the kind of engagement that demands a patient and seasoned rigor. It emphasizes the importance of critical inquiry over quick judgment, and it should encourage failure and incoherence. Incoherence may not be the desired outcome of a studio visit, but it in a student critique, it should feel safe, and be crucial.