Hein Koh: School of Art (2006)

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The Crit

The word “crit” is not found in the dictionary, and is not used in normal conversation. But to those in art school, it’s a term that points to the center of the universe. Here, “crit” means the most essential and familiar of events: the critique session, in which a student’s artwork is formally evaluated by a group of faculty and students. A student presents his work, and the group responds with feedback: comments, questions, advice, cheers, jeers, and tears.

Crit is rarely called “critique”; crit is always “crit”. The unfamiliarity of the term suggests how unusual an exercise it truly is. The crit is a distinctive, unique communal practice that exists only in the graduate and undergraduate art departments of colleges. While It has some similarities to other communal practices (such as group therapy, or the boardroom presentation), it is rooted the singular and peculiar ethos of the art institute.

The premise of crit is that the group can convey insight to the student, bringing a degree of objectivity to the highly subjective directives of his or her private creative process. Ideally, a student leaves the crit as a better artist, with new understanding of his work, his process, and himself. Crit has the quality of a ritual; it is a performance enacted within a small subculture of initiates who are sensitive to the subtleties of meaning it carries. Like all rituals, it comes with its own rules, etiquette, and taboos.

My intent here is to describe the potential benefits of crit, as well as its dangers; to identify what factors influence how it functions and determine its outcomes; and to attempt to define some guidelines for best practices for the critic, considered from the standpoint of both artistic standards and ethical standards.

I will use the term “student” to mean the individual presenting their artwork, and “critic” to mean the remainder of the group: faculty, observing students, and invited guest critics (which are usually faculty members from other institutions, or non-affiliated artists, curators, or writers).

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The Form of the Crit

In broad terms, crits are the same everywhere: students present, critics critique. However, there is wide variation from school to school in the specific format of the crit. Schools evolve unique “crit cultures”, each inflected by the tone, focus, and history of the individual institution.

Within the context of a single class, crit does occur; in this case, it is led by a single instructor. But the real action occurs in larger, more formalized crits, held once or twice per semester. Here the student’s main output is intensively examined, rather than just their work for one course. The stakes are proportionally higher.

On average, the group of critics will be comprised of three or four very vocal faculty members and roughly 10 taciturn students. At the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, some crits proceed with as few as three critics (two faculty and one observing student). At Bard College, there are often over 100 people present. A faculty critic might be someone the presenting student has worked with closely, or she might be a complete stranger. Generally, faculty do most of the talking, with only a few student critics offering their input. At some schools, this balance is formalized: for example, student critics may be allowed to participate only in the last few minutes of the session.

Crits last from 15 minutes to two hours, with the average being around 45 minutes. (CalArts professor Michael Asher is known for highly unorthodox marathon crits lasting as long as 12 or 14 uninterrupted hours; students bring food and blankets. 1 )

Crits do not follow a script, but certain exchanges are very likely to occur. The student introduces themselves and their work. Critics observe, then ask questions about the work, its context, the student’s intent, or the student’s biography. The student replies, helpfully or defensively, adding clarity or mystification. Critics offer feedback, describe their interpretation of the qualities of the work, contextualize it in relation to art styles or movements, make general or specific suggestions about developing or improving the work’s form or content, and suggest artists or artworks the student should research. The student thanks the critics, and, on a good day, there is a slight smattering of applause.

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The Potential Benefits of Crit

Making art is a solitary pursuit. The long thought of developing concepts and the long effort of material production both occur in solitude. There can never be clear and empirical criteria for evaluating art, so it can be very difficult for any artist to gauge if she is on the right track in her work. Is the way she is working indeed bringing her closer to her goals?

Crit is intended to assist the artist’s progress. It is an opportunity for the student to learn more about her work, her artistic practice, and herself. It is easy to lie to yourself; it is much more difficult to lie to a group. Statements made to a group tend to ring true or false, as if by force of gravity. The critics examine and interpret the work with care, and act as a mirror, reflecting back to the student realities that she may not see herself. The critics offer expert advice on how to move forward. The student, energized by the concerned attention (and sometimes, praise), departs the crit with a clearer focus for her work and a renewed artistic ambition.

While the crit is designed to be helpful to students, it can backfire. Sometimes serious harm results. Negative comments from callous critics can cause enormous damage to a student’s confidence, crippling the student’s relation to her art-making. The student’s natural, comfortable creative play is destroyed, and the student is set on a path of unproductive self-doubt. At the next crit, the student is likely to appear defensive or nervous.

Critics can also err through being overzealous, by exerting too much influence on the student’s artistic decisions. Every artist evolves their style incrementally, through repeated choices made in private. If a critic pushes too vehemently in a particular direction (and the student offers no resistance), the student loses touch with his ability to set and correct his own course.

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Tales From the Crit:
A Short Compendium of Nightmare Crits

-- The student begins the crit by announcing that he has no work to show because he has become a heroin addict.

-- The student presents a painting to a group of critics which includes her male instructor, the chair of her thesis committee. The painting depicts this instructor, nude, being violated by a cow with a strap-on dildo. 2

-- The critics arrive at the crit space and find it crammed full of highly elaborate installation work. The student is nowhere to be seen. At a loss for how to proceed, the critics discuss the work. Five minutes before the end, the student emerges from his hiding place inside a cardboard box (part of the installation), having successfully avoided the requirement to engage in dialogue with the critics.

-- The student presents only two small drawings, both of anthropomorphic mushrooms smoking joints, then launches into a freestyle rap about them, lasting an uninterrupted 90 minutes.

-- The student presents documentation of her “performances”, which appear to involve doing paid fetish sex work, then blackmailing her clients. The critics express concern for her safety; the student seems not to comprehend why.

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The Student’s Attitude

The student sets the agenda and tone for the crit, consciously or not. Through what he says and how he acts, he reveals what he expects from the crit and his feelings about the current state of his art practice. The sensitive critic will inflect her responses based on her interpretation of this information.

A student who arrives at crit with an open attitude, ready to enter into dialogue, communicates two things: first, that he is comfortable with the work that he is making; and second, that he respects and trusts the critics and their feedback.

Conversely, a student who appears defensive, withdrawn, overly mannered, or openly hostile is communicating his lack of confidence in his artistic practice and his lack of trust in the critics and the crit process. I believe that it’s most productive for the critic to interpret these type of attitudes as a request for extra concern. The student is asking for support, gentle treatment, and reassurance that the crit process is well-intentioned. The critic must earn the student’s trust by demonstrating her understanding of and sympathy for the reality of the student’s state.

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The Progress of a Crit

A good crit progresses through various stages, developing in an organic way. First, the student sets the tone. Then comes what lawyers term “discovery”: the interrogation of the student and his work to uncover their nature and how they function. Finally there is a discussion of what the student’s next steps should be.

A gradual progress through the stages is advisable. Once I witnessed a faculty member start off a crit of a particularly favored student by stating, without irony, “Let me enumerate the reasons why this is a work of genius: ...,” To advocate so strongly for the work at the start of a crit leaves the other critics only two options: simply fall into line and continue the accolades, or directly challenge the first critic: critic-on-critic combat. To take such a strong position from the start effectively shuts down the possibility of productive dialogue.

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The Attitude of the Critic

The most productive attitude for the critic is to see herself as acting in service of the student. For the student, the crit is a very important moment, with potentially far-reaching effects; the critic needs to feel the importance of the event, to an equal degree. Full engagement is crucial. The critic must focus on asking herself a single question: what is the most important thing this student needs to hear right now?

Unfortunately, critics may focus on things other than the reality of the student and his work. Critics may use the crit as an occasion to egotistically display their knowledge and mastery, publicly performing their competency as academics, in the hopes of gaining personal or political stature. Instructors rarely see each other in action, so some utilize the crit as a chance to “strut their stuff”. It’s rarely beneficial to the student when critics talk at length about art that is not in the room, or engage in long debate about theoretical positions which are probably unrelated to the student’s work. I once witnessed two instructors nearly come to blows over their differing interpretations of Rosalind Krauss, while a confused student patiently waited for the fracas to blow over. On another occasion, an instructor rehung a student’s painting upside down, without asking permission: intended as a demonstration of the instructor’s masterful creative problem-solving, sadly, it achieved the exact opposite effect.

Another danger for the critic is bias. Critics may unconsciously allow their feelings of like or dislike for the student to determine their feedback. Bias may be caused by an already existing affection or antipathy, a snap judgement, or preconceptions about gender, race, nationality or class. A critic might proactively maneuver to protect a favored student from negative feedback, or be inappropriately harsh in her comments to a loathed one. Either type of bias does the student a disservice: it prevents an honest and complete reading of his work.

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Obstacles to Criticism

A compendium of difficult thoughts that can arise in the critic’s mind:

-- I like / dislike this student’s personality too much, it is interfering with my clear judgement of the work.

-- This work is interesting, but the way the student has contextualized it makes me uncertain of the integrity of her motivation.

-- I am having difficulty finding anything interesting about the work or the student’s motivation. What to say?

-- I just said something that I feel is insightful and potentially quite useful, but the student was not listening carefully enough to notice.

-- This student is so talented and is working so naturally and powerfully, that anything I might say is superfluous.

-- The way this student is talking about his work feels manipulative and preemptively defensive. We are being shut out.

-- This work is in a medium that I do not know much about, I am unsure how to respond intelligently.

-- I know exactly what needs to be said, but I am not sure that this student is ready to hear anyone say it.

-- That other faculty member’s comments seem unhelpful and inappropriate. My annoyance is interfering with my own ability to contribute productively.

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The Good Critic

What makes a good critic? These qualities seem most important: knowledge, intuition, honesty and compassion.

Knowledge. A broad and deep knowledge of art history and theory facilitates a deeper reading of the work, and allows a critic to suggest especially useful artists, artworks, and texts for the student to research. Encountering the right work at the right time can be a transformative experience for students. But even more important than this concrete knowledge is the nearly indefinable knowledge of the mysteries of the creative process. The Muses are fickle; any veteran artist knows this firsthand. Artists routinely lose their sense of direction, then recover it. A critic who has themselves experienced being stuck, and then getting unstuck, is one who is truly able to understand what might spur a student onwards.

Intuition. In a crit, there isn’t sufficient time to obtain much information about a student’s life and work. A good critic will be able to fill in the blanks quickly. Using clues provided by the student, the critic can surmise her struggles, her strengths and weaknesses, her hopes and fears. By understanding a student’s position more completely than the short duration of the crit would seem to allow, the intuitive critic can respond in the most helpful and meaningful way, with surgical precision. The intuitive critic can say the one thing this person needs to hear at exactly this time.

Honesty. It is the critic’s responsibility to place the student’s best interests as the primary focus of the crit. If the critic sees ways that the student’s work, process, or attitudes can be improved, they are obligated to share this information. There are two caveats. One, the critic must remain aware that her ideas are opinion, not empirical fact. Two, the critic must responsibly ascertain how much corrective feedback a student is likely to be able to accept at that moment. As stated in the Oath of Hippocrates: “First, do no harm.” (Critics who firmly believe that the main function of crit is to “toughen ‘em up for the real world” are underestimating the damage an inappropriately harsh crit can do to a student’s progress.)

Compassion. Creativity is the locus of growth. And things that are growing are necessarily underdeveloped and vulnerable. One must be careful not to trample on them. The critic must remain aware that making art is not easy, and that the work before him represents the student’s best efforts. Crit should be trial by jury of peers, not of superiors. If the critic operates with genuine compassion, feedback becomes more palatable to the student; even strongly corrective feedback may be welcomed, if the student is convinced that she is being considered with respect and care.

Reformulating the above as a series of proscriptive aphorisms to the critic:

1) Keep your knowledge of art history and theory at your fingertips. Recall what you’ve learned about the vagaries of the creative process.

2) Read all information the student provides carefully, looking for clues to unlock the reality of the student’s situation.

3) It is unfair not to push the student forwards, as long as they are ready for the push.

4) A student’s artwork is his attempt to realize what is best in him--however successful or unsuccessful the outcome may be. We are all equally powerless before the Muses, so it’s necessary to be respectful and compassionate towards our fellow artists.

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Epilogue

In the end, crit is never an exact science. In art, as in love, there can be no guaranteed methods for producing a good result. The group meets, everyone does their best; if it’s the right people on the right day, all goes well. Fortunately, something interesting almost always happens.

I truly love participating in crits. What I enjoy most is that they offer the unusual potential for intimacy within a group setting. Suddenly, very deep connections can form between strangers, based on spontaneous trust and respect, resulting in profound exchanges of insight and generosity. The crit is an opportunity for genuine human contact to occur. Meeting as equals on the playing field of art, all participants leave the encounter a bit richer.

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1 Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World (Norton, 2008)

2 Lilly Wei, The Great American (Male) Nude, HYPERLINK "http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3133" http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3133 (accessed May 2011) also Hilary Harkness, artist lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 2008

Kurt Ralske, May 2011