A Crit of the Crit

Ad Reinhardt, 1966. Courtesy Time Inc. Photo: John Loengard.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we do “crits” at art school, and how we might do them differently. The crit, or critique, is central to the education of artists. But its discursive practices are seldom scrutinized or defended. Where other disciplines subject themselves to pedagogical inquiry, to testing and revision, the crit has somehow eluded much of this self-reflection. I propose we make the crit itself more reflexive – and that we’ll benefit if we do.

My first dose of the crit was in 1995 in a first-year studio course at SFU. Since then I’ve studied and/or taught at a number of different art schools in Canada and the UK, I’ve listened to my partner and her cohort describe the crits of their MFA, and I’ve witnessed many students take it in. There must be exceptions (and I’d like to hear about them), but mostly the practice today looks pretty close to what it was twenty years ago, and it doesn’t change much from school to school. What’s more, most people describe the crit in much the same mood: somewhere between ambivalence and bafflement.

The basic premise of a crit seems straight-ahead. Mostly you mill about with other students and teachers and talk about someone’s work. But it’s also a frame for specialized types of language around art, as well as a theater for rehearsing and performing various roles (artist as master, innovator, experimenter, critic, romantic, researcher, satirist, hedonist, politician, socialite, opportunist, egotist, pessimist, fool … ).

People point things out, describe what they perceive; disclose pleasure or aversion; flag precedents or parallels; associate with historical themes and pop culture; and attempt to make links with any number of critical or theoretical ways of talking. They often make jokes and tell anecdotes and of course make suggestions (increasingly tentative) for how to change the work. All of this is done in a very loose, improvised, and fumbling kind of way, washed with unfinished sentences and unresolved thoughts.

Mostly this is fine, and occasionally, it’s exciting. Good crits can be very good – ideally they just happen, feel easy, feel natural, excite our imaginations, fuel our work. A lot can be said in a crit that can’t be said in more formal classroom situations or other spaces of the university. At its best, the crit is a space where unusual perceptions can be perceived and difficult language can be spoken. And it can be a space where knowledge and ability is passed from peer to peer and expert to novice, and sometimes the other way around.

For something to feel “natural” or “easy,” though, participants need shared values. And in the world of art, this indicates a shared canon. However, in the many years since the crit began artists have become different people making different work in a different world. Art practice seems infinitely extended today and the classroom is more diverse than ever. And in the contemporary moment, truth, knowledge, and morality are constantly contested and confused. We can’t make assumptions about shared anything anymore. “Easy” might not be possible, or desirable.

A common reaction to this moment of epistemological and ontological multiplicity is to kind of whistle past the graveyard – pretend that talking about art isn’t a massively, brutally complex problem, and keep trying to have loose chats the same way many have always done. These loose chats can have value, but more and more they lead to conversations that feel impressionistic and futzed, rather than sharp and vital.

To take hold of the process together, both teachers and students could make more time to inquire towards the crit itself and how it works. Crit the crit, as we go. Notice our language and the position from which we read a work. Remove some of the bashful improvisation so common in those settings, the compulsion to constantly hedge. If we can do this I think our crits can be more diverse, more accessible, and more rigorous, too.

Why not start with what brought each person to the room? Is it a moral question? A question about perception? A penchant for transgression? A wish to play? A longing for attention? A will to strike some kind of balance between the known and unknown, the regulated and unregulated, the ordered and disordered? A love of just touching things?

Let’s talk about how we think artists function within the world. Evolutionary psychologists might compare artists to birds displaying their plumage. Economists might describe us as forces in a market of leisure and tourism. How do such readings affect our moves in the studio and the classroom? (And will those answers be the same in ten years when aesthetic algorithms begin to make better work than we do?)

If we begin to crit the crit, maybe we can dig down even further, and ask what each participant knows and believes about consciousness, free will, life, and death. These matter. And they matter when you make work. Ask what stories you believe in. Humanism? Faith? Science? Socialism? Liberalism? Anarchy? Democracy? Tribalism? Identity? Chaos? Ask what we value in all this.

Questions like these are rarely asked in school. To reckon with them in crits could be radical. Otherwise we just talk past each other. For example, if I think art that focuses on ideas is boring and you think it’s interesting and I don’t disclose my value and you don’t disclose yours, I’ll criticize your work for reasons that are useless to you, and your work will never be meaningful to me.

The crit, less as a received practice – a chat we imagine occurs naturally – could be a practice to examine as we go. It’s one that’s worth examining. This would be fun. It would be exciting. It would save both students and teachers from pretending to care about what they don’t care about (because then they care about why they don’t care). It would uncover common assumptions and make each other smarter from being exposed to divergent knowledge and belief. It would give us each a better chance to get more out of art school, and return that back to the world.

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