A recent MFA graduate of CalArts, artist Chandler McWilliams examines the scrutiny that every art student endures- the critique.
The group critique has taken on a nearly mythological status as the centerpiece of the contemporary MFA program. As such it is occasionally attacked as pompous, ineffective, or futile. Its detractors suggest that a crit is nothing but a rhetorical game played by participants with no real stake in the work of their peers. If this really is the case, then why does the critique persist? Is it nothing more than an art school version of hazing? Or could it, under the best conditions, offer something to the participants that cannot otherwise be gained?
The standard experience of a work of art—bracketing for the time the new normal of clicking through photographic documentation online—is in a gallery or museum, in silence, perhaps sharing a few hushed comments with a friend. But more than anything the experience is fast. Works that don’t catch one up right away are passed over, while more interesting pieces are mulled over for a few minutes. Occasionally some may ask around about a piece or an artist in an attempt to gain further information, add some more context to the piece or learn more about a practice.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this model, but there is no reason it should be taken as the primary way to experience a work of art. At the same time neither should years of shuttered academic research be seen as the one true way to experience a work. Art is multimodal, as are the encounters we can have with it. The critique offers a few differences from the scenario outlined above. First, it is necessarily social, there are many voices participating in a conversation about a piece or a show or an entire practice. Second, the participants have no control over the work being discussed; so they are expected to engage work they wouldn’t normally give a second thought. And lastly there is the element of time. I’ve participated in fruitful two hour critiques of shows, and even a few where we discussed one piece for three hours. A dozen or so people spending a few hours talking and thinking about their experience of a work of art is nothing like the way we deal with art in daily life.
Art is discursive. That’s not to say that art is reducible to language, to a verbal articulation of something like “meaning.” But rather, to the extent that our experiences of the world are in part defined by our beliefs, contextual clues, and preconceived understandings, so too is the experience we have with a work of art. The standard, primarily passive, model offers minimal possibilities for examining our prejudices, for thinking about how we are approaching a work. For the participants in the crit—even those who are largely silent—discussing works with others helps deepen their understanding of how a work works, of the demands it places on a public. Artists are of course also viewers of art, and so examining how they are engaging work is necessarily beneficial to their practice. For the artist whose work is under discussion, the crit provides access to a public who is invested in art making and believes that art can do something, is for something; a public who is generally good at articulating their experience of a work.
Participation in a crit demands thought, engagement, a willingness to attempt to articulate the experience of a work of art or a practice. It requires that the participants engage directly with how a work can behave, how it can perform, how it can generate meaning, generate knowledge, and how it can frustrate these ends. Art is made for a variety of reasons, artists who focus on one, expression for example, are likely unprepared for how a work appears to others, say an artist committed to social practice. It is good to think about work you don’t like. One cannot grow in an echo chamber of agreeable voices; hearing how people from other perspectives think can help develop new positions or deepen understandings of currently held beliefs.
The duration of most crits, ranging from thirty minutes to three or more hours, affords a fundamentally different relationship to a show or a work. Obviously skipping quickly past something is no way to engage with it, but taking this so far beyond that point, past the typical limit of consideration, causes one to reject a naive notion of “figuring out” a work. Approaching works as puzzles to be decoded is perhaps a tragedy left over from high school literature classes, but when one spends a long, long, time contemplating and discussing a work, the teleological direction of thought has to be abandoned in favor of a more open, exploratory approach. It is nonsensical to suggest that an explorer in a new territory is looking for an essential truth to that particular place. And so it is when discussing a work of art. Good art does, it generates meaning, but that is not the same as it having a meaning. Moving slowly helps to reveal nuances in the behavior of a work that might remain hidden on a quick glance. Of course both can be equally valid—and the shorter glance might be the most likely experience a viewer will have—but taking time to discuss a work of art with others is an indispensable exercise for both the artist and the participants. The real problem with the MFA group crit is that it is such a rare beast in the world outside of school.