After an artist posted his art video on YouTube, he received dozens of comments from strangers: “Nobody in their right mind would do this”; “This is what crack does to you”; “This sucks gay ass”; “You just wasted 15 seconds of my life!” The artist then adapted these crude criticisms and repeated them during finals week at his school’s art studio critiques. “This sucks gay ass,” he mouthed during a classmate’s painting crit, miming the public criticism of his own art. The crit performance received mixed reviews. One classmate was ready to punch his face in.
James Elkins’ newest book, “Art Critiques: A Guide,” contains a chapter on “Tinkering with the Critique Format,” offering tips for disillusioned students who wish to shock their audiences out of lazy responses. Although the above example is not one of his tips, he does suggest a game: “Have someone play your part at the critique, and listen in the background without identifying yourself.” “Critiques are intensely strange,” writes Elkins, and he mentions throughout the book many oddball comments he’s experienced on real crit panels over the years as a professor, visiting critic and artist. Elkins’ correctives are meant to be emotionally benign and thoughtful, and he estimates that 50,000 critiques are conducted annually at art schools in the United States—all of them essentially ruleless. Many veer into boring, insolent, repetitive and pointless territory. Still, crits are essential touchstones in an artist’s education.
Crits are an oral tradition. There is no standard training for conducting a crit; you learn simply by attending one and paying forward the bruises of your predecessors. Elkins begins “Art Critiques: A Guide” by noting the lack of good written resources for both students and teachers, but his own book is not a manual or how-to. Instead, Elkins approaches crits in a discursive way, treating the topic itself as a field of inquiry. If studio crits cannot be standardized directly, then they can be illuminated obliquely. Elkins offers many pointed analyses of observations from crits, details a short history of spoken art criticism, and provides case studies, from transcribed crits, to highlight how common pitfalls occur. There are some theoretical ponderings and flow charts that may or may not help a stressed-out crit practitioner, but they are offered in very short chapters and are perfectly digestible for some bite-sized reflection during a fifteen-minute smoke break.
Elkins’ practical solutions for the trappings of a typical crit are offered throughout the book. He details how a student can maximize the amount of feedback received if, say, the artwork takes thirty minutes to view and the crit panel meets for only one hour. Should teachers offer only technical advice, or is judgment required for a successful crit? How mean is too mean, and when is meanness an effective tool? What is the subtext of silence? Why does the word “interesting” have positive, negative and neutral connotations? (Likewise, the word “honest” plays an ambiguous role in crits). How can a student harness the tension of a critique and spin it into a positive experience? Elkins articulately covers these topics in the book.
To provide the horror stories, icebreakers, deal-breakers and word lists (there are several, including buzzwords for failed art, a list of compliments, and an honor roll of the best crit teachers), Elkins pulled from his own experiences as well as from Facebook, in addition to referencing the stable of art-school philosophers, from Kant to Greenberg. This holistic research approach makes Elkins’ analyses relevant for 2012, and he promises that future revisions of the book will consider reader feedback sent via email. Although crits happen in academia (which is often a synonym for “out of touch”), they are supposed to help students connect their intentions with audience perceptions. In other words, crits are practical, not theoretical. Judgments made in real-time will empower an artist to adapt or revolt. In the end, Elkins offers some theoretical and some practical fixes for crits. It is tempting to see group critiques and group therapy sessions as analogous (most times they are not; perhaps the student really does require psychotherapy). It is also tempting to take Elkins’ advice to record and transcribe your own critique, or to hold a six-hour torture critique. Elkins writes that critiques “are unbelievably difficult to understand, and rich with possibilities.”