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The Problem With Art School: Critiques

The Problem With Art School: Critiques

If you are an art student, were an art student or know an art student, then you probably already know this. We hate critiques. Well, most of the time. For me, it wasn’t that I couldn’t take criticism about my work —although, if I’m honest, it’s one of my least favourite things to do — it was that to me, critiques felt like a waste of time. Let me explain. 

I get why critiques are beneficial. They are an opportunity for an artist to get feedback that they may then use to improve their work, and they are also an excellent opportunity to learn about new techniques, explorations, and even subject matter. At least, that’s what they are/were supposed to be. 

One of the reasons I hated critiques is because there were always only a handful of students who actually tried. Those were the students that made crit semi-tolerable for me because experiencing their art was always an absolute pleasure. They made art school feel like art school, and they encouraged the other trying students and me to bring our A-game every time. But then were those who didn’t try. Seemingly, at all. They showed up with things they slapped together 30 minutes before critique to torture us all. When I say those who didn’t try, I am not suggesting that everyone has to work on a project for X amount of hours. There were definitely some students who absolutely KILLED the quick-painting, minimalistic sculpture, and rapid-drawing game. And I get it, I was an art student too, and I understand the schedules can be demanding. Also, I, for one, can completely sympathize with the fact that things come up, and life gets crazy, and sometimes you can’t put as much effort into a project as you would like to; but for the love of God, you have to try at least. Even, and I would argue, especially if it is not a studio course you are strong in, you still have to try. Trust me; we can all tell when you don’t. 

Having to sit in a critique and pretend to care enough about someone’s work to offer commentary on it when they did not care enough about their own work when they created it is ridiculous. There, I said it. If you don’t give a shit, why should I? But you know why I had to give a shit?… my marks depended on it. Ridiculous X2. What makes it worse is that crits never felt like a space where I could be completely honest, so, instead of telling someone they should probably start over, I ended up trying to think of something, anything, to say to avoid getting the “aren’t you gonna say something?” glare from the instructor. Or worse, the dreaded “Jasaña, what do you think?” callout. 

I blame the instructors. There, I said that too. I blame the instructors because they — save for a few — have made it known that they don’t mark based on effort. WTF?! Then why were we in those crits? What was the point? The effort, not meaning the amount of time spent on completing something, but effort as in how much thought was put into the idea should absolutely be a thing. It is very obvious when an idea was thought of and executed in 30 minutes, and although it has happened, rarely do those pieces leave an impact. So you know what? Maybe I am saying that time has something to do with the amount of effort that’s put into a project. That doesn’t mean you have to spend time in both the conceptualizing and execution stages, but I do think you’ve got to spend some time in at least one of them. 

Not grading based on effort gives the green light to lazy art students trying to convince everyone and themselves that they are avant-garde or the next Pollock. The difference being, Pollock too tried. His concepts and techniques were results of his contemplations – that’s effort. So dripping paint on a canvas just because the colours look pretty together is totally not the same thing. And we shouldn’t be pretending it is. 

I also hated crits because it never felt like the criticism given was coming from an objective lens. As soon as I heard the words, “I would have liked to see…” I would tune out. Not on purpose, but I wasn’t the kind of student that made decisions on a whim. If I had a green background, for example, it’s because I thought about it. More likely than not, for days. So, I really didn’t care for what someone else would have liked to see.

I just think it would have been more effective if I were asked why I made certain decisions instead of hearing what someone else would have liked me to do with my work. Did I mention that hearing critiques about my work is one of my least favourite things to do? In all honestly, at the time, it’s just that I was disappointed. When I first started taking studio courses, I thought I was going to be given feedback that would help me to improve my work in my style that I made in my way and oftentimes, I felt as though I was misunderstood as an artist. It left me feeling a little depleted. A lot of the criticism I got in crits felt aimed at changing the direction I wanted to go in altogether, and so I stopped seeing most of them as helpful. 

The last reason I hate crits is that the same people who don’t give a shit about their work got to talk shit about everyone else’s work, and we all had to sit there and pretend like we respected their opinion enough to consider it. Yeah, I said that too. I remember always thinking as they were talking, “if you have all these great ideas to make something better, why the fuck did you show up to crit with that?!.” I couldn’t take them seriously, and so most of sitting through it all felt like an incredible waste of my ever-scarce and incredibly elusive time. 

Not all crits were terrible, though. There were a few instructors that had the crit game nailed, and so even though there were still the students who didn’t try, I looked forward to crits with them because I felt like they understood me-the artist and their criticism was always objective and so I was always eager to hear their opinion. They made crits fun, and I was always so excited to share my work with them because my efforts felt appreciated. That made all the difference to me. It made me want to nail it every time. They helped me to make my voice stronger, and they gave me the confidence to use it. The crits with those instructors literally helped to define my art practice as it is today. Also, I’m not saying the other instructors were bad, and I hope I haven’t come off that way, I’m just saying that there were different crit styles, and I preferred some over others.

However, upon reflection brought on by writing this post, I’ve come to realize that maybe the “bad” crits weren’t so bad. I know I just spent like five paragraphs trying to convince you otherwise, but the bad crits also made me stronger. I’m super-stubborn, and anytime I got feedback that I thought was useless to what I was trying to do, it just made me do it more. In the early studio classes, I was constantly told that my work was too detailed or that I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to capture details, and what that eventually did was push me to capture the details even more. My work has significantly improved because of it. Also, listening to a bunch of people tell me what they think I should do made me realize even more the things I don’t want to do. 

I guess just like with anything else, the experience is what you make it. I still think, for the most part, for all the reasons outlined above, that crits suck big time, but maybe they weren’t that bad after all.