Synopsis
Manta Banter
The Crit
The Dying
The Monocrhome
Bas Jan Ader
The Comic God
Sketching on Chance
Drawing Distance
Observing the Wrong Bodies
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
THE CRIT AND ART CRITICISM Modes of operating the group critique in Goldsmiths art education – procedures and concepts

Francisco Sousa Lobo, London, April 2013

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the status of the art critique happening outside the studio, in situations that are either utterly public (in interim or final shows) or in other forms of formative feedback and interaction that fall under the name of the crit, like seminars, convenors, or group tutorials.

There has been a lot of recent research on the crit and its critique, most notably by Blythman, Orr and Blair in Critiquing the Crit, but I wanted to feel the pulse of the crit in the institution in which I teach and study.

The investigative basis for this paper rests in multiple interviews with heads of BA and MA art courses at Goldsmiths as well as other members of staff, and also in recent literature on higher education1 (Paul Ramsden), small group teaching2 (Kate Exley), art pedagogy3 (James Elkins and Whitechapel Documents) and the crit format4 (Bernadette Blair and many others).

I wanted to examine the distance between the crit as I experienced it in my MA at the Royal College of Art and what is being done in Goldsmiths right now. My experience of the crit was that of a hierarchical and optical event, in which an external examiner, usually a well-known critic, would come in and give his verdict on work pinned to the wall in interim and final shows. The students were, for the most part, completely silent. To complement this form of crit (the main one as the department was concerned), there were irregular, rather vague group tutorials, and individual tutorials usually with your personal tutor or with invited guests.

So what I came to know as the crit upon arrival in the UK was this devastating event, a reactive and optical affair, detached from process and dialogue, and related to procedural modes of operation in the art world in a warped way. The students expected feedback that resembled the art criticism of the outside world, they anticipated what this brilliant person would make of their practice. Yet there seemed to be a problematic conflation of discourse and reactive viewing, something that in fact is quite unsophisticated and happily absent from the art world5. The idea that reactive viewing is absent from the art world coincides with the Art Writing course leader’s reflections on the subject.

As I have come to understand it through teaching in the last two years, the world of the crit is much larger than I previously encountered, and a space where justice and enquiry can go hand in hand6. On work developed around the idea of fairness and participation in the crit, see Blair, Bernadette, Perception, Interpretation, Impact – An examination of the learning value of formative feedback to students through the design studio critique This paper will try to give a glimpse of the state of the crit in Goldsmiths today, and consider further developments, problems, and conceptualizations.

The first part of this argument will examine the positioning of leading Goldsmiths art academics7 on the topic of the bad critique, as I described it. The second part will deal with multiple approaches to the crit format in the art courses that these academics lead8. The good crits will have a chance too. I have heard of them. The courses examined are the BFA in Art and Art and Art History, and the MFA in Art Writing. The third part will try to envisage, from current literature, from the interviews, and from personal experience, what the crit does not yet address. The fourth part will focus on the positive aspects of the crits as they happen at Goldsmiths, and serve as a way into an enquiry into where the crit should be improved and complemented, in view of the rise of artistic practices that are either elongated, complex, written, or performance-based. On the whole, I will try to offer a rigorous insight into a conceptual location for the crit, in view of the multiplicity of approaches on offer9, and its hidden links to art criticism. The multiplicity of approaches is touched upon in the ‘Critiquing the Crit’ report, in Chapter 3, ‘Different Types of Crits’

Art criticism is now embedded in art production, so it seems fair to address the critique in relation to that status, especially since student’s expectations are so linked to the future they will encounter as artists.

1 The bad crit It is common knowledge that the external examiner-led hard critique is still widely practiced in the British academic art world, as a means of responding to students’ expectations and also as validation of the institution. I wanted to hear from Goldsmiths staff what their views on this sort of historic crit were, and how this sort of critique can be viewed as a distorting mirror for what goes on in the art world10. The interviews were held at Goldsmiths College, between February and March of 2013

The Programme Director of the BA in Fine Art, didn’t recognize a place for it in art education. He views the interim or final show crit as the icing or cherry on top of a pre-existing cake, a chance to stroke the students’ ego and consider the job done, outside pedagogical concerns. What is considered as the crit in the Fine Art BA at Goldsmiths are events where work in progress is presented, debated, interpreted and critiqued as a means to structure student learning and establish peer group qualities and a sense of belonging. On the final crit, the BA programme director considered it perfectly natural at MA level, where students ‘expect to establish a community and build links within that community and from that community outwards, into a larger professional world’. He said also: ‘So having someone such as a critic, or a curator, or a gallerist coming in to look around the show, at that point, is understandably valued, because it’s part of making those links’11.

A Lecturer in Fine Art Practice (Studio Practice), had extensive experiences of the bad crit in her own art education, and also in the beginning of her academic career. Even though she recognizes great value in the crit, she has harsh words for the authoritarian voice that emerges in the bad crit, one that does not allow anyone else to speak. ‘I am not a fan of the brutal crit. I don’t get the point of humiliating people in public, and even when there is valuable criticism in it, students are incapable of absorbing it. I would hate to be the person who did that’.

The Course Leader, Studio Practice
BA Fine Art & History of Art (Joint Honours degree), often questioned if the course had a slightly hippy way of going about the crit12, but has recently been confronted with the negative aspects of the hierarchical critique. On the ‘hippy’ problem of the unexamined art school life, see also Bruce Ferguson’s article. It states that ‘the hippy version of art school as a ‘safe’ environment or monastery, where students are encouraged to fail, experiment and explore, is outdated and dangerous’ ‘The macho posturing13 felt horribly disempowering to the students, especially to undergraduate students who don’t have the confidence to say ‘who are you to give this verdict?’ On ‘macho posturing’ by tutors and what that produces in students, see Griselda Pollock remarks that ‘undoubtedly, many students thrive in this hostile and unsupportive environment, especially where their own sense of identity is implicitly reinforced by the hidden agenda of macho self-reliance and aggression, the son’s battle with the father’ .The course leader of the Joint Honors Degree also said ‘And if they do have the confidence to say that, it will be reactive. I felt it wasn’t a productive environment at all. I do feel that in the academic art world there is still a widespread attachment to the old style crit, as a form of double validation – of the students’ work and the institution. It felt as a not trusting environment, Distrust, Capitulation.’

The former Course Leader, MFA Art Writing, had many things to say about problems that apply to the specific issues of the Art Writing course, but also on problems inherent to the crit format itself. On the issue of the final crit, though, it was mentioned that ‘only richer colleges can afford to have external people in to do that sort of work, and I understand why they would want to do that, because I think the students have an expectation when they go to good colleges that there will be lots of people who they know their names. And they get to have a moment with them. But I think that creates a quite unfair dynamic between the student and the tutor, and it puts the tutor in a position where – depending on the personality – they feel they must give clear feedback within a short timeframe. Also, clarity tends to be reductive in a shorter timeframe. If you have a longer timeframe you can be very clear, because you are polishing it’14. The issue of longer timeframes in the preparation for the crit are dealt and developed in chapters 3 and 4

The issue of what I call the bad crit is hence seen in multiple but interesting frames, in the sense that there is an understanding of why it is still so persistent and widespread, and also an understanding of the dynamics that go into it, and that have to do with immediacy, hierarchy, and the promise of networking. There is a sense that the bad crit predates knowledge and theory about small group teaching15, explored for example by Kate Exley and how content and process functions are left inactivated, to serve an absolutist moment of truth, disregarding questions of formative assessment16. On the issue of formative assessment, see Bernadette Blair, Perception, Interpretation, Impact, and also the paper given at OCADU in Ontario in May 2012.

2 The crit at Goldsmiths’ art courses

In the Fine Art BA17, the notion of the crit leaves out the one to one sessions in the studio, which are called tutorials. The crit is split between two main forms of teaching – group tutorials and conveners. Even though they share many aspects, they are quite different in scope and purpose. Group tutorials are characterized by the fact that they are composed of smaller groups of students, and that everyone in the group is presenting and bringing something to the space. The role of the student changes ‘from being one who is taught, to one that learns and helps their colleagues to learn’18. All things presented are provisional, in an unresolved set of circumstances, and ‘they are valued by students because they are the moment at which the kinds of solitary experimental thinking has to be opened out, and aired in some way’19. The Programme Leader finds the atmosphere to be quite supportive, and moments of silence are interspersed with discussion. The other form of crit in the BA is the convener, where there is a larger group of students, and only some of those students will be presenting work. The format of presenting work is completely left up to the students – they can verbally introduce the work, or they can choose to say nothing. It may be that the work in progress is slightly more resolved than in the group tutorials, but thinks are still open to discussion and input. They can be quite delicate, and the students are very sensitive when things start to go wrong. The conversation that is engendered has to be dealt with by students and the tutors carefully. One of the dangers pointed by the BA Programme Leader is that the discussion can swerve to standard fallback positions, with the student presenting saying ‘I will tell you what my work is about’, or the other students saying things like ‘what does this look like, it looks a bit like this’. For the tutors, it seems that the material presence of the work is difficult to talk about, because it requires things to remain unresolved. ‘Those fallback positions are not what will nourish students, and when something else happens, you absolutely feel it and you know that everyone else knows it too’. This ‘something else’ might be called interpretation, reflection, translation, and it seems to be what academic art critiques should point to.

In the Joint Degrees BA in Fine Art and History of Art20, critiques are mostly held in what are called seminars. In these, a three-dimensional approach is taken. Some of the students place their work in the seminar room, with enough breathing space to allow critical reading and fruition. The seminar starts with a straightforward critique, usually lead by a tutor, and through which the student whose work is presented is quiet. Then, in a second part, the student gets to do a formal presentation, usually contextualizing and situating their work. In a third moment, all present are invited to discuss the work, ask questions, and exchange reflections pertinent to the work and to the student. Because the course is a small one, there is an impression that students are very collegiate and respectful of each other, and that, sometimes, something unique is produced through the crit – a feeling of the contemporary moment, of a new generation forming and coming up with new solutions to new problems. Students are encouraged to bring questions to the crits, not just work and context, but it is the work that leads the discussion, and there are moments of clarity that happen in between different interpretations21. On the question of the distance between different interpretations, a tutor mentioned a book called’19 Ways to Look at Wang Wei’

In the Art Writing MFA22, the question of how to approach the crit has led to radical and innovative approaches, as it was felt that the specificity of writing didn’t allow for the standard crit to happen. One of the key concerns of the students is lack of visibility – this is caused both by the fact they that do not have studios in which to work, but also by the very nature of production and fruition in writing practices. Another important aspect has to do with the timeframe for viewing and reading students work – it became apparent as the course was being set up that what was needed didn’t conform with the classical crit characteristics of revolving around the evidential and the visible. A system of group tutorials was put in place in which work was distributed in advance, a practice that has drawn something from creative writing courses. The group tutorials, because of the small number of students, can be very tailored and precise, adjusting to students’ needs and interests, and everybody’s work is distributed and digested well is advance of the meeting. The same happens in individual tutorials, where the tutor has a chance to reflect, research references and prepare the feedback in a way that is more sophisticated than in most other art MAs. This specific group tutorial format took over from the crit and signaled to students that what was happening was something quite different, in which their work regained visibility and was given the time and context it deserved.

3 What the art critique does not address

As Art Writing MFA Course Leader has pointed out, British art school teaching is based upon talking. The issue of whether this is a psychoanalytic rather than strictly artistic activity arises, in her own words. The crit is a mode of learning which has been, until now, mostly devoted to talking, reacting, digging deeper, extracting meaning, pointing towards connections and interpretations. The critique has been talked about as being the ‘glue that connects learning, teaching and assessment’23,in ‘Critiquing the Crit’, pg.6, ‘the point of crits’ through giving students ‘a shared experience and a chance for critical reflection’24. Yet there are many handicaps to the crit, as has so clearly been pointed out in a recent report called ‘critiquing the crit’, and in Bernadette Blair’s book on the design studio critique, but also in the voices of staff and students which I interviewed at Goldsmiths. The crit, being a psychological, detective-like, visual and most of all verbal form of critical engagement, does not seem to work the same way for different people and different practices. The shy, the foreign, the student who writes conceptual art, the artist who works in performance and those whose work demands elongated time for its fruition, all seem to be left out of the standard crit format. In this area, the work of Blair and Pope seems to feed critical reflection. Also, a lot of talking is done and, until recently, very little recording was used25. It has been suggested that recording crits would make them better, censoring precisely those things that need censoring, like cruelty, ill-preparation by tutors, vagueness and lack of advice26. A lot has been gained in recent years by a questioning of the critique and a lot has been circulated on how to make it better. In the context of graduate and undergraduate art courses, the crit needs to actualize itself as a tool that takes seriously into consideration artistic practice as material presence and idea that remains stubbornly unresolved, through a kind of knowledge that is unresolved in its essence27. In Irit Rogoff’s –Academy as potentiality’ - ‘What I would like to pursue here is a set of alternate emergent terms that operate in the name of this ‘not-yet-known-knowledge’. Terms such as potentiality, actualization, access and contemporaeinity […]’, pg. 132, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education What is true for the design critique, in which students want ‘straightforward, honest, constructive feedback given in a clear objective way’28 (Blair 2010) seems similar to that expected from art students, yet the very nature of art is to accept multiplicity in production but also in critique. From a cloud of knowledge generated through a priori thought, confrontation with the artwork and reflection, something emerges that is similar to reading multiple translations of the same poem and a critique of that translation at the same time, as has been pointed out by a practice based tutor29.

It is clear that in the crit transmission of knowledge is not what is at stake, but rather ‘the need to work with content within a group situation’, and also that ‘the content of student learning is logically prior to the methods of teaching that content’30 (Exley 2005). Crits need to absorb the specificities not only of the art and design discipline they are embedded in, but also the specificities of each student’s work and aspirations. As I have mentioned before, an artist that writes as part of an art practice needs to feel that there is a space for that same practice in the crit situation. The same applies to new modalities of art production that elude the optical and the immediately sensorial. Crits tend to be visual affairs transcribed into oral terms, and this historic tendency needs to be questioned and addressed, if not completely diverted. This may be a specific issue of art education, in which the issue of potentiality is always in the forefront, with all its glories and anguish31. Giorgio Agamben describes potentiality as the ‘hardest and bitterest experience possible’

4 Positive aspects of the art critique

The positive aspects of the crit in art and design have been extensively studied in ‘critiquing the crit’, and these coincide for the most part with what I gained from the interviews, experience and further reading. Yet the ideal crit seems to be an elusive being, described by voyagers to a mystical land, something that has already happened but cannot and will not be turned into gospel, as that would spoil its return32. It happens behind closed doors, to a group of people who do not transcribe it or remember it fully, but who were deeply marked by the experience. Yet what this paper has tried to point to is to a necessary shift in the preparation for the crit, and in the paradigms attached to the art critique in relation to art criticism. There has been a shift in the paradigm of human labor connected to the art world, a shift that sent us from ‘work’ to ‘practice’33, as Andrea Phillips points out in Education Aesthetics, 2010. The structure of the crit seems malleable enough to take on this shift, if it respects the correspondent changes in contemporary practices that are embedded in immaterial labor, as described by authors such as Hardt, Negri and Lazzarato34. The examples provided by the Art Writing MFA experience at Goldsmiths seem quite in tune with these recent shifts from work to practice, from material to immaterial labor, from structure to performance, from the innocent eye test35 to a more reflective approach. (‘The Innocent Eye Test’ is a Mark Tansey painting illustrated and reflected upon in Arthur C Danto’s ‘Beyond the Brillo Box – the Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective)The Art Writing course seems to have been a very successful place of reform, respecting students as fully committed artists, elongating time for reflection and feedback, and keeping in tune with shifts in contemporary practices and discourses. It is absolutely central to the Art Writing version of the crit that the student finds a place in a larger world discourse, through production, discussion and reflection. The individual and group tutorials, as well as seminars prepared by students, are fully open to the emergency of and immersion in the contemporary. The problematic nature of the power relations in the crit becomes softened through this acceptance of a community to which the practices point to, and through the elongated consideration of the work and practices presented. The optical nature of the classical crit, deeply rooted in ‘evidence’ and ‘visibility’36 seems to allow for substitution, change and reform, and provide something that can still be called crit but has something more solid and sophisticated in which to stand. Discourse becomes more paused, prepared and mature, while not losing the positive aspects of the classical crit, most notably the excitement of suddenly running into the absolutely new, and the absolutely communal.

1 – The crit has remained roughly the same for 60 years, holding ‘an iconic status in A&D Education’. (see Bernadette Blair on the subject – OCADU 2012)

2 – a shifting paradigm in human labor and art production poses new challenges to the crit

3 – the timeframe of the crit can be extended and concentrated, through the use of smaller groups of students and distribution of work in advance

4 – the sensorial, visual, evidential nature of the crit should be addressed and circumvented by the crit itself

5 - students’ perceptions of the crit radically change when they know their work has been reflected upon prior to the crit event

6 – crits are there for students to find their place in a larger discourse – in this they are deeply rooted in the real world

7 – crits should not, though, try to replicate the professional settings that the students will encounter in the future – this would prove artificial and even abrasive (see Bernadette Blair on the subject – OCADU 2012)

8 – the strength of the crit is often associated with an unplanned event, especially on the tutor’s side – this should be reconsidered and seen as problematic

9 – oral skills should be fostered but not seen as the centre of what the crit is about – associations and presentations can now take a number of forms

10 – students from foreign nations or from backgrounds where cultural capital was lacking need to be welcomed to crits

11 – crits are not very often remembered, due to the presence of stress and lack of concentration – there is a strong case for their recording

References

1 See, in the bibliography, Paul Ramsden and others 2 See, in the bibliography, Kate Exley’s book on small group teaching 3 See, in the bibliography, James Elkins and articles extracted from the Whitechapel Gallery’s book on Education 4 See, in the bibliography, Bernadette Blair’s works on the crit 5 The idea that reactive viewing is absent from the art world coincides with the Art Writing course leader’s reflections on the subject. 6 On work developed around the idea of fairness and participation in the crit, see Blair, Bernadette, Perception, Interpretation, Impact – An examination of the learning value of formative feedback to students through the design studio critique 7 Michael Archer, Roxy Walsh, Susan Kelly and Maria Fusco 8 BA Fine Art, BA Fine Art and History of Art, MFA Art Writing, Goldsmiths University 9 The multiplicity of approaches is touched upon in the ‘Critiquing the Crit’ report, in Chapter 3, ‘Different Types of Crits’ 10 The interviews were held at Goldsmiths College, between February and March of 2013 11 On networking, see Bruce Ferguson’s remarks, in Art Education, ‘they are not naïve or monastic, and the schools are as much involved in the ‘real’ world as [the students] are’. Pg 175, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education 12 On the ‘hippy’ problem of the unexamined art school life, see also Bruce Ferguson’s article. It states that ‘the hippy version of art school as a ‘safe’ environment or monastery, where students are encouraged to fail, experiment and explore, is outdated and dangerous’. Pg 176, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education 13 On ‘macho posturing’ by tutors and what that produces in students, see Griselda Pollock remarks that ‘undoubtedly, many students thrive in this hostile and unsupportive environment, especially where their own sense of identity is implicitly reinforced by the hidden agenda of macho self-reliance and aggression, the son’s battle with the father’, Pg. 149, in in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education 14 The issue of longer timeframes in the preparation for the crit are dealt and developed in chapters 3 and 4 15 See Kate Exley’s book on Small Group Teaching, in which content and foci in SGT are fully explored and developed in Pg.3, and the link between process and content is recognized – ‘specific academic skills may be so embedded in the nature of a discipline that the skills almost become the ‘content’ of that discipline’ (Pg.4) 16 On the issue of formative assessment, see Blair, Bernadette, Perception, Interpretation, Impact – An examination of the learning value of formative feedback to students through the design studio critique 17 The information on this course comes from the interview with Michael Archer, in March 2013 18 Kate Exley, Small Group Teaching, pg.8 19 Michael Archer’s words are in quotes. 20 The information on this course comes from the interviews with Susan Kelly and Roxy Walsh in March 2013, and from my experience as a teaching assistant in this course 21 On the question of the distance between different interpretations, Roxy Walsh mentioned ’19 Ways to Look at Wang Wei’ 22 The information on this course comes from the interview with Maria Fusco, in March 2013, and from my experience as a teaching assistant in this course 23 In ‘Critiquing the Crit’, pg.6, ‘the point of crits’ 24 In ‘Critiquing the Crit’, pg.6, ‘the point of crits’ 25 Again, the 2007 ‘Critiquing the Crit’ report has proved instrumental, and the practice of taking notes, recording and transcribing the crit has started to be adopted occasionally at Goldsmiths, according to Roxy Walsh’s statements. 26 Roxy Walsh interview, February 2013 27 In Irit Rogoff’s –Academy as potentiality’ - ‘What I would like to pursue here is a set of alternate emergent terms that operate in the name of this ‘not-yet-known-knowledge’. Terms such as potentiality, actualization, access and contemporaeinity […]’, pg. 132, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education 28 In Bernadette Blair’s Perception, Interpretation, Impact – An examination of the learning value of formative feedback to students through the design studio critique 29 ’19 Ways to Look at Wang Wei’ 30 See Kate Exley’s book on ‘Small Group Teaching’, pg. 3 and 4 31 Giorgio Agamben describes potentiality as the ‘hardest and bitterest experience possible’; quoted in Irit Rogoff’s ‘Academy as Potentiality, 2006 32 On the elusive nature of the art critique, not much has been written, but there is a widespread consensus amongst fellow artists and graduates that the crit is by nature elusive. 33 In Andrea Phillips’ article ‘Education Aesthetics’, on pg. 168, it is said that ‘providing the background noise to this situation are questions of immateriality and affectivity, brought about by shifting relations of work and production in the world at large’ 34 In Andrea Phillips’ article ‘Education Aesthetics’, on pg. 169 35 ‘The Innocent Eye Test’ is a Mark Tansey painting illustrated and reflected upon in Arthur C Danto’s ‘Beyond the Brillo Box – the Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective 36 The description of the classical crit as evidential and to do with the visible has been a shared problematic in most of the interviews conducted.

Bibliography

Blair, Bernadette, Perception, Interpretation, Impact – An examination of the learning value of formative feedback to students through the design studio critique, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrücken, 2010

Blair, Bernadette, About the Crit, OCADU (Ontario College of Art and Design University), 16/05/2012

Blythman, Margo; Orr, Susan; Blair, Bernadette, Critiquing the Crit – final report, 2007

Elkins, James, Why Art Cannot be Taught, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2001

Fraser, Andrea, From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, 2005, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Exley, Kate; Dennick, Reg, Small Group Teaching – tutorials, seminars and beyond, Routledge, London, 2005

Ferguson, Bruce, Art Education, 2009, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Phillips, Andrea, Education Aesthetics, 2010, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Pollock, Griselda, Art, Art School, Culture, 1987, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Prentice, Roy (Ed.), Teaching Art and Design – addressing issues and identifying directions, Cassell, London, 1995

Pujol, Ernesto, On the Ground, 2010, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Ramsden, Paul, Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Routledge, London, 2003

Rogoff, Irit, Academy as Potentiality, 2006, in Felicity Allen (Ed.), Education, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2011

Thek, Paul, Teaching Notes, transcribed by Harrell Fletcher, available on http://whof.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/paul-theks-teaching-notes.html

Francisco Sousa Lobo                                                                  London, 2013