It’s the last couple weeks of classes, and Critique Season is upon us here in the world of art school. So far I’m cruising through this one relatively unscathed, but there is still Finals Week to contend with. So far, this semester, so good. During Critique Season, I review previous years’ critiques, just to remind myself of the potential dangers (and silliness, and delights) of the art school critique.
The first major critique I ever held was my first year out of grad school, when I was an adjunct professor at a small art and design college. I was only teaching one class, and my experience as a graduate teaching assistant seemed ample in preparing me in class managing whatever possible challenges I’d encounter in such a setting. Let me begin by stressing I am not a morning person. I think it’s just best to get that out-of-the-way now. The class was held once a week, but as a studio class, it was five hours long, beginning at 8:00 a.m. I lived about a one-and-a-half hours away (not including morning rush hour traffic into the city). But, I figured, it was only once a week, and though it barely paid enough for gas, it was good experience. I kept telling myself this.
The class was Beginning Fibers, and my approach to the final project was very open, and there was a variety of work from weaving to surface design, sculpture and 2-dimensional work. The assignment was “research and reinterpretation,” so students looked to contemporary or historical sources for inspiration, but needed to make their work fit their personal expressive goals. NOTE: Take care when encouraging exploration of “Personal Expressive Goals.”
There were a variety of interesting projects that came out of this project, however. One student was working on reverse applique in large abstract shapes with various found materials such as faux-fur, corduroy, and lots of polyester. Another student created a very compelling installation in a hallway, another did a small-scale tapestry. Yet another was working on a small pink stitched piece with skulls and imagery from his favorite band, Slayer. I can’t remember what research he was doing.
One student researched the so-called “Snake Goddess” figurine from Bronze-Age Crete. This particular student, I’ll call her Sara, was enamored with the dress: an open-bodice corset-like top with a flounced skirt. She decided to knit a sweater that had an open-bodice. (if you don’t know what a bodice is, an open one exposes the girls. see above.) Sara wanted to comment on…well, I can’t remember, really, but she was commenting on something to do with the rights of chest-baring.
So. The morning of the final critique. I am very excited about The Last Day of my first “big girl” teaching gig, and the night before is fitful in anticipation. The alarm goes off at the usual time for my once a week morning–4:45. Did I mention I need a lot of sleep? Well, I’m running on maybe four hours. Anyone who knows me knows I’m actually not so good on less than…7 1/2. 9 1/2 is better.
I haul my tired but wired (on too much coffee) self to school. My students break into small groups to quickly write, free-associating words about whatever work of art we are about to critique. We start with the installation. The students recite their lists to wake us up, get us warmed up for more formal critique. The students go down the lists of words of this suspended piece saying things like “energetic,” “swaying,” “spider-woven,” “well-hung.” At which point I begin to laugh uncontrollably. In my defense, out of all the critiques I’ve attended over the years of my education, I never heard the words “well-hung” used to describe something that hangs, which is, really, A LOT of art. As I looked around the room I see that the students are bewildered with my reaction. These 18-21 year-olds seem above my adolescent reaction to the words “well-hung” to describe the installation. Damn. It is going to be a long day.
And it is. The reverse appliqued abstract piece? Well. It turns out that this boy who made the piece (which is very interesting by the way) was recalling childhood memories of showering with his mom. Hence the, um, fake fur.
My students are good participants, and as any teacher can attest, without lively participation from the students, the critique simply flops. Bless their hearts, my students are all quick to pipe up and comment on how “well-hung” each of the pieces are.
After a coffee break a couple of hours into the class, Sara emerges from the bathroom ready for her critique. I don’t know, call me naive. I was assuming she’d find a mannequin, or perhaps pin her work to the cork-board wall. I underestimated her creativity. To support her Personal Expressive Goals, she decided to wear her sweater. Her open-bodice sweater. Did I mention she’s a girl? At least she’s wearing silver heart-shaped glitter pasties.
This is the point, this seemingly eternal moment, when I decide whether or not to be a teacher. I stare at the ceiling tiles, imploring them in silent desperation, “is this job really for me?” and “can I get arrested for allowing this?” and “I wonder if I can just leave now and play like I never had this job and go and work at Starbucks?” and “what do I say now?” In the next moment I receive wisdom in the form of my own thoughts, which answer, “yes,” “probably not,” and “no,” and then…”okay, class, let’s talk about this next work…” and off we go like this happens to me every day. Thankfully it doesn’t.
I still encourage students to explore their “Personal Expressive Goals.” And hope for the best.