Thursday, May 3, 2012

On Seeing and the Art School Crit

In the gospels, Jesus is described at least twice as giving sight to the blind. In Christian thought, Christ is the light of the world. One may derive from this that the principle of seeing is very important, both literally and figuratively. To see is, in a very real sense, to know. Clear seeing may be understood as a way of knowing the truth.
Expanding the metaphor of sight, artworks invite us to look closely, to observe faithfully what is there (and what is not there!) and the relationships among the various elements. Learning to see through art may be a means of learning to see one another in love.
One of the most important rituals of art school is the group critique. In my memory, in this exercise each student puts up his or her most recent artwork, and everyone takes some time simply to look at what has been set before them. Then, the teacher invites the students to say what they see, interjecting or adding to the discussion as necessary. 
Done poorly or without charity – as is too often the case – the art school critique is a harsh evaluation of quality in which a work is designated as “good” or “bad,” celebrated as a success or relegated to the trash heap. Such heartless criticism does little to help the student know what has gone right or wrong, or how to do better the next time.
Done well, this is an opportunity for students to learn how other people receive their communications. While the artist certainly has an intention, at the crit only the reception is important. How does this color interact with that one? How do these shapes related to one another? What is the emotional charge of the negative space? As the teacher and the other students consider aloud questions like these, they may also make suggestions about what might improve the work. Meanwhile, it is the student artist’s job simply to listen and take it all in. 
Whether the distance between the intention and the reception is great or little, this exercise is almost always both humbling and enlightening. No opportunity is given to defend one’s choices. Rather, back in the solitude of the studio, the artist is free to accept or reject the suggestions, either making changes to the original work, or beginning again with another.
What I have learned though the kind of disciplined looking that I first encountered in the group crit and have honed through years of teaching and curating, is that any artwork can be read through the eyes of understanding, or it can be dismissed out of hand, without really receiving anything at all except a superficial impression. And, as Jesus shows us, when we see with the eyes of understanding and compassion, with the eyes of the heart, we see one another in the light of God.

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