Critique Week! Almost every academic discipline has some oddities in its curricular structure, and some curiosities in what a student has to negotiate through to succeed. After all, teaching at a school that confers graduate degrees in the visual arts isn’t that different than teaching anything else, except for one big and unique thing, a game-changing event, a crucible of criticism, advice, and evaluation, a public undressing and confessional that can make or break your career. It’s crits, graduate crits, where students are required to present their work to their colleagues and selected faculty, and for about an hour participate in one of the most intense experiences they will have in their lives. They’ll do this at least four times, once per semester in a two-year MFA program.
Where I teach — the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — the entire school pretty much shuts down, all classes are cancelled (except those for first-year undergraduates and a few others) for an entire week once each semester. Crits at the SAIC are a much larger version of what goes on at colleges and universities all over the U.S. With about 350 MFA grad students and around 800 faculty members, ranging from Lecturers to Professors, the SAIC is different than other places I taught at earlier, where there would be around 15-20 MFA students and 8 or 9 faculty members. The school itself feels eerie and different as we dispense with what we do every other week and congregate in multiple small groups for graduate critiques. All day, every day that week dozens of roaming bands of faculty — there are usually 5 or 6 on a crit panel — circulate from studio to crit space, from one building to another. Each meets with one graduate student at a time (usually five per day, most of whom many on a given crit panel has never met) who shows his, her or their work for what we call a ‘cold read,’ where without much preliminaries the faculty begin to convey to the grad student their perceptions, advice, suggestions for alterations, etc. The faculty asks questions, probes the student’s ideas, and conveys varying levels of judgment.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. A crit is not a vetting or a progress report, it’s evaluative, and the students, often from a teacher they do not know, will hear things said about themselves they will never hear in a classroom. Sometimes those are words of praise, the honeyed affirmation every artist seeks to some degree, that they are on the right track and that a stranger who is on their school’s faculty thinks they are doing fine work. But by their nature there is often a faultfinding aspect to graduate critiques. We’re supposed to challenge our students and tell them what they might consider to make them better. It can get rough and tough, sometimes the student pushes back at the criticism they are receiving and voices are raised, sometimes they break down in the face of it. It’s the rawest and most contentious form of gonzo criticism there is, and I’ve seen students openly weep or rip up work in front of their critique panel. And that’s a shame when it happens, because this is never about a kind of public humiliation, but about asking students not just to make work, but to be able to articulate it: to come to an understanding in their own minds about what they are trying to do creatively, and to be able to convey that to an audience.
I’ve been doing crits for a long time. While they haven’t changed all that much over the years, they have become, I would argue, too professionalized.
Ten or fifteen years ago almost every crit as the SAIC took place in the artist’s assigned personal studio space, a smallish — about 225 square feet — area where they usually made their work, kept their materials, etc. The students would show work in progress, use the walls and the floor to show things. Usually a student would have a few colleagues along to provide them with moral support, take notes on the conversation, etc. Everyone would be jammed into this smallish space filled with all the effluvia of an artist’s studio. It conveyed a sense of an artist in the midst of working. You would see their creative process from beginning to end.
In recent years, though, as all art departments began to treat their graduate students more as proto-professionals than as experimenting students, schools such as ours began to create what we call crit-spaces, a largish area, usually over 1,000 square feet, that more or less looks like a student art gallery. Now, instead of visiting an artist’s studio (I preferred that, I could see what kind of books the students were reading or music they were listening to or pasting on their walls, thus picking up info about their personality), their work is hung or displayed on white walls in a neutral space without an iota of individual context. In the fifteen minutes between crits in these spaces one artist, usually somewhat drained by their just concluded crit, has to remove their work while the next student is racing to get their pieces up so it looks somewhat professionally installed, lit properly, etc. Crits that once were somewhat collegial and private now take on more of the feeling of a public event, often less about exploring and taking risks and more about looking like the production of a finished artist.
Crits are a remarkable and important component of an artist's education, and in their way it prepares our students for what awaits them after their studies are complete. While they are one of the most exhausting things I do — after five hours I’m completely drained — they are also one of the most exciting things I get to experience. It will be crit week at the SAIC March 6-10 this semester and as always I’m looking forward to the totally unexpected nature of it. If you live anywhere near a school with a graduate MFA program you should seek out experiencing this at at least once, it will tell you more about the state art education, for better or worse, than any other single thing you could do.