In Why Art Cannot be Taught, James Elkins finishes his review of the teaching of art by saying, “What we can discern about the way art is taught is unpersuasive, self-contradictory, and limited, and therefore not a good basis for action of any sort, even the conventional, ill-informed kind.” (p. 110)
Then he turns to critiques, since they are the “most complicated aspect of art education,” and epitomize “the problems of teaching art and … condense the issues… into an agglomeration of nearly intractable difficulty.”
James Elkins is an artist and writer with quirky views on artistic subjects. He says that critiques almost never work, that they can’t be fixed — and that he loves them. Critiques, he says, “never really make sense… they are too complicated to understand.” And, “unlike tests, critiques leave no written records to guide the next generation of teachers…so there is no good way to judge when a critique is a success.” But he finishes his discussion of critiques by saying that while “critiques are “unbelievably difficult to understand,” they are “rich with possibilities. All kinds of meanings, all forms of understandings, can be at issue.”
Following are his 11 reasons why critiques don’t work. These 11 insights might help you to understand better what has been happened in a critique of your own work, and, sometimes, also help you to alter things for the better.
Elkins is speaking of a academic setting, an end-of-term presentation in front of a panel of say, 5 people, who may or may not know anything of the artist or her work. [The images included here are just for fun, although you might want to try critiquing them.]
Here are Elkins’ 11 points of discussion:
#1: No one knows what an art critique is. Elkins says, “There is no good definition… no model, no history, no guide.” In part, this is because teaching principles are so “heterogeneous.”
Without accepted principles of what teaching art is, or what basic principles should guide art practices, critiques often fall into rhetoric, that is into language used to persuade, words like “beautiful,” “strong,” “powerful,” “enigmatic.” But that language, according to Elkins, is used to help students get noticed, not to help them work on their art. “Rhetorical criteria do not say anything about what the work looks like, or how true it is. They are practical ideas.”
Along with rhetorical commentary, critiques might have one or more of four basic orientations — mimetic, pragmatic, expressive, and objective. (These categories are taken from M.H. Abrams, a literary critic, but really date back to Aristotle). Mimetic means that the artist’s work could be judged according to how well it matches nature and/or how well the art recreates something in the world, whether it’s a hand, a grape, a word, gesture, or a mood. Another rhetorical orientation is pragmatic — that the art produces in the viewer the sensation that the artist intends and that it produces results ($$) that the artist is wanting. A third orientation is expressive, a product of the artist’s sensibility or psychic. Panelists don’t normally deal with this idea specifically but contemporary art is “fundamentally late Romantic in this sense; art is understood basically as an expression of something inner.” And finally, the panelist or teacher might concentrate on the object itself and not mention (or try not to mention) the external world, using formalist or iconographic methods.
But these are literary criteria, not visual art principles. Elkins says the same is true of other approaches — the professional, ethical, theological, metaphysical, scientific, and teleological: they are all somewhat useful in thinking about art but each of those is primary to a different field from the visual arts.
In short, critiques of visual art are impossible because the principles on which the art is based is too mixed, too confused, or perhaps too mysterious and unknowable.
# 2. Critiques are too short — or too long. “People who have experience in art judge very quickly, and most teachers will have a provisional opinion about a work in the first ten seconds… visual art can be taken in rapidly.” On the other hand, “It may well take more than forty five minutes to change that impression.”
“Because there is no way to predict the speed at which a person relearns an art work, or erases and adjusts her first impression, there is not much to be said about how long critiques should be. But here as elsewhere I [Elkins] am going on the assumption that there is a great deal to say about works, and so a critique that is too short may provide a poorer account than a critique that is too long.” The critiques which he criticizes as too short run about 45 minutes for a single art work.
# 3. Critiques drift from topic to topic. Even under the best of circumstances, the speaker may move between reporting well formed thoughts and discovering ideas through talking. In discovering thoughts, incoherence of grammar and half-formed ideas are most likely to be seen and can be incomprehensible. But sometimes the speaker’s thoughts seem more complete and formed than they really are and so are likely to be misunderstood by the artist. We’ve all experienced this when we’ve tried to talk about someone else’s work — we struggle to explain what we see and think, more or less coherently, but the struggle is often misinterpreted as a final statement, a reported fact.
# 4. Panelists make their own artworks, which are necessarily different from the artist’s. Knowing this about the panelist can be bad, because the artist might dismiss an insightful comment because the panelist works differently — or it might be good because the artist might be able to comprehend what the panelist is saying because the context of the comment comes out of the panelist’s art. When the panelist is struggling with something in her own art, the knowledge of that struggle is even more helpful, because that’s probably where her attention will light when discussing your work. My current painting instructor is working on the problems and questions of space in paintings, and his comments often focus on that in my work, not because it’s my concern, but because it’s his.
5. Panelists make idiosyncratic pronouncements. Panelists might represent different interpretive “communities” or they might simply be coming from personal concerns and terminology. It’s important to distinguish between a panelist who is commenting on your art because of her personal work and the panelist who is using language that comes from an unfamiliar artistic community. The unfamiliar community is probably worth knowing something about, because you’ll encounter it again from other sources. The personal struggle can also be enlightening, because in working out her own concerns, the panelist might help you work out yours — or figure out what is different about your concerns from hers. In any case, simply knowing that unfamiliar terminology and concepts are usual in critiques helps the artist from becoming defensive.
# 6a . Elkins says that critiques are like seduction, full of emotional outbursts. “It is a dogma of art criticism that a critique should not be taken personally. I regard that as an ‘enabling’ fiction: a lie that lets us get on with what we want to do.” But, “given the amount of time spent in preparation for the critique (ie the amount of time that it takes to make the art) it follows that the brevity of the critique and the inevitable dispersion of the critique panel correspond to rejection.”
“Seduction is a model, a way of understanding the curious emotional charge that often accumulates and is discharged during critiques… ” “I [Elkins] have suggested a sexual metaphor in order to help explain the violence that sometimes accompanies critiques…. there is nothing demeaning or irrelevant about seduction as a model for critiques; after all sexuality is a central fact of life and it is always possible that critiques may be at their best, or purest, when they are most like successful seductions.”
I liked this analogy; for one thing, it explains the letdown when everyone disperses and one is left alone again — it’s the desertion by the lover. It is as good an analogy for any for the very strong feelings that critiques can evoke — and a reason why some people refuse to engage in them in any form.
6b (or perhaps # 7). Critiques are like many other things,
a. Bad translations… for practical purposes the panelist may be speaking a different language from the student.
b. An exchange of stories or collaborative storytelling: others will pipe in, changing their story so it becomes a group effort and thus perhaps changing the art itself.
c. An adversarial battle, a war-like setting, a fight to defend oneself (whether panelist or artist).
d. A legal proceeding, in which the exercise of power is one-sided. “A critique can be like the trials in Kafka’s novel of that name: the defendant’s attorney is either incompetent or absent, and either the jury is absent or the judges do double duty as jurors. Often enough the student has to decide whether it is wise to speak in her own defense. The defendant… is never quite sure what he is being accused of, but he knows that judgment is in the air.”
Thus, critiques can be understood as allegories in 5 different categories “amorous, linguistic, narratological, warlike, and legal” and can include all five of these in a single session — “which is another way of saying their conclusions are multiple.” “These allegories …give the critique direction and shape but normally remain out of sight….”
“A student’s purpose in a critique is to increase her own understanding of what she has made, to achieve some ‘distance’ from it. On the other hand, panelists are usually out to build explanations… partly because they feel an obligation to the student, and partly because they know their colleagues are listening.”
# 8. Teachers waste time giving technical advice. And sometimes confuse the advice about medium with messages about the message — a panelist “might be talking about a medium and thinking about its meanings, or vice versa….” About a particular discussion, Elkins says, ” this way of speaking about technique is sometimes itself a technique [for the artist] to avoid thinking about meaning….The more time she spent on techniques, the less she had for pondering her subject matter.” But “no technique is without meaning. I think the idea that some techniques are merely techniques and others have meaning, is connected to the idea that some talk about technique is a way of not coming to terms with one’s self. If you believe that techniques are separate from meaning, then you can go on experimenting with them and not be impelled to think consistently or directly about yourself, and the meanings you want or need. Conversation about technique is conversation about meaning: it is just a special way of talking about meaning that does not allow the speaker to acknowledge as much.”
In the overly technical critiques, the student and panelists must “listen between the lines, ..hear what people are saying about meaning, or what they are trying not to say about meaning.”
#9. Some panelists are judicative, and other descriptive. Judgment can be passed that is overtly subjective, apparently objective, clearly prescriptive, or soothingly suggestive. Description seems more neutral, but the difficulty is that often the descriptive is judicative in disguise. Judacative criticism is “aware of what the work is not, rather than what it is….an unwitting chronicle of the things that are not seen in a work.” Judacative critiques often involve an unstated premise about what art should be; what is not in the art then becomes a focus — (to say “this piece is too bleak, too dark and brooding” insinuates that art should be bright and cheerful and hopeful.)
10. The artist’s presence can be confusing. “A version of the artist is already present in every panelist’s mind when she looks at an artwork, even if she hasn’t seen the artist who made the work.” it’s more complicated when the artist is seen. And even more so when the artist speaks. “Talking adds information that confuses an already difficult situation.”
#11. Artworks are usually unoriginal. “Instructors are likely to feel that they have seen them before.” And probably they have. And if they haven’t, they probably won’t recognize [the art] and so will dislike it.” You can’t win, no matter what.
The underlying fact is that “if your teacher liked your work without reservation, she would try to make it herself. There is always some disapproval — that’s only natural. The challenge is to keep enough interest going, and enough honesty…”
In conclusion, Elkins says, “Tests have the virtue of ensuring that everyone in the class is on the same page. They promote the accumulation of systematic knowledge…. But what does any of that have to do with living an interesting life, or being an interesting person?”
Critiques are “unbelievably difficult to understand and rich with possibilities. All kinds of meanings, all forms of understandings, can be at issue. Critiques can be like real-life situations: they can mimic seductions, trials, poems, and wars. They can hold nearly the full range of human responses — and that is only appropriate, because artworks themselves express the widest spectrum of human response.
“But the price critiques pay for the richness is very high. Critiques are perilously close to total nonsense. They just barely make sense — they are nearly totally irrational.”
His final conclusion about art, and thus critiques: “In the end, if it were possible to produce a full account of how art is taught, it might be a boring, irrelevant, pernicious document, something that should be locked away.” “This book itself… is ultimately less interesting than an actual critique.”