Why Critiques Can Never Work: James Elkins’ Perspective, by June Underwood

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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.”

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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.”

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13 Responses to “Why Critiques Can Never Work: James Elkins’ Perspective, by June Underwood”


  1. 1 Emily DuBois August 24, 2009 at 11:32 am

    very helpful article and discussions. thanks for this blog!

  2. 2 lynne June 9, 2008 at 12:37 am

    as a teacher , I always have an ambivalent feeling about doing crits of my students´ work. How much of it is useful to them? how much is considered just my ramblings? etc, however all togther any serious and sincere discussion about a student´s work is inevitably going to be positive, even by dmeonstarting that I/we are taking the students seriously as artists. Our opinions are always going to be subjective even when we carefullly try to avoid it, we are never really objective but they are still going to give some truths however biased, and will be taken in, even if only to the smallest degree.

    As a student in art school years ago, I dreaded critique sessions, but there are comments form boht profs and peers, that stayed with me, both positive and negative, and helped me make both good and bad choices. It´s only really looking back, with some distance, that they will ever appear as influential.

    New ideas are always almost rejected first, before they can be assimilated and then used positively.

  3. 3 Gabrielle Swain April 15, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    June, From you concise description, I understand just how divergent Elkins thoughts are. While there are some good suggestions, my thoughts are that he is “talking out loud.” As you mentioned, wrestling with his own ideas about can art be taught. I am in total agreement with you when you point out that artist are looking for replies that will help them to improve their work. But, in fact, doesn’t doing more work improve the work. My experience in art classes was that they are great at teaching technique and media. However, they are less informative about the spirit of the work for fear of “stopping” a student.

    Is it possible that what Elkins is trying to get at is the spirit of the work? And that critiques fall short on that aspect.

    Now I am talking out loud.

  4. 4 catherine April 15, 2008 at 9:29 am

    June,

    Just wanted to add that your writing on Elkins is fascinating. You absolutely convinced me to look up his books next time I get to the library! A lot of my defensiveness vis-a-vis Elkins’ suggestions has to do with the fragility of this pieced-together thing that I call my identity as an artist.

  5. 5 June April 15, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Catherine,

    I suspected that someone (maybe everyone!) was going to find Elkins’ prescriptions distasteful. Sincerity is something I have often been accused of, so I chuckled a bit at your phrase “overload of unschooled sincerity.”

    But that said, I think Elkins is trying to jolt students (and panelists) out of reverence for the critique, just as one might jolt an overly-anxious student from thinking the grade on the math test was indicative of all that was wrong with her life. In this sense, he’s very much a teacher himself.

    Most of the critiques in which I’m involved are a) highly respectful of the art and artist and b) likely to try to explain what they see in terms of what is already known about art and artist. For that reason, jolting the panelists a bit out of their own preconceptions could be useful. However, as Elkins ruefully points out, this could be seen as hostility, not as a learning experience. I’m not sure my friends would appreciate the joke.

    And to be fair to him, in this chapter he also wanders off into his the problem he’s been wrestling with, which is how to teach art, or whether art can be taught, or what to do about the fact that it can’t be taught. So his idea about examining the critique via transcription or spending 3 hours talking about meaning are experiments to see what happens when critiques are more thoroughly focused. His one big complaint about critiques is that they tend to wander (like his own writing), moving toward and away from topics that might help the artist, involving narratives that aren’t directly related, socializing that puts everyone at ease but doesn’t work on the art, and so forth.

    At one point, Elkins says that the artist in a critique wants to know more about the art she has made in order to improve it; but the panelists are really trying to articulate explanations about what they see and why they see it. In academic situations, this tends to take the form of references to famous artists, past art by the artist being critiqued, and art theories. Because “explanation” is the goal, the actual artifact might be ignored or talked around. The other thing he says that resounded with me is that judgmental discussions generally focus on what is not there rather than what is. This could be useful, but more often than not, it’s distracting.

    Ah well, it’s good to see how art school works, at least in some parts of the world.

    I apologize for going on and on about Elkins. I have found, however, that in examining what he has to say so closely and over a period of time, that I have insights into what I do in critiques, both as artist and panelist. Thanks for pushing me to think further.

  6. 6 catherine April 15, 2008 at 7:10 am

    I’m not sure whether Elkins’ antidotes to bad critiques are meant as eye-opening jokes or as proposals for action. The suggested swaps for students/artists undergoing critique – trading places with someone else, borrowing someone else’s art, borrowing someone else’s words – all tend to imply that identity is fluid, that art, statements about art, and the human beings making the art and the statements aren’t so closely coupled as we think. I find that idea pretty scary and cynical. (Though maybe I should be cynical; maybe I would be, if I Elkins’ experience and credentials.)

    I can see how it might highlight gender/ethnic/racial stereotyping – and thus open some minds – if two students of different physical appearance traded places during critiques. But what conclusion might be drawn from students swapping statements or swapping art? If this happens and the deception goes unnoticed, that seems to imply that either:

    (1) nobody, including the teacher or teachers, is paying close attention,

    (2) the statement is just blather tacked onto the art after its making, or

    (3) the statement is all that really matters, the art being just a pretext for all the talk.

    I’m probably suffering from an overload of unschooled sincerity. I think the words, the art, and artist’s identity all matter enormously; it pains me to think of separating them even as a joke.

    As for teachers impersonating known artists, that sounds even scarier. If I were paying good money for critiques I’d want to be treated with the fair-mindedness of a scholar (not that all scholars are fair-minded, of course), rather than with the passion and biases of a working artist. Especially if the artist in question turned out to be a reincarnation of Norman Rockwell!

  7. 7 June April 14, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Here are the ideas that Elkins presents as antidotes to problematic critiques.

    He begins by presenting possibilities from the student (artist’s) point of view:

    Take an artwork done by someone else, and place it among your own. See what kind of stories the critique panelists come up with in order to explain how that work is one of your own.

    Have a friend stand next to you in a critique. Don’t tell the panelists which of you is the artist — tell them that at the end of the critique, you’d like them to guess.

    Have someone play your part at the critique and listen in the background without identifying yourself. Note how the teachers react differently to the actor. If you’re a man, ask a woman to play your part; if you’re white, as a latino or African American.

    Present someone else’s work. Choose someone whom you don’t know. Do your best to represent that person’s work as your own.

    Present work that you dislike (old work, for example) as if it were your newest. See if you can convince the panel that you think it’s good work.

    Present the chronology of your works in reverse order. See if you can convince yourself, and your teachers, that you’re going forward with your works.

    Borrow your opening speech from someone else. Present that person’s concerns to your teachers, as though his or her interest were your own interests.

    [Elkins says “don’t make fun of the faculty… the idea is to learn more about how you and your work are seen, by changing something about yourself or your art.]

    From the faculty [panelists’] point of view:

    Try saying the opposite of what you think; anytime you have an opinion, instead of saying it, formulate its opposite.

    Try speaking as if you loved Andrew Wyeth, or Norma Rockwell, or some artist you don’t like. Don’t name the artist (that might make it too simple to argue against you), but try to make a convincing case for the artist’s sensibility.

    Try speaking as if you were Pollock, or Picasso, or some artist you know well. Don’t necessarily pretend you _are_ the artist, just try borrowing the artist’s language.

    Alternate Critique formats: Elkins explains: “In this book, I [Elkins] have been thinking mostly of standard MFA and BFA- style critiques in which one or more teachers (the panel) talk to one artist. Sometimes the room is filled with other students, and sometimes it’s private. There are also larger class discussions in which each student takes a turn saying something about her work — but those are not really full critiques. Here are some suggestions for new kinds of critiques….]

    A critique in which the panelists are allowed only to ask questions about the work and are not allowed to pass judgments or tell stories.

    A critique in which the panelists cannot see the work until the student has discussed it for ten minutes.

    A critique in which the panelists must look at the work for ten minutes without speaking.

    A nonverbal critique, in which panelists have an hour to create a work of their own, in response to what they see. (At the School of the Art Institute, we once had a painting teacher who never spoke: she just took the brushes from the students’ hands and painted over their paintings.)

    A critique in which panelists are not allowed to see the work until the student decides they are ready for it.

    Elkins interrupts his bulleted points and inserts a long discourse on discourse — what he calls dialectical inquiries. Good stuff — too hard for me to summarize. He concludes this section with a list of unexplained assumptions (which often crop up in critiques but which, without dialectical inquiries, go unquestioned: Here is his list of notions that are often present without every being mentioned or questioned directly:

    Paintings should be primarily concerned with space.
    A painting should have unity.
    It is helpful to use other painters as sources.
    History is archaeology (and therefore is not useful).
    One can never be sure when a painting is finished.
    Disruptive qualities are good in a painting.
    Sensuous paintings are good.
    Spontaneity is good.
    Old styles of art need new zest to keep them going.

    He also suggests transcribing critiques in order to study them — and then delves into the difficulties that are encountered when one does that.He concludes: “Studying transcribed critiques is fascinating, but not a panacea; sometimes the only moral that can be drawn is that the critique was somehow doomed from the beginning, or that it will never make sense, no matter how carefully it is studied.

    Another twist on critique format is to allow people to speak only about meanings — to examine a work and trying to name and understand every single meaning that occurred to them (his example was of one that took 3 hours of discussion with 25 people studying a single work). The discussion is purely descriptive, no one is allowed to advise the artist or talk about the marketplace or presentation. He goes on at length about how to structure such a “critique” and says it counters habitual ways of responding which are unorganized, undirected, and can operate at a relatively low energy.

    The book, again, is Why Art Cannot be Taught: a Handbook for Art Students,” by James Elkins, published in 2001.

  8. 8 June April 14, 2008 at 7:22 am

    Gabrielle,

    If you think the topic is confusing, you should have tried to summarize Elkins’ take on it. He’s a “disparate” thinker at best and I suspect his editors long gave up on him. Sometimes I think his asides and digressions are more interesting than his main point.

    And of course, the topic itself is, as he points out, impossible to make coherent, composed as it is of human frailty, failings and persuasions.

    I would hope, though, that all our friends would be biased. That said, I belong to at least two critique groups consisting entirely of friends. While they are expected to be kind, they are also good at describing what they see and they have backgrounds which are useful in bringing insights to the work. On the other hand, they don’t give me grades and their criticisms are mild.

    Later today I’ll try to summarize Elkins’ various “remedies” — they are also quirky, as you can imagine.

  9. 9 Gabrielle Swain April 14, 2008 at 6:25 am

    June, this is an incredibly confusing and thought provoking topic. Elkins is saying that critiques don’t work and yet that is his purview. Having taken graduate level art classes, where only the professor and fellow students critiqued the work, I must admit I learned something from each critique. On the other hand, you knew who was saying what was true and what was not. Please share with us Elkin’s “remedy” for critiques.
    Like you, I see honest critique or opinions about the work as the best we can hope for. My standard rule is to never ask my friends. They are always biased.

  10. 10 June April 13, 2008 at 9:20 am

    Hi Kate,

    It may be that what you express here is the only way that we can have “successful” critiques. The feedback in these sharing sessions (and I don’t mean sharing to be “show and tell,” but more carefully structured explorations of the work) isn’t meant to be academic or final but merely indicative of how the work will play in the world.

    In fact, most of the critiques that I am involved in are of the sort that you speak of — sharing work with people in order to elicit what they see when they look at it. In the best “critiques” of this sort, the people who look have the tools to discuss what they see in terms that are specific to art — design elements and principles, historical ideas, etc. But in the end, for most of my critique groups, “success” is mostly a matter of viewers having lots of notions about what they are looking at.

    I think the difference between this “sharing” approach to critiques and Elkins’ more rigorous one is that the critiques Elkins’ attends are in learning/teaching academic settings, where one would hope for a somewhat systematic/ methodical/ analytic approach. And more sophisticated viewers, like professionals in the fields of art and art criticism and art history. Knowing what the average viewer will see is different from knowing what the paid professional will see.

    Knowing how one’s art is viewed by the usual viewer comes under Abrams’ categories; it’s a kind of pragmatism — you can base changes on what you know others see without necessarily having information about why they see what they see or who else has done what you’ve done or what the specific idea might be based on.

    I am not sure that I would enjoy the more rigorous attempts at critique — after all, they all fail, according to Elkins. But like Catherine, sometimes I yearn for more expert eyes on my work — which is why I keep taking classes.

    I’m interested in people’s reactions to Elkins in part because I think that quilt artists generally now subscribe to your idea of critiques — it was a long time coming, but is now generally accepted practice among the artists that I know of. But Elkins’ ideas pushed me further into the process, beyond the notion of sharing with like-minded and articulate artists and viewers to thinking about further possibilities. Elkins’ has a list of suggestions about how to remedy some of the ills of the kind of critique sessions he’s looking at; I think we could use (and modify) them for ourselves.

  11. 11 Kate Themel April 13, 2008 at 6:35 am

    I think Elkins might be minimizing an important (perhaps the most important) aspect of critiques, and that is the simple fact that viewers are sharing their response to the artwork and the artist is there to hear it. I don’t think it matters that people could be injecting their own personal preferences and opinions into their critique, or that statements are colored by a viewer’s ignorance or experience, or that they’re focusing on the technical aspects too much.
    To me, the benefit of the critique is not the statements that are made by participants, but the energy created by passionate discussion. In the end, it is up to the artist to “take it or leave it” regarding other people’s opinions. Whether we allow our work to be influenced by the discussion, it’s important to acknowledge people’s response to our artwork. Why do we create art if it is not to elicit a reaction from the viewer?

  12. 12 June April 12, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Catherine,

    Elkins is a professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — which perhaps helps explain some of the circumstances he describes. He also tends to blend together various versions of critiques (sometimes he speaks of the “panelists” sometimes of the “teacher” and, less often, of other students.) And he ranges from talking about undergraduates and absolute beginners (for whom he prescribes very short critiques) to graduate students.

    He also seems to talk about critiques in which anything from a single work of a semester to a four-year portfolio is being discussed. So sometimes I find his conflating of very different circumstances a bit over simplistic.

    All that said, you are quite right — the scenario, regardless of its dangers and difficulties, is enticing. This may be why some of us yearn for the college/ art school of our dreams — where a place where people “who know art and care about it for its own sake” discuss art — in general and in particular.

    By the way, Elkins does not deal with either the difficulty of critiques in which other students, provoked perhaps by envy or indifference or hostility, are tendentious. Nor does he seem to have encountered the opposite, where kindness makes saying anything at all difficult. The situations he describes, while astute, leave out some that I’m more familiar with.

    But it’s worth saying it again — that he loves the teaching and critiquing of art “because artworks themselves express the widest spectrum of human response.”

    Thanks for checking in.

  13. 13 catherine April 12, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    My first reaction, on reading this, was envy. Where are those situations that Elkins writes about where a student’s work can command a 45-minute critique – a critique not by half-trained beginners but by a panel of five artists with serious academic credentials? Only, I’d guess, in graduate programs or well-funded private schools. Not, so far as I know, at places like Cal State Long Beach, where my daughter is working toward a BFA. Certainly not in society at large or in the community colleges where I tried to piece together a budget art education.

    The seduction-followed-by-rejection scenario that Elkins describes – the student’s experience of self-revelation though art, further intimate disclosures (through conversation about the art), and then abandonment when the critique ends, the lights are turned off and everyone goes home alone – that scenario sounds almost appealing. Better, at any rate, than the indifference to art (or at least to art discussion) that I find in society as a whole. On the other hand, never having been through a 45-minute critique such as Elkins describes, I may be underestimating the pain and artistic and/or psychological damage arising from critiques gone wrong.

    Mostly I think that an important function of art school is to create a small oasis, in a blase or hostile or society, where art can be treated as if it matters. Art students (and others too) need a place where art can be created and discussed with sympathy, intelligence, and some awareness of art history. Critiques may play a part in sustaining this oasis.

    Outside art school lies a world where art functions as entertainment, as home decoration, and as raw material for the creation of general cool-ness – styles and concepts used establish brands and thus to sell goods. This world may prove less disheartening if a person can look back on the experience of some intense critiques by people who know art and care about it for its own sake. Just my guess, but I’m still a little envious….


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