Group Critiques

I’ve been in my studio for the better part of the weekend. No vacation till graduation. The MFA show is coming up fast (May 18), but before that, I still have one more group critique of my project, and a Final Review (April 26) with Berkeley professors and my MFA committee members.

Wednesday night, my work receives its final group critique of my grad school career. For those unfamiliar with the group critique, it’s essentially a process in which an artist presents his/her work to a group of his/her fellow students, usually facilitated by a faculty member. Each artist in our program has his/her work run through “group crit” once or twice a semester. It’s an integral part of the critical process: it trains (by example) artists in how to talk about work more deeply, and it gives the presenting artist access to feedback otherwise unavailable to him/her in a solitary studio practice. It’s often stressful for the presenting artist, as private work is suddenly laid relatively bare to public opinion. At its best, it’s a productive, thoughtful, well-structured forum for giving and receiving feedback that will help work grow: at its worst, however, it disintegrates into a messy, destructive free-for-all, where individual agendas and egos actually compromise the process altogether. It can go either way, at the drop of a hat. Good facilitation is key.

Grad school, as most of my friends know, has been an intensely challenging experience for me. (Apparently this is many people’s grad school experience, as it turns out). While at this point I feel much more charitable about my time at Berkeley, there have definitely been choice points of deep frustration, one of them being how group critiques have been handled at times. In comparing notes with friends in other programs, it doesn’t seem as if our process was particularly awful, so I can’t single out our program for condemnation. There has certainly been bad behavior in our group crits on occasion, but in the end, it’s been mitigated by other much more pleasant moments, for the most part. It seems to be endemic to the (historical) structure of the group crit process itself, which hasn’t really evolved much over the decades.

Given my background as an educator, I’ve just had to come to terms with the fact that I have different expectations of crits than others, and that I’ve not been in a position, as a grad student, to implement change. It’s been painful, however, sitting in situations that I’ve seen multiple solutions to, but not been empowered to do anything about. It’s been doubly painful, watching artists default to classic patterns of dysfunctional artist behavior, in situations where they’re utterly capable of doing more, and doing it better. To be fair, I’ve been mostly grateful to learn from my peers and their creative processes, and I don’t regret grad school at all. I just hope that when I start teaching again, I’m able to dismantle some of the dopeyness I’ve witnessed/experienced, and bring better, fairer processes to my own students.

The process has gotten enormously better this academic year, and it’s been such a pleasure to see how the conversations about work have shifted and deepened. People are much better about treating each other respectfully, while still challenging the content or weak spots in artwork. This is a group critique at its best: where enough safety and respect has been established that people are able to speak candidly and productively about one another’s work. I could write a long essay on the dynamics of art school group critiques, but I’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice to say, I’m actually looking forward to Wednesday night, and also looking forward to being done with it.

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