Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: https://arts-collab.uga.edu
Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Richard Siegesmund about the inner workings of a visual arts critique. He's a professor of art education in the Lamar Dodd School of Art here at the University of Georgia. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Richard:
Richard Siegesmund: Normally in the visual arts, the dominant form of peer review is critique. In my field of art education we also have publication as a way of peer review with blind reviewers reviewing manuscripts before they can move into publication. But critique is really the dominant word.
MC: So, what would you say are the main benefits of critique?
RS: Critique is a making process, I think, when it's done well. And it is a social process of making. I think this is often lost in critique. I think there lots of bad examples of critique, and if someone was to take umbrage of what I just said here, it would probably be because they have suffered under bad critique. But if it goes well, there is a coming together of a group of people around making a work better. And that collective effort can produce a lot of rewards.
MC: So, how would you describe a typical critique session? How does it unfold?
RS: In art education we have a method of criticism which is a form of critique, and the basic form that we use here is one that was actually developed back in the 1960s by a former Georgia professor, Ed Feldman, and that process really begins with, "What do you see?" and trying to actually see what's in front of us. If somebody were to say, "I see a family," well you don't really see a family. It's like the Magritte painting, This Is Not a Pipe. You don't actually "see" a pipe. Something has come together to make you see a pipe, "What are those things that are happening?" So trying to - before we jump into symbolic interpretation to really just try to step back, "What is this thing that...you can see?" And that I think opens up critique to the possibility of suspending judgment for a while and not, "I like it, I don't like it, good, bad," but simply, "What is this thing that we're looking at?"
MC: And so at that point I guess you're collecting responses?
RS: Yes! It really is a gathering of evidence, and in fact the Feldman method is inferential reasoning that, "Well we have this piece of evidence, and this piece of evidence, and this piece of evidence, does anyone want to make a hypothesis about what we're doing here?" And eventually you do get into symbols and yeah, "That is a family" and, "That is a baby Jesus with a pomegranate." You know, things like that. But you have also assembled along the way lots of other pieces of evidence. "It's a moody picture," that, "People are happy, people are anxious, something's not right here," and from there beyond just the simple symbolic recognition, you can get into the complex forms of meaning.
MC: That sounds like it's really heavy on analysis. Does the evaluation sort of happen during analysis, or is there another component?
RS: Yes, yes. The analysis aspect of it is that it comes through as you try to go through this inferential reasoning process. And now that system works with works that move up into a Modernist tradition, in which one is assuming that the object has been inscribed with meaning by the artist. If you get into more Postmodern kinds of work, I'm not totally sure that the system is always appropriate, but for my field, where we're training people to teach K-12 education, really working with advanced Postmodern work is not really what we're doing in K-12. We're trying to get kids to learn the basics. So it's a good system for unpacking Goya's The Fifth of May or Picasso's Guernica or something like even a Jackson Pollock drip painting. But you may be challenged by Liam Gillick if you try to apply it to that.
MC: So in your view, what is a successful critique?
RS: I think a successful critique is one in which the person leaves with a sense of what to do next. And that doesn't mean that I go down and get a hot fudge sundae because that's what I deserve! It means that there's some sort of pathway of going forward from here. I think in a good critique people ought to feel energized and like, "I want to get back to the studio and I want to do it tomorrow." And I've just been at too many critiques where people really just want to go get drunk or give up being artists, and the destructive side of critique is of a great concern to me. There are people who think that critique should be destructive and that this is a tough business and if you can't take a bop on the nose and come back in swinging then you don't belong in this field, and I don't think critiques ought to be handing out bops on the noses.
MC: Can you describe some of your first critique experiences?
RS: At the University of Hawaii, where I did my masters work, the critiques were all held on one mammoth evening, and people would bring a lot of beer to these things. And so if you had the misfortune for being the last person for the evening, it was a pretty rowdy bunch. And there was one night when one of my fellow students threw a beer can at me - he threw it at my painting, he thought it was just junk - and I had to duck the beer can coming at my ear. That was my most dominant critique experience. That sense of just being so devastated that I all I want right now is a hot fudge sundae, and need some serious comfort food after what they just did to me. But that was a time, too, when, "Oh, artists were tough," and it was very macho, and it was a very, kind of a swagger kind of a period.
MC: Do you think there's a specific moment when critique is most beneficial, when someone is maybe working on a project?
RS: That's a good one, because I think critique can be a benefit at any stage you do it. When is it most? I think it probably depends upon the individual you're dealing with. I have a former colleague of mine from graduate school who works for Youth Radio in Berkeley, California. And so her task is to take a typical East Bay High School student who wants to say something, to tell a story, and get that polished where it can go out on National Public Radio, in a one minute speech - smooth, polished. And trying to get that from street talk into broadcastable, millions of people's cars and homes. That's done, and she's written about this through a very intense process of critique, that begins almost instantaneously, and it's peer critique in terms of trying to, how do you say this, this is what we need, this is the quality level we need to get it at, how do you get there and stay true to what you say. And it's a very strong push-back because a lot of kids say, "No, I'm saying it this way, because that's the way the power system is, and it has to said this way, and if you try to clean it up you're suppressing me," and, "Well, do you want to be heard on National Public Radio or not? Because I can't put those words on National Public Radio." So there's something that, almost the second that you begin with, there's something I want to do, there's a process of critique that opens up and is valuable.
MC: Now, you're also involved in helping first-year instructors in colleges and universities improve their teaching practice, and I wonder if you've noticed any trends there or discussions of critique?
RS: I think there is, for art schools that are beginning to question whether they work simply within sort of the "white cube" paradigm of the museum object, the "high art," or are we engaged in other kinds of practice? Do artists do other things in society than put on museum shows? And there are places like the Art Institute of Chicago that I work with, the National College of Art and Design in Dublin that I work with, art institutions that are art schools who are seriously questioning whether our product is "The Artist" who goes into "The Museum" or into the gallery, but that we are creating imaginative individuals who are going to interact dynamically with society.
So if you change what is the outcome of an art education from people who make stuff, to people who think about the world in particular kinds of ways and ask particular kinds of questions, who have the ability to provoke and stage and expand, you get into - particularly in the first year, which is a core basis of, what is it that everybody needs to know? You can quickly get past color composition and 2D design and the kind of standard Bauhaus. These are the basics to one in which there is more dialogue. More talking. The Art Institute of Chicago, if it hasn't done so already, soon will require all of its freshman to do a service-learning community project as part of their freshman foundations. So you have to be talking to people in a community, you have to do something in which your work fits within that structure. And that sense of critique is talking and being able to negotiate a space and not just necessarily critique about, how do I make that a better object? Or, how do I make that a better radio podcast for National Public Radio? But now you're talking about, how do I do something that affects some kind of a social service center or working in school, or something that, what kind of a dialogue are we having there? And so critique starts getting more robust. It takes different forms.
MC: And a service-learning project is a highly dynamic situation. There are a lot of different stakeholders.
RS: Absolutely. And one of the things that fine art is going through right now, with the move from Relational Aesthetics, is that the initial critique of Relational Aesthetics is that it really didn't respect the stakeholders in the process. That it was still too much, "I, brilliant artist, swagger in and do this for you, and you'll have a nice chat after I've done it for you." And that's not really a kind of communication. That's not a listening, that's not a reciprocal kind of relational situation. And can we begin to work informs of dialogue in which the artists really, seriously, take it upon themselves to listen? And that's something that, you know, is not part of the normal lexicon. Art school's all about, "You need to express yourself, you need to have your vision, you need to have your style, you have to be individualistic." The dialogue here is not about, "You need to serve, you need to be attentive."
MC: In your career you've seen a lot of changes in media and technology. Has that factored into how people evaluate work?
RS: It has. That I think in some areas it's moving faster than I can keep up with. I have colleagues that conduct their classes in Second Life - I have not done that. But just a couple weeks ago I did a graduate class in which we went across the walk here to the museum, and the task was that the students were to use their hand-held mobile technology, and of course everyone had hand-held mobile technology. And not just a cell phone, but that you were going to browse the Web with your hand-held mobile technology, and everybody of course had hand-held mobile technology that was browsing the Web. So there's nothing that I had to provide. It was just, you know, get your stuff out. You know, just open your bag, go do it. Which at first was just kind of - if I say, "Go to a computer," "Oh well I don't have a computer." "Oh, get out your Web-connected hand-held-" "Yeah! Sure! Here it is." I'm not ready for this world!
MC: It's no longer a destination, right?
RS: So we went over and they took a picture of an object and then I said, start asking questions about this picture, and start answering them by browsing the Internet, and in 30 minutes I want you to record where you are, and we're going to come back and see the image where you started and where in the Internet you ended up in 30 minutes - and tell us about that. And it was fascinating. We went from the Alice Neel Bill Paul picture - they didn't know about Alice Neel so they "googled" Alice Neel and it turned out that chair shows up in a lot of Alice Neel's paintings, and so they started looking at Alice Neel chairs, and they decided to look at Japanese chair design and finally they got the current price on if you want a real Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair. It's six thousand dollars but it's on sale this month for four! So if I'd gone over there, I'd have never taken them through that pathway to contemporary wire-mesh Japanese chair design and Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs.
MC: It's a whole line of inquiry laid bare.
RS: That's right. And everybody did that! Everybody did that! And they were all over the map! That's really challenging in terms of, to me, of how do you teach now? Because people are going to grab and appropriate and go in different ways, and so when we're talking about things are you talking for convergence or are you talking for divergence? Ranciere contrasts dissensus from consensus, and the ability to try to create multiple, possibly antagonistic readings, that in fact require that you have antagonistic readings in the process of education. So you don't want everyone nodding dutifully, writing the same thing into the notebook, the "Great Mind" spreading the knowledge to the room. People need to be engaged, they need to take it seriously, it can't be frivolous, and if it upsets you that doesn't mean you're permitted to throw a beer can at it. You know, that there's kind of, still, a responsibility that if it does upset you that much that you have to find some kind of language to articulate your dissent from that work, and you can't just ban it and declare it object non grata or something like that.
MC: What kind of advice would you give to someone who is preparing for a critique, to receive evaluation?
RS: I think that you have to depersonalize it. You have to understand that once you've inscribed it, once you've put it out there, it's its own thing. And that it's not you. And that if it's insufficient, if it's not communicating, that's not a failure on your part, it is a place that now you know you can go forward and fix it. If the things that people have talked to you about matter to you, then you should have a sense of, oh, then this is how we adjust it. And I think that to learn how to take this dispassionately is important. That's more difficult than it may appear to sound, in part because in visual media we say things before we have language. The media makes statements that we yet not articulated in language. So I've done it, the meaning is there, I can't "say it" yet. In that sense it is an exposure.
It can be, "I don't know what it is," and I have seen where people who just talk about what's been painted, or what's been made, and somebody starts crying because what the people have said is what they wanted to say but they never had words to say. And it's not that they were hurtful words, it was just a powerful moment where suddenly something that was personal felt, and somebody else manifest in words through looking at the artwork, and that doubles back and it just becomes a very emotional kind of an experience. And those things happen. I see those things happen. And to me that just underscores the fact that the meaning was in the materials. That we can, if you want to, inscribe meaning in materials. We know we can do art other ways, but that is a way we can do that. And when you do that people can read that, and they may be able to give you language that you never had. And that's a tremendously meaningful part of critique, because I think once you have the language, you can see what you did better. Your perception will improve, and if you want to go back into that space again you'll see more the next time.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Tifany Lee and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on October 12, 2011
Transcription by Victoria Weaver