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Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Kendall Buster, a professor of sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is joining us here at the University of Georgia as the Lamar Dodd Professorial Chair for fall semester 2013. Kendall Buster's large-scale sculptural installations have been exhibited around the world, and she is a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in the Arts. She is also the co-author, along with Paula Crawford, of The Critique Handbook: A Sourcebook and Survival Guide, first published in 2007. Here's Kendall:
Kendall Buster: The Critique Handbook is a guidebook that a colleague of mine, Paula Crawford, who is in the painting and printmaking department at George Mason University and I put together a few years ago and it came out of this, it was interesting, because it was really, I think, in a sense, motivated by student demand, or student need. I had been teaching a class in those days, I guess this [the book] is in it's second edition, so it was a few years ago, with a group of students where we were engaged in some pretty intensive critiquing and one of the things that I found fascinating is that there were times when we not only were engaged in critique but were engaged in critiquing the critique. Looking at the critique critically. This was quite fascinating to me, it was fascinating to Paula, and it started out really as something more like handouts, some loose kind of notes, things that were doing and sharing with the students. It was interesting because, again, she's a painter, I'm a sculptor. We found that it wasn't really something that was an issue that was particularly specific to one medium, discipline, or process, that it really had to do with the nature of defining and looking at "what is a critique?", "what happens in critique?", "were there certain kinds of things that we could identify that could be implemented from our effective critiquing?" or ways we could look at critique and look at the various components that are in operation in a critique, so it sort of began that way. It wasn't something that came from the top down or externally, it was really from the inside, and again, I would stress that it really came from this conversation with students.
And I think part of that is pretty cool because it really shows the more proactive approach that we see with students in this particular kind of context. One might think you come to critique with the kind of authoritative voice: the teacher comes in, says what he or she thinks, there's this kind of voice of authority, the voice of judgment, and those things were really shifting because we were very aware of the fact that a critique is actually more of a dialogue, a conversation with a group of individuals, and there's something almost kind of random about that and kind of interesting that there's certain dynamic, so for us, we were interested in the fact that this was, in some ways, coming from an expressed need from the students to really look at this critically and we loved the fact that they were questioning that the critique wasn't just an exam, you know, we think of a critique as sort of being the equivalent in the visual arts of the exam, you know, you sit down, and you fill out your paper and you see if you've learned what you were supposed to learn. We put the paintings on the wall, we put the sculptures in the critique studio or class or if it's an off-site project, and we come and we look at it and judge it, but that it was something way more complex and interesting than that.
MC: Now, the book is divided in two parts: framing the discussion, and having the discussion. How did you arrive at that structure?
KB: When we approached The Critique Handbook and we thought about how we might structure it, we were thinking about sort of breaking down the critique into these components and the simplest way to look at that was, "what are we talking about?" and "how are we talking about it?", and what I mean by that is that there was a whole territory that seemed worth exploring that really had to do with what are concerns when you're looking at work critically, so we did a whole section called "formal matters" in this way and talked about that because there are critique methods where one comes in and talks about what's in front of you, you're not even involved in any kind of really extensive interpretative mode, you're just looking at what's in front of you, there are some critique methods instructors use where there's a kind of descriptive exercise at the beginning, just describing what we've got, so it's really about looking, it's not saying that the work's only about what's in front of us, it's not saying that this is the end of the conversation, but it just sort of situates things around looking.
Then we talked about what's the framing around the piece that we're looking at; so we talked about, for want of a better term, we spoke about the story that it tells. What is it communicating in terms of, let's say, narrative. It could be something that's a very literal narrative, in certain kinds of work, or it could be a kind of series of associations. The idea being that it's more than just this totally subjective thing. You've heard that sometimes in critique there's this sort of dismissive comment that, "well, everyone just has their own opinions, this is not really important." In a sense it was looking at this in a way that's more respectful of what happens when there's, I don't know, like, within that room, looking at work, talking about how we're responding to it, what kinds of associations that are coming up, what the work is saying back to us, that there's something rich to explore in that. We talked a lot about context, so the first part of is really looking at "what are the terms?" What are the different kinds of terms we want to think about so that we do not eliminate, we do not privilege one thing over another, but that we sort of tease out within a work of art all of these various kind of access points that we might engage in?
MC: Some of these are really fundamental, like scale, color...
KB: Very fundamental. Particularly in the formal matters, there's a lot of discussion about looking and how certain kinds of very small choices can make really significant effects on how the piece is read. We talk about the, in terms of sculpture, obviously materiality but certainly that's also the case with painting and I think that that's why working with Paula was particularly interesting because, again, we come from these slightly different directions. The second part of the book, for me, was in some ways the most fun because I am particularly interested in how a critique is a dynamic of people in a room, and so that was what I was really really interested in, because clearly one could cover all those things in the first part of the book and still be talking about producing a text around a work of art, or singularly going in and looking at piece and thinking about each of these different kinds of, I don't want to call them categories, because they're not that distinct, but these ways of accessing the work. I loved looking at the critique in this way as a kind of group dynamic and starting to dig into that a little bit. For many of us, the critique was about an expert coming in and making a certain kind of assessment, and that's a sort of professor-student relationship that we're very accustomed to and certainly a perfectly reasonable way to structure critique, but when you get a situation where you've got, let's say, a group of twelve students in a room, and let's assume those students' voices are also heard. There can be critiques where the students are just in a kind of passive listening, well, listening is active so I don't mean it that way - they're not speaking, their voices are not heard - but when you do get into a situation where there are multiple voices, then that starts to get very interesting. I make jokes, we get all of these people into a room and what's gonna happen? It's completely unpredictable because there's this group dynamic. So I guess in a sense The Critique Handbook was an attempt to look at something that one might think of as a very singular kind of concept: critique, judging, looking critically, that's pretty straightforward. We put the work up, we look at it, there's an authoritative voice, maybe there are students who each have their own little subjective opinions they're throwing at it, and that's the critique. Or the critique, on the other hand, could be something like the visual arts equivalent of the exam. But again, it's way more interesting I think, and complex, if you think of the critique as something that's to the side of the work, in a way, and something that has this incredibly complex performative element that you almost see as a separate thing, something that weaves in and out of the work, but is not a final assessment of the work, really, and hopefully opens up more questions than answers at the end of the day.
MC: Can you talk about some of the case studies that appear throughout the book?
KB: The case studies in the book were perhaps, for me, the heart of the book. Because, I think, for us, we were not interested in writing a kind of dry textbook about critique in a kind of theoretical way. The book is supposed to - it's a short book, it goes in your back pocket, it's something that, I hope, has a certain amount of humor, but I hope when students read this or faculty read it there's a recognition that, "oh, yeah, I experienced that. Oh, yes, I had that kind of critique when I was in school or I had that kind of critique last week." We didn't want to privilege, again, one approach to another. There's the "unconditional supporter." We talked about a lot of different faculty types, and the unconditional supporter can be just what someone needs at a time, maybe when they're just about to break through, there's a confidence issue, and so what they need at that point is someone just simply saying "just go for it", they don't need someone, "well, I'm not so sure...that isn't really...", you know. Maybe someone really needs a kick in the behind, they’re not pushing, they're being too self-satisfied, so that's another reason we got excited about using some of these specific examples. You're never approaching the work in a neutral place, the work is something that is completely tied up with that student's psychology, the dynamic with the student and the teacher, the dynamic of the group, and that's something I think we were most interested in is that this is a really fluid situation.
On the same note of fluidity, not only is there the fluidity of the dynamic of who is in the room and those histories and different kind of ways of communicating. Someone might be more diplomatic than another, some person might be more articulate than another person, and yet there may be a student who is incredibly insightful and just a very simple remark can just be the key. So it's this idea of trying to create an environment where all of these different modes of communication can flourish.
The other thing that's really complicated is that a critique, when we think about it, is a completely arbitrary moment along a trajectory of a student's work. That's always the case, but I think with a lot of other kinds of courses, you know, I study something, I have a particular set of information that I'm getting, and at a point we make sure that I've got to that stage before I go to the next stage, there's a kind of linear building blocks. But with the critique, that's the thing that's always amazing to me, is that, you know, these things are scheduled, they're every three weeks, or four weeks if you're a grad student, and, let's face it, everybody has a very different process. There are some students who work very quickly, they work in a very, a really direct, hands-on, things are finished very quickly, that's the whole point. There's a gestural kind of thing going on, you actually want to maybe even talk about this work, or acknowledge it publicly in a way that's way more sped up. On the other hand, you might have a student whose process, they're like a cat. They go round and round and round the cushion and that's their research, until they finally settle down and they do marvelous things, so, as a teacher who has been doing this for, gosh, quite a few years, I'm always aware of how the critique scheduling, when the critique comes up, how that works, whether that's working as a kind of enhancement of a student's progress, or whether it's something that seems to be a little bit out of kilter.
Another thing about that trajectory is that a critique can be happening in such a way that, let's say for example, a student is at the end of an exploration. So we're doing the critique, we're looking at the work, and it's very resolved, it's very successful, we're kind of done. We're just kind of wrapping it up, kind of synthesizing what we have here. So then you might say that student had a good crit, oh, they came in and everyone understood what it was doing, people were very positive, and then the other hand, let's say you've got a student with an absolute disastrous, ambitious failure. You know, so how do you factor that in when you know this is the beginning, this is a seed of something maybe really remarkable. So you don't want to hold hands, you don't want to be sort of "there, there" and be this sort of unconditional supporter, but I find that to be one of the most interesting things, assessing within the critique, where we are, what's appropriate, where are we on this trajectory? So when you come to the critique, it's this collision of all kinds of dynamics that make it quite a rich experience, but also can be very traumatic for the student, it can be very confusing, a student might come to school, particularly a beginning student, thinking "I'm gonna do my project, I'm gonna get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, my teacher liked it, they didn't, my peers liked it, they didn't," and then they find something way more murky, and that, I think, is the excitement but also the challenge for a student when they are confronting the critique.
MC: What do you think are the main benefits of critique?
KB: It's funny you ask, because you might ask that of many students who might say "I think there's no benefit, it's a big pain in my behind" and "I can't stand it", and "it's just this thing, it's like taking medicine." So, it's kind of funny that that question of "why critique?" and I love that question, even asking, "do we need these things?" Whenever there's something that's so embedded in a culture I don't think it's ever a bad things to just stop for a minute and go, "Really? What is the point of this? Can art be critiqued?" I think it's really helpful to interrogate that thing that's just kind of a given.
That being said, I do think there are many situations where critique is not helpful, it's something that we're going through the motions with, I think it's least interesting when it's a kind of thing you've got to get through, you're putting the work up, it's getting checked off, you can see those things where it's bored students, they're not talking about their work so they're kind of disengaged, so I think that there are certainly situations where the critique does seem like it's just kind of going through the motions in a way. That being said, for me the critique does a few things that I think are useful and probably the most obvious is the formalizing of looking at work, where you sort of set aside this time, this is what we're doing, we're gonna completely focus on this, and this particular group of people at this particular time, this is unique in a way, the mood people are in, did they eat too much? Did they drink too much coffee? I mean, I have seen situations where, too much coffee, the whole thing changes. It's a little bit too late at night after a long day, the whole thing changes. So it is something that is a very particular conversation in a particular time with a particular group of people that, by its nature, if handled properly, is very fruitful because it's very focused.
I think the other thing that can be a really good goal in the same way that many of us as artists find, as much as we complain about the show deadlines and submission deadlines they can be very useful because they take us out of what could just become endless research mode. For many students, the critique is a way to at least make a stopping point. I think, also, critique can be something distinctly different from, say, a conversation in studio among peers, which should be happening anyway. I say to the students, "please, I'm hoping your only conversation is not in this critique room, and with me running the show, but that you have this other thing that's also going on." Many institutions are very strict about critique only happening with finished work, I know we've gone through periods in some of the advanced, well, even in some of the basic classes, too, that I've been teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University where we have critique spaces, it was part of the plan of the building, and it's a ritual. You take the work out of the studio, the messy, crazy studio, and we have gallery lighting, and you put it in the gallery lighting and now you have to take a certain responsibility to do that. One could say, "that's artificial, it's ripping it out of the studio, that all work doesn't behave well with that." It's a very good point. It is the white cube, it becomes a white cube in that sense, but it does, in a sense, in terms of the educational experience, force a situation where you have to stand behind the work. This is very different from, say, a critique strategy where you sort of have things in process, I think that can also be completely reasonable. We meet in the student's studio, we move around, we look at sketches, we look at drawings, we talk about the ideas, that's a critique, in a way, but that's a very different kind of critique.
MC: Can you talk about some of your first critique experiences?
KB: As you know, my background is in science. It's kind of interesting that I didn't start out in the arts. I didn't take art in high school, there was no program, I had a perfectly good high school experience but, you know, that was not the emphasis, it was a math and science kind of emphasis. When I went to college the first time I changed my major a million times. I always tell my students that, "don't worry if you find yourself on a kind of cowpath rather than on [Interstate] 95." When I did go to art school, it was in a very different way from the experience that a lot of students have had in that I started taking a number of classes singularly that were seminar-type classes because I wasn't really sure if I was going to do art history, or studio art, or something completely different. I was really interested in psychology and creative...I don't know. When you're that age you're just all over the map. So when I finally did settle down into a BFA program, I went to the Corcoran School of Art, it's now the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and the Corcoran was a very process-based program. So, critiquing for me, the way we did critiques was that they happened all the time. So the entire class of juniors, the entire class of seniors, the entire class of sophomores were all in one studio class together. This is not the model anymore, but for a short period of time it was a very interesting and very experimental model. Critiquing was something where everyone would meet in your studio and talk about what you were working on. There was some finished work, maybe, there was preparatory work, and there was research, and then sometimes we would talk about something completely different from the work. I mean, I'm interested in Japanese tea ceremony, so what's that got to do with what I'm looking at? There's a lot of tangential discussion and thinking so those were my critiques. There was a kind of craziness and a seamlessness from critique to working because we were all kind of in a big pile, and that was my experience. What I did find that was interesting in graduate school that was quite different, I did my MFA at Yale, was that we had a lot of visiting artists, and so the critiques would happen in your studio, and I called them critiques, but they were pretty formalized. A visiting artist would come and look at your work and talk about it in a really definitive way. That was challenging because you would have a different person every week and completely different viewpoints. That was a challenge, and I think a great lesson in dealing with things coming from every direction and you had the burden of making sense of all of that, and take what, not being defensive, what made sense to you and what didn't.
MC: Well, what advice do you have for someone who is about to have a critique?
KB: Well, I think there's a phrase that's in the book that may just sound a little bit like a cliche but I think it's worthwhile. It says, "leave your ego at the door," that's actually the phrase that's in the book. I think it's easier said than done, but I think if you can come to the critique and at least to a small degree - and I know this is difficult to do - to detach a little bit, or as much as you can, it really helps, because someone not liking the work doesn't mean they don't like you, issues with the work, maybe they're wrong, you know. I think that's what happens with students, there's this collapse all too often that the work is you, if the work's critiqued, you feel criticized, and of course it's going to happen, you're human, you're not made completely out of stone. I do think that helps a lot. I think being a good student in this way, which is, let's face it: If you come in there knowing you've done the best you can, not waiting until the last minute, being an adult about it, really preparing, then at least you can go in - the better you feel, and this is obvious, I suppose, the more confident, because if you go in there not sure about it and you're like, "oh, I hope I get away with it, what do you guys think, do you like it?" and you don't really think you like it, they either smell it on you, right, and go for the blood, or everyone likes it and you don't trust them because you know in your heart. I do think you have to go into the critique having done a kind of self-critique and a bit of an assessment and a grounding, and then try to see it as data-gathering like a scientist. This is all interesting information, I'm going to take notes, I'm going to think about it, I'm going to have a friend take notes. It's all data. It's not assessment. I just really believe that. If you just say "I'm open," "I'm open to what's going to happen," then you're going to be okay. If you go in it wanting an approval, you're setting yourself up, I think. I know that's hard, because it is like an exam, a test, and these are authorities and these are students that you want to look good in front of, but see it as learning because it always will be.
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 Hanna Lisa Stefansson and Fernando Deddos and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on September 11, 2013.
Transcription by Lisbeth Wells-Pratt