Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Feedback & Critique: pete hocking

My friends at Wikipedia tell me “a critique is a systematic inquiry into the conditions and consequences of a concept or set of concepts, and an attempt to understand its limitations.” The definition comes from a cultural studies or philosophical perspective and it’s interesting to me that Wikipedia makes no reference to the use of the word in the arts. In my experience as a visual artist critiques (or “the crit”) have been a central part of my educational process.

You’ll notice that I note they’ve been a central part of my education, but not necessarily a helpful part.

Interestingly, I think the cultural studies definition provides some insight into the ambivalence I feel about this process. The aim of critique is to understand, define and name limitations. In the visual arts critique I’ve found that those offering critique (and those receiving it) often confuse the object with the artist – sometimes with die consequence.

It’s my belief that education should focus on advancing the abilities, knowledge, self-awareness and criticality of the learner. With this in mind, I’ve adapted my own style for offering artist feedback to begin with the intentions of the artist -- and to assess the success of art in relation to the intentions with which they were created. Although it’s sometimes hard to do, I keep in mind that feedback dialogue isn’t a moment for me to relay what I know; rather it’s a moment that an artist might advance his or her work.

One of the interesting dimensions of New Urban Arts is the way that multiple traditions coexist within the flurry of activity. People arrive with their experience and they share it. Sometimes this means reproducing practices that don’t necessarily serve us. I’ve seen this with critique.

I’ve been asked to lead a feedback session with artist mentors this afternoon – looking at several pieces from the current gallery show of artist mentor work. In preparing, I’ve pulled out two feedback models that I respect – one from Liz Lerman, that’s primarily been developed within the context of dance performance, and another from my Goddard College colleague, laiwan. They overlap in significant ways and also each provide unique insights. I offer them here:

Liz Lehman's Method of Critical Response
Step 1. Look at the work. What makes you curious? What do you like about the work? Always give positive reinforcement.
Step 2. The artist asks the audience questions. Make sure you do not ask yes or no questions. Ask more open questions.
Step 3. The observer asks the artist neutral questions in order to let the artist see the work in a new way.
Step 4. Opinion statement. Ask the artist, "I have an opinion, do you want to hear it?"
Step 5. Ask the artist what will they be working on in the future.

Method for Interpreting Art by Laiwan
1. Describe what you see and only what you see (articulate details, colours, textures, forms, composition, materials, how it takes up time and space, describe its craft, properties and characteristics as an object, the details of each image and the characteristics of the image, etc.) avoid free associations at this time.
2. Describe what the work or object feels like and how it makes you feel -- avoid free associations at this time.
3. Analyse possible meanings of the object or image and/or the intentions of the artist.
4. At this step we can now freely associate possible meanings.
5. Give any possible historical or contemporary art contexts for the art, process, object or image.
6. The artist can now step forward and talk briefly about their own process of making the work or finding the object and/or the image

In my own practice I tend to adapt elements of each of these and some of my own. In approaching feedback I tend to ask questions like these (although not always in a specific sequence):
• What kind of feedback would be useful to you in relation to this work?
• What were your intentions in making this piece? Why did you make it? What aspirations did you have for the piece as you began?
• Are there questions you still have about it? Do you think you’ve resolved the questions that drove your intention in making it?
• In what context(s) (intellectual, social, spiritual, historical, philosophical, artistic, embodied, et cetera) does the work reside? Is the work critically contextualized within a larger set of discourses? Does it establish an intentional new discourse? Does it demonstrate an awareness of the context(s) it's engaging?
• For what audience is the work intended? Is the work accessible to its audience? Does the work engage the audience in their own experience, in conversation, or the construction of new meaning?
• Does the work construct meaning? Is the meaning –either intellectual, emotional, embodied, spiritual, et cetera?
• Does its craft support the work's meaning? Does it distract from the meaning?
• Does the artist think the work is successful? Is there direct feedback they’d specifically like to receive?

I don’t mean to imply with these examples that there is one means of feedback that’s correct. Indeed, the context of the feedback may require different tools at different times. I do think that we all benefit from having a wide array of tools at our disposal and that cultivating a diversity of means to talk with artists about their work can only help us cultivate our own ability to advance our own work, ideas and thinking.


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