The past week (Tuesday to Friday), I attended the art and design critiques held at UIC. Tuesday was the first of four days of Studio Arts MFA critiques. Wednesday was for Electronic Visualization MFA and senior graphic design thesis in the afternoon. Thursday and Friday were graphic design MFA critiques.
One of the advantages of my meta-disciplinary role is that I am encouraged to gain a wide view of what the School of Art and Design is doing for its students and its reputation. To see the similarities and differences in perspectives as such an enlightening experience. The key concepts that hold the week together are (1) the various relationships to "indeterminacy" in art and design, (2) the communication of the specific and/or the universalistic in creative intentionality and decision-making, and (3) the contextualizing discourse of the critique.
Indeterminacy, the state of not being clearly ascertained, described, or calculated
I was surprised in the critiques by the way in which the students handled or did not handle indeterminacy. In the art critiques, the students embraced indeterminacy like a safety blanket. When pressure to provide a reason for either their work or curatorial decisions, they would say, "I want to leave that up to the audience." This was not accepted by me or the other critics, who again emphasized that art needs to communicate, even if it is communicating no particular message.
In the EV critiques, the technical learning curve made them be more calculated in their intentions from a tool perspective, yet their subject matter for their technical concepts were indeterminable. Meaning, there was nothing specific about whether they used 3D stereoscope for a black and white graveyard scene or a fly over the New Mexico desert. Leaving me and others, the feeling that they tried things (motion sensors to activate films, Cubist cinematic effects, robot-like shrimp) because they seemed technically cool to do as opposed to pushing some conceptual statement about the world.
Graphic design students on the other hand struggled with the two classes that afforded them lots of indeterminacy. My class in research methods and, my colleague, Jorg Becker's graphic design conceptualization course. It is my belief that graphic design positions itself as a problem-solving field and less as a problem framing or generating field. Both courses required lots of research to frame and/or generate the problem. My course's research was by nature more systematic and rigorous while Jorg's was more impressionistic and inspirational, but the intent was to force the students to define a problem before seeking to solve it through their formal design skills. In the student presentations, they talked poignantly about their frustration and confusion with designing from positions not their own and coming up with an actionable problem statement(s) by which to derive a conceptual solution.
Thus the challenge of an art and design education is managing indeterminacy so that their is enough mystery to find the approach and solution compelling, yet enough description or calculation to enable a clarity of intention to the audience.
the Challenge of Communication, the successful conveying of feelings and ideas
The ability for a painting, sculpture, interactive piece, film, poster, or narrative to communicate successfully is the evaluative criteria of all critiques. It is the delicate dance between creative author's intentionality and audience's interpretation of the work (which can be completely separate from the author's intentions). For me, the goal of the creative author is to have enough awareness of the interpretive possibilities so to be able to guide the audience to interpretations that have the highest spiritual, emotional, and intellectual payoffs, in others words, that create a moment of communion with the world. The challenge is dialing up or down the specificity or universality of the ideas until they research a gestalt moment of specific universality or universal specificity. This challenge was present in all of the art and design critiques, but it hit home with me in the art critiques.
There is one art student who had done a series of painting of gem-like mountains and then a drawing of Snow White with the words "Puta" and "Run" on it. The key painting was this large canvas with layered white paint, but a grey box that looked like a screen or mirror with a pink gem-like mountain reflected in it. In his statement, the artist made it clear that it was tied to his heritage (without stating what it was, for I had to ask him 4 times what is your background). His heritage was Cuban, thus his antagonism to Disney images of childhood, and the meaning of the mountains being those of Cuba. This was not at all accessible in the work itself, so the discussion became about how accessible should his narrative be, whether that is what he really wants to convey (because it seems most of his statements is about being known for his aesthetics), and how much does the work have to speak for itself. In other words, his work was unclear in terms of the message being one about the sadness of leaving behind one's history (very universal) or one about the specific relationship between Cuba and the US as it relates to his childhood memories (very specific).
Separate note: There is an interesting narrative about the art and design work of people of color in terms of an anxiety about reveling of one's ethnicity in the work versus being about aesthetics (i.e. formal principles of art and design). The Caucasian students' whiteness is never brought up as being contrary to aesthetics, so again the normativeness of art and design "whiteness" is marked in the absence of discussion about white ethnicities impact on the work.
Discourses of art and design critique
Doug Ishar paid me the highest compliment (for an anthropologist) at the school holiday party. That my comments in the art critique were like that of another art colleague not as someone from another discipline. This is high praise for an anthropologist because we are evaluated by our skills in culturally passing for a native. Although problematic at many levels, the idea is to learn the language, behaviors, assumptions, and beliefs of the group you are studying to such a degree of detail that you can mimic or "pass" as a native. So I attended the critiques to specifically learn the discourses (in the Foucault's sense of practices, institutions, as well as language) of art and design. There seems to me to be three intentions embedded in the critique:
- To provide a variety of interpretive possibilities to help the student clarify their meanings and sharpen their decision making. Every phrase begins with a version of "I think it means..." Students are able to refute this interpretations, but often they restate their positions "I was trying to do..." or cop out with an "I leave it up to the audience..." But this exercise in providing interpretive possibilities is again key to sharpening the student's skills.
- To contextualize the students work within the larger art and design "literature" and institutions. Critics offer a lot of references to other artists and designers work with whom the student's work resonates. This is more so on the art side than in the design side, which I think has to do with a more established critical body of knowledge in art as opposed to design. But this is the one area that opens the possibility of interdisciplinary dialog. What if a designer in an art critic offers up a designer's work that the art student should visit? What if I suggest for them to read anthropological or social theory texts relevant to their work (actually I do that)? At UIC, we need more of those interdisciplinary conversations.
- To investigate the curatorial decisions of artist and design students, so that they understand that the move from "intuitive" creation to strategic presentation requires precise editing and decision-making. Many students focus so much on making the work that they forget that the work will have to live in a context (perhaps ephemeral like much of graphic design but sometimes more permanent like an outdoor sculpture). In many cases the critique would consist of a 1/3 focus on the technical form of the work, 1/3 on the content and message, and 1/3 on the presentation and set up. If there were problems in one area or another, more time was devoted to the problem area, but if everything was pretty much okay, that was the relative split.
I really enjoyed the learning I gained through the week. It helped me contextualize my presence in a school of art and design and what role in need to play as the anthropological participant observer.