Teaching: It’s Not (Just) the Critic Who Counts

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The Critics, 1862, by Honore Daumier


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

 

Every day of teaching, for me, is a risky day – a careful day. That’s probably true of all teachers.

As for me, I lead critiques, which can be so helpful, yet so dangerous. Students put their homework on the wall – their personal creations – their own ideas- and face public scutiny.  My job is to take it from there.

I’ve said many times that “crit” is not short for “criticism” – it’s short for “critique”. A crit should always be a learning excercise -a practice through which students learn how their work is seen through discussion with others. It’s where they learn of the infinite possibilities through observation of what everyone else created. And it’s where they learn how to improve through instruction and suggestion. I should add that it’s where students learn about accountability too – integrity.

But, day after day, I’m reminded that critiques can be risky. Students can feel judged – and can take things personally. Or, students can be defensive or closed to new possibilities.

It’s a tightrope we walk in critiques. But if student is as enthusiastic as in the quote above: “face marred by dust, sweat and blood,” then the focus goes to the maker. They have faced the blank page.

It’s easy to criticize, but it’s trickier to critique. And the difference is everything. It’s education.

 

Further Observation

Educators: remember not to monkey around with critiques. Get to the point. Say what needs to be said. Being useful demands courage. The courage of walking that tightrope.

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The Experts, 1837, by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps

Pictures of Pictures

Twin Stairs in Vitorchiano

Why do we draw what we draw?  Does it matter?

When you set out to draw, where do you go? Do you have a destination in mind already? Do you wander to find inspiration? Do you prefer to go to famous places – well known for their scenery?

A short time ago, I brought a large batch of my Italy drawings into my class for a critique (I’m a college professor of illustration). It was a good role reversal for everyone. I covered a long wall with drawings. Like most critique recipients, I was anxious. But, I encouraged honesty from my students and they delivered. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly before them.

What was most interesting to me, was the clear lack of enthusiasm for drawings that I had made of the most famous sites (like, “Piazza Plebiscito”)*. These beautiful, historic places were of less interest to viewers, not more! Using the same skills, materials and time, I was unable to generate enthusiasm in my viewers. They admired the drawings of famous things less. Why?

One student stated in a matter of fact way,  “because they are two kinds of drawings, altogether”. She explained that one kind of drawing was of what I, the artist had found to be interesting. The other kind were drawings of subjects that others have found interesting. She was right. I had decided differently why to draw these subjects.

Artists can either follow their muse, or they can follow the crowd.

It reminded me of a passage from Don DeLillo’s classic novel, White Noise:

“Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America.  We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington.  There were meadows and apple orchards.  White fences trailed through the rolling fields.  Soon the sign started appearing.  THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.  We counted five signs before we reached the site.  There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing.  All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.  We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers.  Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book. 


“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more.  People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.  Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence.  The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while.  We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?” ”

 -from White Noise by Don DeLillo

Piazza Plebiscito

When we draw famous places, we are consciously or unconsciously burdened by others’ perceptions of the place. We see the place in a shared way. We look through our own eyes at the subject, but also through the eyes of all the other viewers of this subject. Many of us are also looking through the eyes of other artists who have drawn this subject, or subjects like it.

In other words, we may compromise our enthusiasms to serve the expected – a pre-pictured image.

In the case of my work, the drawings of famous sites were serving as a “substitute image” of the thing – a symbol – a postcard. I made decisions of how to show the subjects clearly and recognizably and perhaps, too typically. They looked like what drawings of that place usually look like. The other drawings (like, “Twin Staircases in Vitorchiano”) were more personal, and thus, more new and interesting.

If we don’t follow our own interests, but rather, do what’s expected, or familiar,  we end up creating drawings of drawings or pictures of pictures.*

That’s why we see so much similarity in artists’ styles, or more commonly, so much similarity of subjects. We sometimes draw what other artists draw, rather than what we individually would like to draw. I see it in my students all the time, and try to push them out of it. I push them to create something more personal.

Bringing it back to my work – my students could feel the enthusiasm for my personal interests. They could also feel the compromise of my postcard-like works of famous places. Despite my skills of hand, my lack of heart tripped me up and dampening my enthusiasms. I compromised my muse. I need to watch out for that, because enthusiasm is the difference between a competent drawing and an interesting one. Sure, we can draw famous things – they’re famous for a reason- but we should try to add something new to what is said about it – something personal, and thus, memorable. We can’t just show things, we have to say things.

Try to stand apart from the crowd.

*I did get credit, and interest for the water-bottle in the drawing.

**Postmodern thinkers are very cognizant of this stuff, but I’ll not delve into those deep waters today, I’ll soon be over my head.

Critique: A Student’s Perspective

 

As an illustration professor, I teach only “critique” classes. That means, my students and I face a wall of artwork and talk about it exhaustively, for the full 2 1/2- to 5-hour class. For my students and me, a successful class is uphill all the way: overcoming obstacles such as boredom, frustration, ignorance, fatigue, laziness, craziness and incompetence (both of students and faculty). Luckily, I have terrific students who provide a large dose of inspiration, energy and smarts. Otherwise, the entire process would be torturous. 

This video is by RISD graphic design senior Karen Kavett (who was never a student of mine), and was passed along by RISD’s President John Maeda. It’s so accurate, it’s scary… and funny.

Welcome to my world.