”The main reason that artists don’t willingly describe or explain what they produce is, however, that the minute they do so they’ve admitted failure. Words are proof that the vision they had is not, in the opinion of some at least, fully there in the picture. Characterizing in words what they thought they’d shown is an acknowledgment that the photograph is unclear- that it is not art.”
Why People Photograph
I love the following essay by Zoe Strauss explaining her approach to student critiques. I love it because I am right in the middle of writing an essay to explain my own project Random Ghosts, and her down to earth advice here will no doubt shake loose much of the conjectural bull shit that has been floating inside my head. I also love it because not once does she mention the word form, or composition, or subject. No discussion of vision or creativity. Zoe doesn't even use the word photography. This essay could be used generically for any artistic medium, and by any artist who struggles with the fears associated with the overtly revealing nature of making art; what Steiglitz calls the "severe mental process".. of discovering "what you have to say and how to say it." Zoe's entire approach is about getting to the core of exactly that.
The Zoe Strauss Guide to Crits by Zoe Strauss (2009)
In the last 2 years I've found that I do a lot of student crits, which is a kind of odd thing to be doing because it seems a little crazy that people want my opinion of their school work. But I've come to like it and really look to do a good job. I'm not slacking, friends. One thing that seems to be different from my talking and talking about someones stuff vs. the critiquing style of other people is that I am unremittingly positive. It doesn't mean I'm not honest, I think that as a person coming into someones space to look at their unfinished work is about the process and less about the product. This is because I don't give a shit if I "like" the work or not. I think these critiques have nothing to do with one's own aesthetic sensibility and is about the intent, skill and thought process of the person making the work and how they can get to where they want to be.
I seem to have a loose formulaic structure at this point... if the work is close to done I tell the student what I see in it. I try and read it as it is with no input or description of the piece from the student and then I tell them my immediate reaction and reading of the piece. I have a tendency to read metaphor into a lot things where there was no intent, but I think that if I'm thinking it someone else must be as well. The biggest question that needs to be answered is whether someone is getting across what they want to convey. And then, depending on where the work is at, a billion things need to be answered. Who is the audience? How do you see it presented in final form? blah blah blah.
And if the work is in the formative stages of being created I like to find out about the person and what makes them come to want to create this work. What's their interest in making the piece and where is coming from? Are they happy with the concept? What research are they doing to help move the piece forward? What about the logistics that goes into making the piece? And skill that goes into making the piece?
There are definitively times where I've been like, "what the fuck is this?" because the kid is trying to get over with some total bullshit by couching a description of the piece in completely unrelated academic jargon. I have no qualms with terrible work where someone is really trying. It's up to me to help them think about ways to refine and rethink the piece, even if I think it blows. And I have no problem with folks having no idea why they're making something. I think that kind of exploration is healthy and in graduate school what an amazing time to use the unconscious and just be like "Holy shit, so that's what I've been thinking about!"
This thing about these crits is that it's just my opinion... I hate a lot of art that people love, so, again, who cares if I "like" it? However, if you are trying to disguise a piece of shit by using language and unrelated theory... you're getting called out, no question.