No, she certainly did not promise us a rose garden. Nor a picnic: she didn’t promise us anything except a certain discipline. This is all about the MA Fine Art group shows and the process of critical reflection
One of my daughters who had studied Fine Art at the Chelsea School of Art forewarned me that perhaps the very worst part of any Fine Art degree course was the experience of the ‘Group crits.’ Group criticism takes place when one or more artist presents his or her work and the tutors – as well as the peers on the degree course – respond to it. It is intrinsically ‘critical’ because various points of view are stated, questions are asked, suggestions for development are made and the discourse of Fine Art is mobilised; that discourse consists of description, and/or interpretation, and/or evaluation. It also consists of a kind of free-association and an impressive variety of personal responses. (The other profoundly negative feature for my daughter was the lack of any encouragement from the tutorial staff. Apparently, they relentlessly asked the question ‘why?’ of everything she did. After a while she found herself reduced to a sense of pointlessness and nihilism; ultimately she lost her morale and motivation.)
I can, now, begin to understand why the ‘group crits are, at the very least, a testing experience. Throughout the process I am certainly relatively uncomfortable. (And often very uncomfortable). I even have to get myself into a kind of ‘coping’ state in order to face them. I have tried to discover exactly why this is the case. Part of it relates to my usual performance anxiety: I really hate serving up comments in a group setting especially when I am not sure whether whatever I have to say is helpful or particularly appropriate. Nor am I sure whether to relate what I am seeing to the arts generally or to the work of esteemed individual artists (such as Otto Dix or Marlene Dumas) or to cultural theorists (such as Daniel Wickberg or Jonathon Meades). Another major part of the problem is simply that I much prefer a one-to-one discussion with an artist about their work and the experiences that they bring to the making of the work. In the one-to-one setting I can take my time to develop a conversation and gauge from their responses whether or not any real communication is taking place. For example, I had a very good exchange with an artist who is part Afghan and part Pakistani about a curious problem that his art posed for me. I sensed that I could ask him questions about his work in such a way that what I was saying was non-confrontational and pitched in such a way that I could learn more about what he was actually trying to do. But in the large ‘group crit ‘ I would have felt ill-at-ease if I were to ask the identical questions. (And because of my discomfort I would not necessarily end up saying what I really meant to say.)
We had another lengthy group ‘crit’ today. It was framed by the show’s title: ‘If only.’ What a great title! (The possibilities are endless: for example, ‘If only I had realised how best to use my freedom – well, things would be different and better’; or, ‘If only I did not suffer the usual catalogue of human limitations’ …) First, I must salute the tutor for her consistent adherence to rigour and discipline. She leads us through a thorough and tightly-managed process. This, though, does not alter the fact that I have to make a great effort to sit through the whole thing. At one point I even thought of escaping but realised that my rucksack and coat were trapped beneath someone’s chair. So that put the mockers on that!
The four works on show attracted sustained and thoughtful responses. At some point I realised that some of the feedback explored how to take the work forward. I am reluctant even to think like that. (It’s difficult enough to get a piece ready to show let alone start considering how best to move it forward!) But I can see that those MA students who do make such suggestions are potentially doing a great service to the artist. The four works we had to respond to featured: debris, detritus and leaves gathered from walks in the countryside, a ‘poster’ featuring broken-up text allied to skilful mark-making, a cultural study on divisive articles about millennials and their baby-boomer ‘targets’, and, a hanging sculpture featuring disembowelled soft toys.
Each in their own way was an engaging work of art. Since I am so used to seeing contemporary art yet at the same time have no clear idea as to how the cognoscenti of the art world actually apprehend the work I tend to respond in terms of the cultural knowledge I have gradually acquired. I make references to poetry, literature and songs. I think about history or anthropology – and even mathematics and chemistry. For example: I had been on a long walk yesterday through Farnham Park and I passed over the millions of fallen leaves; I was reminded of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s poem – his lament – to the dead in the first World War. When I saw the scattering of leaves in the group show I thought of those dead and I recalled Robin Williamson singing his lovely ‘October song’ in which he tells us that ‘leaves have learned the art of dying.’ So, in the group ‘crit’ I said that the leaves in the work pose a kind of challenge about how we, too, might also learn ‘the art of dying.’ At least that is what I wanted to say but I’m not sure that those were the words I spoke. I made one or two other remarks and really enjoyed quoting from Jonathon Meades about how travel, rather than broadening the mind, can easily do quite the opposite: plainly it can ’narrow the mind!’ (He said this with particular reference to the phenomenon of pilgrims and pilgrimages.) He is a brilliant and acid commentator who noted that pilgrims were, after all, the first tourists. And now, the world has not only gone over to the ‘society of the spectacle’ but to trillions of tourists … gazing and gawping … and looking, hoping, for their garden of roses – their garden of Eden.