We are convened as several MA Fine Art students to view a ‘small group’ show and to participate in a group ‘criticism’ of the work in the show.
We look at the pieces and, in line with an apparently open agenda, we are invited to share our thoughts, reactions, feelings and so on; we are also directed by the lead tutor to ask questions of the artists about their work. In a rather dilatory and somewhat desultory way we proceed.
The particular characters amongst us say very different things. Some say quite a lot, some say relatively little. Some make statements, some share associations, some ask questions.
But when one of the artists who has exhibited in the show is asked about her work she hesitates; she seems almost puzzled; she pauses – and when she does speak, she scarcely elaborates an answer. In my judgment (impersonal and non-evaluative) she is simply disinclined to be forthcoming. I am not surprised. I am used to this. From my previous encounters with her I know that this is not an unusual mode of response from her – either as a person (in typical social encounters – such as meeting-and-greeting) or as an artist. Her utterances are minimal. Some of us in the MA group have also reached the same conclusion; we realise, too, that if she is disinclined to talk and to discuss things in the group then perhaps we should not ask her anything for fear of disquieting or unsettling her. We may even feel frustrated and think that she really ‘ought’ to say more in the critique.
But all this raises a question: Why should she speak? Are her words necessary to her art? Even if she were to speak who (in the whole wide world) can really ‘articulate’ and explain their work. The work of art is placed in a certain domain – it is an ‘exhibit’ – something conceivably ‘of itself’. If it ‘speaks’ at all it is in a species of specialist symbolic language – one that is tacit, silent, and veiled. The criticism is something else: it is talk about art. So, on the one hand we have the presence of her work of art (works which are consistent, show a sustained focus and have an inherent authority) and, on the other, we have a social event which follows a conventional, almost ritualistic, model of social interaction.
If a ‘criticism’, as it is practiced on a degree course, exists then it expresses both a rationale and a value or values. What, though, is the rationale? What values are embedded in the practice of criticism? (And why have I reached the point where I fundamentally question what I am ‘up to’ in the group criticisms. Why should I ‘sound off’ at all?)
Part two: Some short notes on a theory
If I were to refer to some aspects of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger as it is expressed in his ‘Being and Time’ and clarified by Dreyfus (1978 ) and Wheeler ((2018) then I might easily take the phenomenon of the group criticism and the artist’s response as indicative of some absolutely basic problems about human being (and being human). The criticism and our conduct raise huge questions to do with our being-in-the-world amidst other beings-in-the-world. There is obviously the question of authenticity: To be authentic is not to rush away from anxiety and conform to group norms if one feels that the norms are awry; instead it is to distance oneself but to continue by choosing – in all honesty – to proceed in a way that reflects a new and resolved attitude. In the case of the artist who scarcely speaks, she may be staying close to the grain of her being and resisting any kind of fakery. She may be resolutely authentic. As Heidegger would point out, when we are authentic we probably still do what ‘one’ (others) do – but we experience ourselves as liberated; we stick with the social practice but we are not stuck.
Then there is the question of meaning and meaninglessness. If there is no fundamental or basic meaning to be found in the world, then art itself, most certainly, has no special claim to yield any meaning beyond itself as a ‘thing that one does’ (a process that one goes through, an output materialised) in the community framed as ‘art’. Art is a social practice with a history and is in the process of unfolding itself. We are, as artists and participants in a criticism, necessarily located in this stable instability. We know that we are merely in a moment of history. We are not really playing a game but we are somehow navigating our way through a temporary power structure which has the extraordinary quality of ensuring that we follow rules and yet neutralises them as soon as they seem to come into view! (This is unnerving!)
The strange thing is that although I should be able to feel more comfortable as a result of trying to come to terms with the experience of the group criticism I am not. I think that this is because I have deeply internalised norms of having, in social situations, to give a ‘good’ performance. I wish I was otherwise.
Note: The photograph above is part of an autobiography project. It is the third in a series of similar mixed-media works – and reflects an aspect of my life when I was 8 years old.