In praise of art school crits

Red Diver. St Augustine’s Park, Canterbury. 1988.

I spent the years between 1986 and 1990 as an art student. Independent art schools have been consumed by bigger educational institutions, commercialised and commoditised along with the rest but throughout the 20th Century they produced designers, musicians, artists of all kinds. And paid a fundamental role in defining creativity and creatives as a key part of British culture - and our economy.

I was a young, naive and timid teenager and I spent most of my time learning not about art but about how to leave home and become myself. A key moment was understanding that it didn’t matter what my dad thought of my work — that it was mine and his liking or not liking it made no difference.

I left having learnt some fairly brutal lessons and although I had a studio and made work for a couple of years following my degree show, in the end I let that fizzle out and I stopped thinking about myself as an artist. I was happy to adopt ‘designer’ as a label for myself but ‘artist’ was a step too far. It is only fairly recently when I reconnected with the art world through various practitioners that I started rethinking what it might mean to be an artist and how that mindset is a core part of my identity. I‘ve also relearnt some of the practices and processes associated with art school — including the group ‘crit’.

Each student had a studio space, which at the beginning of term was a clean, white cube. As we worked on our ideas each space would gradually fill with materials, macquettes, tools, drawings and found objects of all kinds. At set periods we’d be required to clear the space and present our work to the rest of the group, our tutors and any visiting lecturers. the crit group would tour the studio en masse, stopping at each space for each student to introduce their work — the ideas behind it, the methods used to make it, the materials used and any intentions for future development. The group would ask questions, comment on how they were responding to the work — and any associations it was inspiring, make suggestions about methods and materials. As the person presenting it could be hellish, but as a member of the group it was inspiring, interesting and enabled a better understanding of the people, ideas, materials and practices that surrounded us every day.

The hellishness when presenting was variable — depending on who was leading the crit, what state of mind you were in and how confident you were feeling about your work. Some tutors were better leaders of the crit than others — the worst would grandstand their egos and take delight in crushing weak ideas and poor technique, the best would inspire with new ideas, seek to truly understand the context of the work and its direction of travel and operate in a way designed to get the best from the student.

At that stage of my development I was truly uncomfortable with presenting to a group. I judged myself harshly in comparison to others, found it hard to ask for help with the practicalities of making and to explain what I wanted to make and why. I found myself developing a ‘crit stance’, which involved lifting my arms above my head and lacing my fingers together under my hair. A truly defensive position.

In the (many, many) years since this experience I’ve worked in various environments where my defensiveness and inability to respond positively to feedback has been problematic. It’s taken me all this time to understand that critique is different from criticism. A good crit session is in service of the work — it convenes a group of peers to help in the betterment of the work:

The premise of crit is that the group can convey insight to the student, bringing a degree of objectivity to the highly subjective directives of his or her private creative process. Ideally, a student leaves the crit as a better artist, with new understanding of his work, his process, and himself. 
Kurt Ralkse

When the work is tangled up in the identity of the person who made it (and I think most work done by committed people is) then it’s easy to feel under attack — and to want to defend the work and the self from those seeking to critique. But this does a disservice to the work and shuts down avenues of growth.

I believe that the art school crit is a practice that could usefully be learnt and applied wherever good work is being done. But that this requires courage insight and responsibility on behalf of both the producer of the work (the ‘student’) and those taking part in the crit group.

Crit has the quality of a ritual; it is a performance enacted within a small subculture of initiates who are sensitive to the subtleties of meaning it carries. Like all rituals, it comes with its own rules, etiquette, and taboos.
Kurt Ralkse

For a really detailed and illuminating outline of the process and practice of the crit read ‘The Crit’ by artist Kurt Ralkse:

For an academic study into the impact of verbal feedback via crits on students read ‘The Art Group Crit. How do you make a Firing Squad Less Scary?’ by Peter Day of the University of Wolverhampton: