CRITS: A Student Manual by Terry Barrett
For many students pursuing a fine arts education, critique is notoriously considered one of the many brutal realities of studio art training. From the undergraduate to the graduate level, students studying art and design practice come to expect that their work, techniques, and ideas will be both positively and/or negatively dissected at one time or another by their peers and instructors. Ironically, students studying art are not typically trained on the art of critique itself nor are they provided advice on how to process the various insights communicated within the educational experience. It is clear that students regularly have a lack of guidance on the function of studio critiques, including how to sort through peer and instructor feedback and how to see the relationship between the critique experience and one’s career trajectory. Educating students on the objectives of critique is what Terry Barrett’s CRITS: A Student Manual aims to clarify: to bring deeper purpose to critique as a form of studio art pedagogy and as a tool for grounding aspiring artists into the field they are pursuing.
Over the course of the last decade, there has been a rising interest in critically examining the state and value of studio art education and pedagogy. From the 2006 New York Times article, “Tales From The Crit: For Art Students, May Is the Cruelest Month” to Judy Chicago’s 2014 seminal text Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education, there are more and more published stories from the perspective of both faculty and students about “group crits” or critiques in art programs across the country, which suggest that critique is a teaching tool in need of further evaluation. We learn through these narratives that student experiences with critique are largely shaped by faculty and the philosophy of the program they are housed in. An important insight from “Tales From The Crit” is that regardless of how positive or negative the outcome of a critique might be, students appear to identify ways to make the most out of these uncomfortable experiences. On the other hand, Judy Chicago’s criticism of the lack of addressing content within studio critique is less optimistic, asserting that the gaps and biases both in terms of gender, race, and identity is prohibiting important “artistic growth” from happening in the field.[i] Furthermore, Chicago shares her own experiences of engaging female students who are conflicted about the content of gender within studio art classes because they are traditionally taught from a white, male perspective.[ii]
Likewise, writer Bill Gaskins addresses “the crisis facing American higher education in art today” where “university art departments have too often become sites for students of similar demographics, with similar perspectives, experiences, and class values” to “produce similar work informed by Eurocentric art-historical themes forged.”[iii]In this way, there clearly appears to be a distinct need for cultural equity, competence and empathy within studio arts education so that the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds are being engaged in critique in a way that is adequate and that is ethnically preparing diverse student populations for professional practice. Add to that the socio-economic disparities that exist within the field, from the rising costs of education to the limited employment and salary scales within the job market, there is a need for more criticism to investigate the impact of these barriers on students trying to claim careers in the job force. In 2014, the “Artists Report Back” report indicated that 39.9 percent of working artists have no bachelor’s degree while 26.8 percent of working artists with a Bachelor’s degree in 2012 had degrees in the Fine Arts.[iv]In a moment where fine arts programs are constantly having to fight for support and validity within higher education and the workforce, examining what exactly students gain from a Bachelor’s degree in the fine arts is especially critical. In this way, it is necessary to unpack studio-based pedagogy — its values, marketable skills, and outcomes — to define what it is that we are doing and how students can receive the most from their training.
All the while, research continues to support the fact that arts education adds intrinsic value to the lives of others within society. Studies like those conducted by the Americans for the Arts and Vans Custom Culture suggest that the arts have positive outcomes that impact other areas of personal, educational and professional well-being in the world.[v]Researchers highlight that “business leaders, members of the public, educators and researchers” have “provided numerous connections between quality arts education and the economic, social, cultural, and political spheres of our society.”[vi] In other words, the value of art education is evident; however, it is up to us to ensure that our students, faculty, and art programs better refine, understand, and recognize our value not just for others but for ourselves.
In this way, Terry Barrett’s CRITS has created a guide to studio critique that helps students to learn and discover more about themselves and others. He outlines “best practices” for critique while also providing suggestions for “eliminating those (methods) that are not beneficial.”[vii] In a world where students are increasingly concerned about their ability to make an impact in the field, having a clear understanding of how critique matches professional expectations appears to be a necessity. The notion that “‘art critique’” and “’art criticism’” has “negative connotations of finding fault” rather than ”occasions for contemplation and commentary” indicates that there is a better way to learn, practice and process critiques.[viii] Barrett’s open definition of critique provides much more opportunities for students to see critique as a space for dialogue and understanding instead of ridicule and harsh judgement.
One can tell in Barrett’s retelling of over twenty-five years of student experiences with critique that the implications of critique in studio learning depends greatly on how the leading faculty guides the critique experience. Undergraduate and graduate students can find value in CRITS because students reading the book will discover that there are positive and negative experiences with critique that are not limited to one’s own personal experience. Barrett’s collection of narratives show just how common“students have experienced conflicts over their style of making work that does not match the instructor’s.”[ix]In this way, CRITS affirms that the student experience of critique is not only personal but can also have long lasting affects.
Ironically, Barrett’s student accounts of critique look very similar at times to those chronicled in “Tales from the Crit,” experiences that primarily privilege the student’s perspective. In other words, we rarely hear the instructor’s response or rationale for the unpleasant comments and behaviors described by students. As Barrett suggests, “it would be informative to know what the instructors were thinking when they made these comments and what they hoped to accomplish by saying them.”[x]We are thus forced, like students, to deal with the realities of what the student believes has taken place; whether off-base or not. In response, Barrett offers students sound advice and strategies on how to navigate very different critique scenerios, including difficult instructor feedback based on differences in technique to religious beliefs.[xi]According to Barrett, re-framing the personal and philosophical clashes that students encounter will ultimately prepare them for the wider world around them, including how to be a competent art professional who understands how to problem-solve and how to deal with conflict.
Barrett’s CRITS also provides a healthy examination of the ways that critiques inform studio-based teaching, including a tool for gate-keeping. Historically, Barrett asserts:
Some art instructors viewed themselves as the persons to control access to an area of study, and sometimes instructors were requested to do so by their departments. Some courses were designed to identify students who were considered likely to succeed from those who were not. Critiques in these courses may have been particularly difficult to experience.[xii]
These styles of teaching are often “hurtful,” attempting to save students from spending “hours of course work and money spent on tuition” on an art education.[xiii] Given the BFAMFAPhD’s discussions regarding art education and tuition one might assume that this so-called reality-check a good thing;[xiv]however, Barrett argues that doing so could deter students from meaningful art-making and art experiences in the future, which takes away from the so-called benefits that art adds to social life in the long run.[xv]
Barrett’s acknowledgement of the lack of the instructor’s voices within conversations on studio critique are important. In fact, a complementary text that offers a instructor’s perspective could most certainly be useful. Nevertheless, a text like CRITS is not only valuable for undergraduate students learning how to navigate studio critiques but should also be required reading for graduate students in MFA programs and graduate-level studio courses on college-level art teaching and pedagogy. Reading CRITS could be an eye-opening look into the world of how critiques are perceived from a student perspective, encouraging graduate students and future researchers to discuss and expound upon Barrett’s report of good practices such as, interperative critiques,[xvi]respect,[xvii]one-on one feedback,[xviii] soliciting feedback,[xix]and creating a positive atmosphere.[xx]
Furthermore, Barrett’s second chapter on “Good Crits/Bad Crits” serves as a sort of code of ethics for art critiques collected by instructors, students, and professional artists that should be a staple for teachers and mentors within the studio arts. Chapter excerpts would work perfectly as guidelines for studio critiques to be listed in course syllabi, as reading material for initial in-class discussions on studio critique structure, and as an ongoing guide that instructors and students can reference and follow on the expectations of critique. Chapters 3 through 6 offer helpful strategies specifically on how to better communicate during critiques, how to interpret works, and how to make meaningful judgements; tools that provide useful critique methods that can be used both by students and faculty. Especially useful is the final chapter on “Artist Statements and Biographies,” which inform students on how to see and frame critique and feedback into their future professional practices as an artist.
While Barrett touches briefly on the subject of gender and racial biases that exist within critique, it is apparent that studio-based courses in particular could use more research and pedagogical strategies on how instructors can be more culturally competent. Furthermore, students should not be subjected to gender and racially-based prejudice neither in studio courses nor the critique experience. Barrett discusses instances where female students endured prejudices from faculty who did not give adequate attention to advising female students, assuming that “99 percent of women would quit their artistic careers.”[xxi]Likewise, faculty should be prepared to address issues of race in studio teaching and critique, instead of pushing issues of identity in gender and race under the rug because of a few women artists and artists of color who have pushed through the ranks.[xxii]
With ongoing studies that continue to prove that the lack of diversity in higher education, galleries and museums exists, any faculty shaming students of color into silence by claiming that issues of identity are long and gone is culturally irresponsible.[xxiii] As Barrett suggests, “we can listen to these (accounts of racism directed at students) with empathy and think more carefully about how we might be responding to work.”[xxiv] Similarly, Bill Gaskins addresses the subject of challenging hegemonic views within art education by challenging faculty, noting that “faculty claims to creativity, innovation, and visionary leadership are meaningless if the response to the challenges facing art in higher education are not commensurately creative, innovative, visionary, and above all, bold.” In other words, studio faculty are responsible for critically grappling with the complicated issues of race, gender, and identity when engaging with students, presenting students with diverse representations of artists in the field, and identifying strategic partnerships both inside and outside of our departments and the university that can strengthen our course content if they claim to be pushing the field forward. For students wrestling with how to deal with racial basis towards their work as a result of race and identity, Barrett recommends that students engage in dialogue with their peers in order to “alleviate some of the potential problems of how we identify others regarding race and gender.”[xxv] While not referenced directly as a solution in the text, students should also be informed that incidents of gender and racial discrimination should be taken seriously and should be reported to appropriate university personal such as a department chair, university dean, and university division on diversity, equity and inclusion in order to receive greater advocacy and support for faculty intervention.
In conclusion, Barrett’s CRITS provides students with a generous resource of approaches that can be used to navigate the ups and downs of the critique experience. Of particular value is the encouragement that students can choose to focus less on differences between their work and the ideals of their professor and/or fellow classmates but rather how they respond to the challenges in their work. The text connects these important strategies within critique process with professional practices required of the artist, such as artist statements and the ability to speak intelligently about one’s work. Barrett’s charge to students is to consider the critique experience as a call for maturity and responsibility when expressing yourself, recognizing that in doing so it is not only a difficult decision but might have “consequences.”[xxvi] Barrett’s guided view into the realities of art and design education is a sobering look at what is required for students to sustain themselves in creative practice: a thick skin and an open-mind that can survive the strict scrutiny that grounds studio art education.
[i]Chicago, Judy. Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education. 99.
[ii]Chicago, Judy. Institutional Time: A Critique of Studio Art Education.99.
[iii]Gaskins, Bill. “We Are in the Midst of a Crisis of Higher Education in Art, and Now’s the Perfect Time to Reform It.” Artsy. Web. 3 February 2016.
[iv]“Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists.” BFAMFAPhD. 5–6. 2014.
[v]“The Arts Education Navigator: Facts & Figures.” Americans for the Arts and Vans Custom Culture.1–27
[vi]Sabol, F. Robert. “A Study of the Impact of Arts Education on the Performances of Students in Indiana Public Secondary Schools and Institutions of Higher Education.” Pilot Study Report, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Spring 2014. 7
[vii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 2.
[viii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 2
[ix]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 14
[x]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 9.
[xi]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 14–17.
[xii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 12.
[xiii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 12
[xiv]“Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists.” BFAMFAPhD. 2014.
[xv]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 12.
[xvi]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 21.
[xvii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 22–23.
[xviii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 24.
[xix]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 26.
[xx]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 27.
[xxi]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 17
[xxii]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 17.
[xxiii]See Bishara, Hakim. “Artists in 18 Major US Museums Are 85% White and 87% Male, Study Says.” Hyperallergic. 3 June 2019; Gaskins, Bill. “We Are in the Midst of a Crisis of Higher Education in Art, and Now’s the Perfect Time to Reform It.” Artsy. Web. 3 February 2016;
Topaz, Chad et al. “Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums. PLoS One 14.3: 2019. Web. 10.1371/journal.pone.0212852; Schonfeld et al. “The Andrew Mellow Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey.28 July 2015.”Report. The Andrew Mellow Foundation.
[xxiv]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 17
[xxv]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 18.
[xxvi]Barrett, Terry. CRITS: A Student Manuel. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019. 18–19.
Lauren Cross is an artist, curator, and scholar who holds an MFA in Visual Arts from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and a PhD in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies from Texas Woman’s University. She is currently Program Coordinator & Senior Lecturer of the Interdisciplinary Art and Design Studies (IADS) program at the University of North Texas, and founder of the arts non-profit, WoCA Projects, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Cross’ research and writings address critical multicultural approaches in arts practice, arts entrepreneurship, curatorial studies, museum studies, and art history. Cross has been recognized for both her art practice and community work with work featured in the 2015 Edinburgh Art Festival, selected as a Visiting Artist for the Center for Creative Connections at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2018, and an inaugural Carter Community Artist for the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in 2019. For more information on Cross visit www.laurenecross.com.
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