Thursday, August 1, 2013

Criticism Without the Ouch


Our last Artists’ Lab*! Fortunately we have another year to look forward to beginning in October. Our upcoming show is up next week and I've dropped off my piece. I guess that means I've finished my artwork.

As you may recall, my artwork tells a story from my friend Dvora of a death march that she was on during the war accompanied by her mother. It has many parallels with the story of the Binding of Isaac, but presents a different take on parental sacrifice and plays with the idea of “binding” in a different sense. A poem accompanies it that contrasts the two stories. You can find the final work on my website and details on the show events.

At our last session we discussed criticism. How to give it, how to take it. The texts we referenced didn’t apply precisely to artistic criticism as they were more focused on reproof and rebuke, but one passage did seem relevant despite this difference.

Rabbi Tarafon said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation capable of accepting reproof.” For, (if) one says to him, “Remove the mote from between your eyes,” he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!” Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: “I wonder where there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove.”

There are two aspects to offering criticism, both receiving and giving and we could often benefit from some help at both ends. Many of the artists had examples from art school, most of how not to give criticism from experiences of art professors who damaged or reworked their paintings. Reworking someone else’s work is not a recommended approach.

David Harris from Rimon joined us to talk about the work of Liz Lerman, a choreographer and artist who created a process for artists to receive criticism in a way that actively engaged them in the process. The process has three participants, a facilitator, the artist and responders. The idea behind it is to create a positive environment for criticism and engage both artist and responder.

The responder is asked, “What has meaning for you about what you’ve seen?” This question creates a positive context. The artist then states a question about what they are interested in hearing about. The responder must then frame a neutral question. If the question is a loaded one, not really neutral, the facilitator steps in to reframe. An example from Lerman’s  Critical Response Process takes “Why’s the cake so dry?” and changes it to “What kind of texture were you going for?” The final step is where the facilitator asks for opinions. The responder uses the following form, “I have an opinion about _____. Do you want to hear it? If for example the responder wants to offer an opinion about costumes, but they are not the ones that will be used in the final performance, the artist may tell them it isn’t a relevant subject for that reason.

I thought about feedback and criticism from my own experience. I share a studio with my husband and our work is very different. Generally when people come through our studio they resonate more with one or the other. People have different taste and that will color their response. Generally most respond positively or say nothing. I sometimes refer to a viewer as “one of yours” or “one of mine”. That reflects the understanding that different people naturally gravitate towards certain types of work.

I also find that I can draw viewers in by giving them a sentence of context and offering to answer questions. I might tell them of the origin of my recent series that is based on interviews with elders at Sholom Home, most in their 90s. With context, we often have very interesting discussions and they engage with the work.

The other point where I would typically get feedback is when a show is up, but then people keep it in a positive realm. They tell me what they like, not what they don't. Our group agreed that an opening is not a good place for criticism. At that point all the artist can do is agonize.

Artists respond to feedback differently at different stages. I’ve learned not to give my husband feedback when he is in the midst of a painting. The images in his work emerge for him from an abstract and until he has identified his direction,  my view alters his process. He needs a certain quiet to hear his own voice. Conversely I prefer input while I am creating as after the fact is too late to experiment with that particular work.

Most critical feedback comes from friends and family as they can offer it in the context of a positive relationship. For the painting for this exhibition, I got feedback from some friends that actually was quite helpful. One commented that the cans in the painting were too much of a focal point. I thought that was a good point and I muted them. Other feedback was to make the figure of Dvora look more distraught. While I thought that was a good suggestion, it would have involved more reworking than I was prepared to do at that stage. Dvora advised me to make the background look like snow because it occurred in January. I took this advice with some hesitation. It changed the colors that worked for me, but given that it was her story I decided to heed it. In these instances the feedback was presented in a positive context which allowed me to hear it without defensiveness and put it to good use.

If I were to ask a question as part of the critical response process it would be, "How do you respond to the fact that I only show a portion of the heads of the two women?" It feels a bit like looking at them through a window. Because we spoke of the story of Abraham and Isaac in terms of negative space, I had decided originally to just show a portion of the figures and actually had planned to suggest less than I ultimately developed. In fact I was not going to paint her mother's face, but it looked too disembodied with just her hands so she found her way in.

If you are in the Twin Cities area, please stop by the show to see both my work and that of the sixteen other artists as we respond to the texts we discussed. Not all of the artists work in a visual medium so the poets and writers in the group will read their work at the closing event.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.


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