Critiquing Witch Folk (A Lesson From The Art World)

Critiquing Witch Folk (A Lesson From The Art World) January 9, 2018
Photo by Bianca Isofache on Unsplash | CCO License
Photo by Bianca Isofache on Unsplash | CCO License

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to be a portfolio reviewer for my alma mater, RISD – at National Portfolio Day here in Seattle.  Dozens of schools had representatives on hand to sit down with young folks 10-15 minutes at a time, and give them a critique.

For four hours straight, I gave feedback to high school and college students about their artwork.  I was really inspired to see the number of young women artists bringing in strong portfolios – and quite a few of those centered around mythology, Witchcraft, and empowerment.

Afterwards, I wished I had had time to write down some of their names so I could track their work in the future. I did a search using the event’s hashtags and related search terms hoping I might find a tumblr post or something.  No luck, but I did come across some interesting commentary surrounding the reputation of RISD portfolio reviewers at past events: that we’re some of the hardest/harshest, most critical reviewers.  (There was some other more colorful language as well).

For a fleeting moment, I thought: “ouch.” But the commentary generally went on to say that makes sense since it’s known to be the top art/design school in the United States, and has the longest lines as well.  It’s a really really really hard school to get into, and it’s not cheap. (Thank the deities for scholarships.) The school isn’t hurting for students, so it doesn’t have to have a siren song to pull potential applicants in.

But still, it gave me pause.  I saw nearly two dozen students, who varied in skill, style, ambition, and maturity.  Not one was a horrible artist but there were a few that definitely needed to work harder or I could see not really being the right material for having a career in the arts.  (Despite what many non-artists think, being an artist professionally is not a cakewalk nor is it based in “talent” alone. If you’re not focused, determined, and really dedicated to making art, it’s probably not going to work out as a profession for you.)  The thing is: my job wasn’t to make 16-20 year old people question their “life choices.”  Heck, there are people 4 times their age that still don’t have their shit together. No, I was there to give them real guidance on their work.

Photo by Svetlana Pochatun on Unsplash | CCO License
Photo by Svetlana Pochatun on Unsplash | CCO License

What does that look like? Well, it’s not to award ribbons or stickers for making a pretty picture. A critique looks at what’s working, what’s not working, and what possibilities could be explored. There is no work of art that this method cannot be applied to (including my own.) My training taught me how to effectively give and take critique. But most people really aren’t familiar with either end of the stick. They tend to see things as black and white, instead of layers of grey.  If every said isn’t glowing, then it’s bad right? No. Art has to have somewhere to go and grow. Gimmick and repetition is death to art.

So it makes sense to me that RISD has a rep for being harsh. While it’s quite possible there are reviewers who have been douchebags, I could overhear the other reviews happening in the room, and their demeanor and wording matched my own.  It’s far more likely for many young people, this was their first professionally-oriented portfolio review – outside of their high school art teachers, peers, and parents.  Probably the first time someone they don’t know is saying, “hey, you’re doing this thing well here, but to make it work better, you should try doing X to build your skills. But keep up doing this thing!”  This approach is called the critique sandwich, balancing the “good” with the “bad” in a single serving. But the bad isn’t really bad. It’s just marks room for potential. But some folks obsess over what they did wrong.

And now, for those of you who made it this far down, here’s what this whole post has to do with Witchcraft. (Yay for reading comprehension and dedication, you rock!) There is, has, and always will be tension between generations and traditions. When you’re dealing with the metaphysical, the liminal, and mysteries, there’s never just one approach to doing something.  There is no reliable yardstick or certificate that can declare that at X age or year of study, you’re an expert or elder.  Boundless enthusiasm for a new subject can give a false feeling of confidence and all-knowledge.  And in the age of social media, it’s so easy to just put an opinion out there – regardless of how relevant, applicable, or valid it may be.  There is also a building trend to want to see others in extremes – you’re either “great” or “awful.”  But it’s never that easy.

Human beings are messy.  This fact is what makes us awesome.  We can do great things and we can make horrible mistakes – all in the same person. The question is: are we learning from both? Are we asking ourselves: what’s working, what’s not working, and where do we want to go with this?  Or are we tossing people up onto pedestals or into the trash? That doesn’t help anyone.

Photo by Caleb Salomons on Unsplash | CCO License
Photo by Caleb Salomons on Unsplash | CCO License

The thing about giving and receiving critique is that anyone can do it.  But some people are more skilled in seeing what’s going on and talking about it, because they choose to be present.  Some people are only rubbernecking, throwing a comment in and heading out the door.  But you can’t give a valid critique without sticking around.  At RISD, we had 8 hour long group critiques.  That meant we had to look at everyone else’s art, we had to participate, we had to be critiqued ourselves and be ready to give feedback.  There was no “ok, I’m done, bye!” once your turn was over. Because by hearing and seeing what other people have to say, you gain vision and understanding.  You start to see things in new and different ways, which improves your own work – even if it wasn’t your art that was being talked about.

So when it comes to Witchcraft and Pwordism, when we give our opinions, are we following the model of the critique sandwich?  Are we taking the time to understand what is being said and seen? Are we checking to see if we know what we’re talking about before we open our mouths (and keyboards)? Are we sticking around to see the effects, and helping to make room for the changes? Are we afraid of not being perfect or “great”? Perfection is a lie, greatness is a fleeting beat, – and the crooked path isn’t a circle.  We all have to keep moving, which sometimes requires a course correction or taking a moment to appreciate what’s been working before we make the next choice.

There’s nothing easy about this path – the only ribbons we get are the ones we trade at festivals 😉


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