critical writing

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[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I  share the letters here.]

1 April 2013

Dear friends,

My preface this time is mostly emerging from a post that I’m developing for the MFAIA blog. (Yes, we have an under-utilized blog on the goddard.edu site, and part of my service work this term is to better bring it to life.) So if you sense that the tone or voice of the letter is a bit different from last time, it’s because I have a wider audience in mind. I’m sharing it with you because I think it’s conceptually connected to my last letter on research – and continues to consider the interplay between ways of knowing. I often wish, in retrospect, that my teachers had been more precise in explaining terms like critical writing. So I’m also sharing this because I know some of you are teachers, or aspire to be teachers, and I hope it might be useful to think about our definitions of critical writing (and thinking and making). I welcome feedback if you have it.

When I think about it now, I realize that I graduated from undergraduate art school a weaker writer than when I began. As a visual artist I was dissuaded, implicitly and, as disturbing as this seems today, explicitly, from thinking of writing as a skill of value to my future.

One might jump to the conclusion that those teachers charged with teaching writing (and critical thinking) are to blame for the deficit I developed. For a long time I did. It isn’t true. I went to an art school with a strong Liberal Arts curriculum and strong faculty in English, Philosophy, Art History, and Social Science. Structurally, more than forty-five percent of my credit hours were spent in classes with them. They did their best (self-disclosure: as I also have tried, for the past fifteen-years, to do as a part-time lecturer there) to invite students into the life of the mind—or, maybe better put, into habits of critical thinking. If there’s fault to be assigned, it lies with me – and with the other artists who taught my studio classes. They trained me to believe that visual artists can transcend the need for strong language skills. And I was all too eager to believe them.

My avoidance of writing was encouraged in two ways. First, I navigated art school at the tail end of Modernism, and my studio faculty, mostly trained as Modernists, held to the notion that artworks should speak for themselves, without any contextualizing narration. Second, becoming an artist is hard, requiring an enormous amount of time as one labors to develop the foundational skills of craft. In facing the challenge of developing craft, I embraced the seductive claim that perhaps I could get away with – and even do better by – avoiding the equally difficult work of learning to organize and articulate thinking through spoken and written language. We were told, again and again, to prioritize studio time over our Liberal Arts classes, assured that in the long run this would pay off.

It did not.

What do I mean by critical writing (and thinking and making)?

When I use the phrase, critical writing, I fear that students think I’m limiting my definition to the three-paragraph essay—or more troubling, to writing that is obtuse, smug, or peppered with difficult jargon. While I don’t want to discount expository writing, or its derivations, I don’t mean to imply that critical writing conforms to any specific template or style. In particular, I don’t mean to imply that it’s writing that somehow sounds academic. And I don’t mean to use the word critical in its negative, vernacular sense—of finding fault with something. Rather, I’m talking about using writing in a way that involves careful discernment or judicious evaluation. I see the characteristics of critical writing involving the following:

  • An engagement with the ideas of others that does not simply describe, but provides an analysis of the thinking being presented.
  • An understanding of the intellectual context being explored; reflecting a rounded understanding of arguments that may differ from your point of view.
  • A clear presentation of your own arguments, including evidence and conclusions.
  • Recognition of the limits or boundaries of your thinking; which may emerge from placing your thinking into the broader context you’ve presented.

Above, I’ve purposefully made a point about writing that sounds academic because I want to be clear that there is not one voice or language that defines critical writing. One can be profoundly engaged with ideas, context, and the creation of knowledge in many literary voices. Emily Dickinson, as just one example, is critically engaged with her world and shows us what it is to make critical meaning through poetics.  As a painter, I can apply these definitions of critical writing to the painting studio, and use them to discern whether I’m engaged in a critical making process. Indeed, I think they cross the boundaries of many (perhaps all) of art’s languages. Finally, we can use these same criteria in our reading processes. Critical reading is at least as important as critical writing.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book, Outliers, makes the case for repetitive practice when he talks about the necessity of time and labor in developing talent. He argues that human beings require ten-thousand-hours of practice before a skill becomes habituated—or, I would argue, until we manifest a talent. He uses a variety of examples, including things like being forced to play scales on a piano, to make his point. In recent months, I’ve wondered a lot about my relationship with writing. At what point did I stop feeling like writing was something assigned to me? When did writing become a habituated way of knowing? A process to figure things out?

After art school I found myself working for an elite college, where I was expected to communicate my ideas clearly, through memos, reports, letters, and rhetorically. I was fortunate to have a supervisor, a former middle school teacher, who had the patience and grace to mark-up my writing and to repeatedly ask for revisions. Through her support and my own determination, I spent the first five-years of my professional life re-teaching myself the skills I’d forgotten from high school and developing the voice I should have honed in college. I believe now that this was the first stage of my ten-thousand-hours.

Working with graduate students in the arts I sometimes encounter artists who hold onto the assumptions I embraced in art school. They resist and critique our program’s requirements for regular, critical writing. They ask me to engage their work without providing me context, telling me that the work should speak for itself. In seeking this kind of feedback from me, they are honestly unaware of the irony of asking me to provide the very language and context they refuse to offer themselves.

Educator, activist and art critic, Carol Becker, in conversation with Suzi Gablik when she was Dean of the College at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, said in 1993:

“What [art] students need, fundamentally, is a very good education, because one of the things artists aren’t given  — and it disempowers them terribly in the world — is good reading skills. And it’s the same with writing. Very often young artists can’t write well, and they’re told not to worry about it, because they’re artists. Artists need good language skills — I think that’s crucial. But there’s been this idea that if you verbalize or intellectualize, it’ll destroy the spontaneous, intuitive qualities of artmaking. I think that’s crazy — it’s developing only half a person. I want our students to have a good solid, historical education, so that they know the culture they’re living in and are curious about the rest of the world.” (Carol Becker in conversation with Suzi Gablik, Conversations Before the End of Time, p. 371)

In advocating for strong critical writing skills among artists, I’m not arguing against the importance and criticality of art’s other languages.  It would be a mistake to suppose that critical writing can supplant the value of poetic, spatial, kinesthetic or visual languages. There are human experiences that art’s languages can engage critically beyond the capacity of expository writing. It is also a mistake to overlook the vital exchange that’s possible—and relationship that’s emerged—between expository forms and art’s other languages.

If there was ever a time when art could speak for itself, it’s long since passed. Today the working artist – in the visual arts, literary arts, performing arts, indeed in any tradition of the arts that I can conceptualize – needs strong language skills for a multitude of professional and pragmatic reasons. Even more than the pragmatic, in our polyglot world, artists need to be adept at moving among and between varieties of human languages. It’s through the dialectical processes of listening and speaking, exchanging and understanding, and receiving and translating that the content of art emerges.

If I still hold residual frustration about my own art education, it’s not that my teachers sold me a bill of goods. I know my teachers were passionate about advancing the arts and committed to teaching me. My displeasure lies with the complacency of curriculum and the institutional rigidity of pedagogical structures. Education in artistic forms need not and should not be segregated from language education – or any other discipline. They can be developed in an integrated and interdisciplinary way. It’s here that our MFAIA program—and your experience in it—has something vital to offer the larger conversation about the development of an artist’s practice.

It’s been a productive few weeks for me. I’ve been doing a bunch of committee work for Goddard, but also finding time to develop a writing project and also work in the studio. I also enjoyed very much the phone conversations that I had with some of you last week.

I know that I made the point last time that packet two is sometimes less robust than packet one. Whether this is true for you or not, I do hope that the past few weeks have been fulfilling.

I hope this finds you well and enjoying the day!

My best, Pete

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