- George Bernard Shaw
“At atomic and sub-atomic levels, quantum theory indicates “the inseperablity of the observing instrument and that which is being observed”: the observing process actively affects that which is being observed, generating a conundrum of meaning that makes it ever more difficult to assume that any description objectively corresponds with “reality.”
- Lee Nichol from the forward of Bohm On Creativity
“In dialogue people become observers of their own thinking.”
– Peter Senge from The 5th Discipline
It may not have been my first critique, but it was the first in which I truly understood the idea and the purpose of critique. I was a sophomore in college and in my first Sculpture class with David Finn. This was my first “real” studio class after taking the basic requirements.
The critique was for a student older than me, a student who I liked and respected, and who seemed way more experienced than me when it came to making art. I had already labeled him as a “prize student” of the art department based on how I saw him interacting with the professors and other students.
The student was African American and his work was an exploration of his family roots and of the African American experience in the South. This piece, in particular, was very personal, and, if I recall, about a specific family member who was a lynching victim of the Jim Crowe South.
The piece was simple and elegant. It was a memorial. There in the midst of the critique room hung a honey-colored woven rope, tied with a noose, the loose end dangling limp and softly brushing the ground. In the noose hung a dozen dried, red roses.
My classmates and I were all white; the artist the lone black student. The room was uncomfortable. Certainly aware of the apprehension, David prodded us for basic reflections of what we saw to warm up a broader discussion of the piece.
I feel almost certain I was not the first to speak, but when I did, I commented: “I don’t know how, but it’s beautiful.” I shared that the piece created a strange and surprising tension between its stillness and beauty and the brutal content of the piece and the story behind it. I thought the contradiction was interesting.
Well, this was not what the artist wanted to hear about his piece. The source for him was so painful and so personal and so horrific that he could not imagine how someone could say this piece was beautiful or still. He wasn’t angry at my reflection but more hurt and confused. How could this image possibly be anything but violent and horrifying like it was to him?
The rest of the critique was a grind, and I am not sure if anyone else got anything out of it or not. But, for me, it was the first time (and I have needed to be reminded many times since) that I understood that when I share ideas with the world, I have to be open to the role of the world in reflecting them back to me, in creating new meaning. When I move from thinking and conceiving to creating and communicating, I lose some control.
I feel certain my classmate learned this lesson in some form on this day as well, because he continued his life and career as a professional artist. It’s a lesson we all have to learn over and over again.
As thinkers, we have to be reflective and open to input. As makers, we have to be resilient and committed to work and re-work. As communicators, we have to engage others and allow them to engage us.
As artists, we have to be all of these.