Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
I’ve been accepted to an MFA program that begins this September. As the month approaches, I find myself getting increasingly nervous and anxious (as I always do on the first day of school). It’s been a few years since I’ve participated in group critiques, and while I’m excited about this program, I also feel very vulnerable right now. Can you offer any advice to new MFA students? I wonder what former students “wish they’d known” before going into a program.
There are so many things I wish I’d known before I started my graduate program that I could answer your question with a book. Work hard, show up for everything, and say thank you are timeless tips, of course, but you’re looking for other suggestions calibrated to the specifics of the MFA. First, make friends with the Graduate Program Manager (or whatever they call the initial line of defense in your grad office). This individual will be your conduit to advisor selection, the assignment of teaching assistantships, and much more; woe betide the student who cops an attitude and treats the manager rudely. Second (and this is related to the above), the most bureaucratic rules only apply to students who don’t apply themselves. I’m not suggesting that you engage in risky behavior, but all fences have gates. If you are kind and polite and work diligently, someone may show you where they are. Also, if you are moving to attend school, consider staying in that city for a few years after graduation. You will make a lot of friends and contacts in two years, but if you move away immediately, you will lose them. (This last piece of advice was given to me by a colleague who still regrets that he moved away a week after receiving his degree.) Finally, stay away from drama queens, bastards, and bullies, even the ones who are powerful and who seem to hold the potential for your future professional advancement. If I were dying right now and had to give counsel with my last breath, it would be this: Assholes only ever help themselves.
Now that we’ve gotten the more cheerful part of this Q&A wrapped up, let’s move on to studio critiques in specific. I reached out to artist and instructor Whitney Lynn, and she said, “My advice to new MFA students is always to recognize that your time in the program is incredibly short. Blink and it’s over. So make lots of new work, meet as many people as you can, and take advantage of everything the program offers.”
Lynn continued: “In terms of being nervous about critiques, you should recognize that most people (myself included) feel anxiety when thrown into new situations where there is pressure to perform. The graduate critique seminar is a place where a whole room is going to focus on, analyze, and debate your work’s intentions and execution. It’s also a place where you will sharpen your ability to talk about—and sometimes defend—your work. This is a precious opportunity and it will never happen again, so don’t waste it. Come to critiques prepared, not only with new work, but also questions about your work and points of conversation you want to raise. Take control of your critiques and you’ll feel less nervous.”
“And if there’s a jerk in the seminar? Think of it as training for the rest of your career as an artist. There’s always going to be jerks, or just people who don’t like and/or understand your work. The task of the person leading the seminar is to keep things relatively objective, and your job is to take everyone’s comments—negative or positive—with a grain of salt. Begin the process of defining your own measures of success, your audience, and the appropriate context for your work. Everything is not for everyone—and that’s okay. With that said, it’s equally important to understand the difference between defending your work, when necessary, and being defensive. You’re in school because you wanted to challenge yourself and your work; if you already have it all figured out, don’t waste your time and money. You’re going to have to learn how to balance being open to criticism and not being overly persuaded/affected by others’ opinions.”
Lynn concluded her advice with, “It’s also important to keep in mind that once you go through [the MFA], you don’t need it anymore. It’s expected that you might enter feeling nervous, vulnerable, and unsure about the direction of your work. It’s also expected that by the time you graduate you feel more confident, secure, and ready to make that next step into your career as an artist. Last but not least, I highly recommend watching Howard Fried’s Burghers of Fort Worth before your first critique.”
I also asked artist Rhonda Holberton to weigh in, and she said, “Be generous in critique. Listen to your peers and take notes, even if you don’t agree with the opinions offered at the time. Recognize that whatever the contribution, it is a generous thing for someone to expend energy really looking and thinking and speaking about your work. Learn how to answer questions about the work without defensiveness and how to say ‘I don’t know’ with confidence. You are expected to experiment, to be unsure. Allow yourself that. As much as you can, detach your ego from the work and learn how to ask questions that give you the answers you need. I took part in more than one critique where insights were buried by ego and defensiveness, and conversations were derailed by minutiae. There will always be politics and gossip, but ultimately the whole thing is for you and your work. Don’t lose sight of that.”
Let’s wrap up with some fast-and-dirty tips:
— You must record your critiques, because in the moment of the meeting, you will be full of adrenaline and trying to track four different comment threads at once. Playing back a critique a day or two later when you are calmer will help you really hear what was said.
— Don’t be afraid to ask commenters to explain or rephrase; not everyone is a great communicator. I once had a peer tell me simply, “This work is boring”—and yet once I asked her to flesh it out a bit, her criticism was very constructive.
— On crit days, make sure you have a bar/jogging/karaoke buddy lined up for after. Whether it’s a great session or a terrible one, you’ll need to blow off steam with a pal.
— Whether you are first in the day’s lineup or last, serve snacks, because no one in the history of art school ever got a useful critique from a group with low blood sugar. Good luck!