Reality TV and the Art Critique

Ahhh… to finally see my TV return to grace with a new season of Dancing with the Stars.

I suppose that for me and my ongoing, possibly failed attempt to prove the value of my $100 TV, this is second only to baseball season.

Dave Hickey’s “The Heresy of Zone Defense” (in Air Guitar) convinced me that sports are, more or less, the black sheep of the humanities.  It’s ironic, I know, I know…  But, listen to a good radio sportscast.  The discussion that surrounds players’ and teams’ decisions, and even the rules of a game, can and should rise to metaphors, helping us navigate our lives much as does a short story.   Let us all remember George Carlin’s monologue on baseball vs. football.  As it were, I see in baseball a strong connection with Zen philosophy, have no interest at all in football (American, fútbol, or otherwise), have yet to make sense of the baseball game I went to in Japan three years ago, and believe all of that says a lot about me and my understanding of the world.  Now, let me remind you that I’m in the arts.  Next, enter B-list celebrities in a dance competition − competitive humanities no less − and you’ve got the best of both worlds, right?

Getting to the point:  For several years I taught a variety of introductory level college art courses.  Whatever the disparity of experience among my students may have been, one thing was certain, almost none of them had any idea how to conduct themselves in a critique.  And how distressing the first critique is.  For all of their lives, little Johnny and Janie have heard nothing but praise of the cartoon characters they’ve traced out in their sketchbooks.  Suddenly, here in college(!), big meanie art professor stands up and begins to pontificate on everything that’s wrong with what they’ve made.  What a dick.  Alas, yeah, not only that, but he wants everyone in the class to join in!  O-M-F-G indeed.  It’s tough, and conducting intro level critiques is a skill and an “experience” that separates good Foundations instructors from those who avoid those courses at all costs.

Then, one day, I got a couple of students in a class who knew exactly how to do it.

One of them said, “Yeah, critiques are just like Project Runway”.

And, they are.

Thus via reality TV (or, rather, a few shows in the category), idioms and practices for critiquing creative production have entered into mainstream popular culture.  Sure, most students still try to avoid talking.  But, some of them, more than before, begin the first critique with some idea of what to expect.  For a teacher who emphasizes participatory modes and student self-direction, having a couple of students around to “prime the pump” so to speak, is as much as I could ask for.  They understand that the critique is a time during which we bring problems as well as praise into the light.  They understand that it is in the spirit of learning.  And, they are somewhat inured to taking comments too personally.

Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a contestant stand before the judges’ panel on Top Chef, et al. and said to myself, “I’ve had that student before”.  It’s plain as day.  Some delicate ego becomes defensive and cagey at Tom Colicchio’s observations, and we can all mark that as the exact moment at which said contestant ceases to improve.  You may as well count the episodes until he/she “packs his/her knives” and goes home.  And, oh, how much time have I spent trying to get students to drop their defensiveness for their own good?

Even then, however, a few students will see that destructive critique behavior and immediately associate it with the worst menu, design, etc. that has been presented to the judges.  They recognize it as the behavior of a person who is about to be eliminated.  In the same percentages of students who are/were helpful and harmful before and after reality TV, some of those students will use their advanced knowledge to the benefit of their classmates.

I believe that is all good.  And, it’s something I’ve wanted to put into writing for a while now.

Moreover, there is one other aspect of competitive reality TV as it relates to teaching art that interests me.  I’m intrigued by what the differences among TV show judgment systems could mean for conducting art classes.  Project Runway, for example, employs a closed panel of experts (often with guests) to judge the creative work of its contestants.  American Idol, a show I’ve never been able to stomach – in the least for my unflagging distaste of pop music – escalates the scathing commentary by experts, but leaves all of the judging to call-in viewers.  Dancing with the Stars operates via a combination of those systems.

I think we are all accustomed to the mode of art professor as expert panel.

I tried, once, to have my students grade one another (a.k.a. call-in voting).  I developed a rubric and asked them to apply it to their classmates’ work.  I averaged out the scores.  And… nearly every student failed! Oh were they upset.  If words could describe it…  I gave them all the option of redoing the work (a 1-day in-class) as homework for a grade that I would determine.  Of course, without a rubric in hand, they generally all pat each other on the back and dole out the high marks with élan.  Forced to directly apply the criteria of the assignment in evaluation of the work produced, however, at the very least we illustrated how art is in fact graded in a college class, and maybe even hinted a little at just how forgiving the teacher (me) typically is, contrary to prior conceptions.

Should I return to teaching art again, I’d jump at a chance to work out what it could mean to bring more reality TV methodology into my classroom.  We could have teams that voting their own members off.  We could put art in the halls and ask passers-by to vote on it to decide the next “elimination”.  I would certainly employ some quick-fire challenges.  Especially in the case that I go back to teaching in community colleges, considering the astounding number of students don’t want to be in school anyway, why shouldn’t I make my class be “not school”?  My only sticking point now is figuring out what to do with the eliminated students, assuming they are the same people as the students who show up anyway.

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