Art historian and critic James Elkins has left his mark on contemporary visual studies with many publications, such as Is Art History Global? (2006), Photography Theory (2006) and Art Critiques. A Guide (2011). He has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) since 1989. Elkins used the necessary digital turn due to the pandemic to open up some of his ongoing experiments in art criticism and education to his followers on Facebook. This is how the ‘Critique Clinic’, a marathonic multiple-hour critique session about one artwork, became an extended version of his course at SAIC. I joined the group as a ‘Facebook lurker’ during the summer of 2020.
ZK: What is the origin story of the Critique Clinic?
JE: Because of the health crisis, our graduate studio art students were suddenly expelled from their studios, whereas the semester continued. The idea of the Critique Clinic was to see if there were things that could be said on Zoom, without the artwork present. But then it became something different: it became a forum for talking about critiques. And in that sense, it's an extension of my class on theory and history of critiques. During this class, we would read texts about critiques every week, and then talk about a student’s artwork. Eventually, we made a rule: we don't criticize works in the critique clinic, ever! With the Critique Clinic, we usually held six- to twelve-hour critiques about one work. The longest critique we had took sixteen hours. These sessions were divided in weekly two-hour meetings on Zoom.
ZK: Conceptual artist Michael Asher also used to organize such marathons, called ‘Silent Teacher Critiques’ at the California Institute of the Arts. He would let people talk about one student’s work for 12 hours straight, with only small breaks.
JE: I do consider my experiments to be very different. First of all, there was an unhealthy power dynamic in Asher’s critiques. He would say very little, but everyone would be fixated on what he might say. Secondly, they were the epitome of being unsystematic. The content of the critiques was all over the place, whereas the Critique Clinic is very systematic. The idea is to gather all the meanings that one work has. All interpretations are permitted, except those that no-one would understand but the person who proposes them. Afterwards, we classify the meanings in a shared document. The only similarity in our critiques is the extended time dedicated to one work. The end result of the Critique Clinic is a situation in which there are no meanings left to find. The basic goal is to demonstrate that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but not a million words. I haven’t heard examples of Asher’s critiques that were focused on one artwork: one of his students told me they often went nine hours, but that included several students and a number of works.
ZK: What does the Critique Clinic reveal on fixed assumptions about artworks that students and teachers might have?
JE: There is quite a spectrum of assumptions that go into the interpretation of artworks. What often happens, is that judgments are disguised as comments, such as: “you should look at this or that artist’s work”. Why should the student look at the mentioned artist? Anytime you point to a quality of something, you are valuing or implicitly devaluing it. Tutors often use linguistic qualifiers that turn every description into an explicit judgement, for instance “What is this about?” or “I think you should do this or that”. In the Critique Clinic, we try to say: “I see that, and I think this”. We’re simply adding up all possible meanings.
ZK: How did the meanings that the participants gave to a work correspond with the intention of the artist?
JE: The artists were free to choose if they wanted to be present during the critiques, but I recommended that they would be absent during the first sessions. The presence of the artist has a magnetic pull on everybody. Even on Zoom, everyone looks at the artist to see if they agree or disagree. It's better to have the group establish their own interests first. After the show, when the artist is not there anymore, someone’s interpretation that does not correspond to the artist’s intention might be the exact thing that makes the artist important. This is how art history works! So, it’s mostly distracting to have the artist around, unless the statement of the artist is part of the artwork.
ZK: Still, it seems crucial to have some sense of the intention of the artist. You’re very vocal yourself about the fact that who the artist is, is still very important to understand an artwork.
JE: Yes, but it remains a complicated subject. Whenever my students are preparing for a critique at the end of the semester, I tell them that they have to realize that their intentions will not always be believed by the faculty. Some instructors might think that they are intentionally weaving some story around their works in order to deceive them. There is a wonderful phrase for this: “enabling fictions”. It’s about the question if artists’ intentions are ever known, even to themselves. A common discussion about critiques in art education is whether or not students should be subjected to ‘a cold read’. This is when instructors say what they want about the work, before the student explains anything. I’m very much against this. One of the reasons to study art in an educational institution, is to control and understand the range of meanings your work might have. When you first start, you have no control of what people think about your work. A cold read is not helpful, because it can be all over the map and students often don’t know what to do with this information.
ZK: Why did you open up the Critique Clinic to your Facebook followers?
JE: I already have this history of being open on Facebook. Social media helps you to get responses that are much wider than if you would stay within your circle of friends. Also, for now, the Critique Clinic it isn’t that open yet: most people are artists, art historians, writers. I should have advertised in bus stations! It would be interesting to open it up even more, but that is not easy. What happens more often is that people do not bring in the knowledge of their own lived reality into the artworld, but instead they bring their own ideas of art, which are often really sentimental, nostalgic, conventional, nationalistic or old-fashioned. I don’t mind if they join, but often this becomes a problem for them, because they feel they can’t be part of the conversation.
ZK: Do you think that experiments like the Critique Clinic can help us think critically about art criticism?
JE: While the available platforms for art criticism are changing, I don’t see a lot of changes in the content of art criticism as some other people do. The same issues and values often come back in different contexts. The huge quantity of publication platforms makes it much harder to have your voice heard. We can no longer speak of art criticism as a conversation, as it used to be, for instance in North America in the 1940s, when Clement Greenberg was first writing. Back then it was a conversation between a few people in The Partisan Review. That was enough to reach everyone, because there weren’t that many magazines, but now it’s not that way anymore.
ZK: A few months ago, De Prijs voor de Jonge Kunstkritiek took place in Belgium and the Netherlands. The prize is dedicated to young art critics and has two main categories: essay and review. What would you advise to aspiring critics, in a time that we ask the same questions to find the same answers, as you criticize in your 2019 essay ‘The State of Art Criticism’?
JE: What I find interesting, is that the prize also includes the essay format. There have been various movements to revive art criticism by reviving the essay. It came up the first time a number of years ago during a conference in Colombia about the crisis of art criticism. The main conclusion was that criticism should return to the essay form, to see if it could be a useful model. As to what my advice would be: write as sharply as you can. Don’t be afraid of making large scale judgments. Don’t think that you are not allowed to write your opinions on bigger historical or philosophical questions. Write cleanly and clearly, write as angrily as you want!