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Consensual Critique

Wading the crit-infested waters of romantic relationships in an art school setting.

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Sacha Lusk.

The track lights are on, the drills are whirring, the levels are propped up, and the pedestals are scooting in across a freshly-polished floor. It’s critique day, but it’s a normal one. See, you went out on Friday. It was a great night. You didn’t engage in drinking unless 21-or-older, and you especially didn’t inhale any illicit herbs. Of course you didn’t, because you’re an exceptionally rigorous individual; you’re committed to your practice and your studies, and only party in order to do two things: talk to your friends and bust moves on the beer-soaked dance floor. But that Friday you also had sex. And now you’ve both got to critique each other’s work.

Neither SAIC’s Student Handbook (which I was given my freshman year and never read) nor “The Critique Handbook” (a book I was assigned to purchase yet never instructed to read), contain any explicit language regarding intimate relationships between students in the setting of a critique space. How, then, is one intended to manage the pressures of a creative atmosphere plus the relationships that come along with college?

SAIC does have a policy regarding student-faculty relationships, the gist being, don’t do it: “…the School strongly recommends that teachers avoid consensual romantic or sexual encounters or relationships with students.” In the following section, the language makes clear that such relationships are expressly prohibited in the case of a faculty member in direct authority over a student, whether they be “teaching in a class, supervising in any manner (e.g., research or graduate work, or as a TA or employee of any kind), or recommending for fellowships, awards or employment.” The fourth and final section makes clear that any violation of this policy by the faculty member is punishable on a spectrum up to and including termination from employment at SAIC. So please, just don’t.

But what about student-student relationships? The handbook states, “Our community expects that all interpersonal relationships and interactions — especially those of an intimate nature — be grounded in mutual respect, open communication, and clear consent.” It goes on to define “Affirmative Consent” in gripping detail. And, as anyone reading this probably attended a screening of Tea and Consent by Blue Chair Studios during freshman orientation, we ought to, by now, understand consent.

consent, n.

  1.    Voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires; compliance, concurrence, permission. (OED: Consent.)

Consent is a word that, when understood correctly, can lead to movie-going, jump rope-skipping, bike-riding, hand-holding, mouth-to-mouth kissing, sex-having, and engagement-ringing. Consent is also the word responsible for the termination of such engagements.

But the world isn’t perfect, and it is nowhere near selfless. Not all relationships, nor one-night-stands, are ended in a harmonious act of mutually respectful and consensual termination. People have feelings, hold grudges, feel hurt, get confused. Everyone brings with them a host of different experiences and expectations when entering into any sort of consensual relationship. And so, when a relationship or an evening ends, there is no telling what each party will feel, much less how each party will act. Unless each person is prepared to maintain communication throughout the process of re-contextualization which follows the establishment of their new relationship to one another, there is bound to be awkwardness, confusion, and hurt.

Keeping open communication can be as simple as, “I’ll call you later,” and actually calling or “Let’s meet for coffee and talk,” and following through with the appointment. It does not matter how the communication takes place so long as it does. It does not matter that you do not think the person will dislike what you have to say. It does not matter that you may not feel you have anything to say to the person post-coitus. It does not matter that you fear they don’t see you the same way you see them. What matters is communication.

The critique itself is the same way. “The Critique Handbook” states, “A critique happens when a group of people convenes in an art studio or critique room to discuss and evaluate works of art.” The bare bones of a critique, therefore, are a group of people plus a discussion. Though that discussion can often seem like some final judgement of one’s merits as an artist, the critique is something much simpler; “It is a place to stop, check your direction, look at the map if necessary, clear the trash out of the car, and generally refresh yourself for the next leg of your journey.” The idea of a journey is so often over-employed that it is understandable for anyone to hate another usage of it. But in the case of defining critique, and in defining intimate relationships, it is certainly worth using again.

The critique is not the end-all-be-all of artistic practice, just as sexual intercourse is not the end-all-be-all of human existence. Thanks, Ferris.

So then, how to deal with relationships, whether large or small—enduring or swift—in the context of a critique space? There is, unfortunately, no single answer for that. Relationships vary. People vary. And the only way to keep on top of a world that is in constant flux, within a school that upholds the pillars of free-expression and discussion, is to continue on in that discussion. It will not be easy; it will probably be very hard. But the point of art school is to learn to discuss, to express, and to manage being a human through making.

So, the paintings are hung-up, the sculptures are set, and the coffee is in hand. Critique day is beginning, and you haven’t said a word to them since Saturday morning when you couldn’t find your pants. It’s okay. Now is not the time. “ … Leave your ego at the door … Try to become an impartial viewer, standing beside rather than against the other members of the critique.” Participate wholly in the discussions of everybody’s work. And, when the day is done, go say hey. And participate as actively in the discussions of your own life as you do in critique.

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