Broad City, Season 2, Episode 10

Critique lives outside of our lives in unpredictable occurrences. I remember scrolling through instagram explores page and stoping on a clip of a black podcast host sharing why he felt that it was important for black children to be disciplined by their parents. He made the point that black parents must train their children to fear the consequences of their actions, and though I’ve heard sentiments like this before, in barbershops and churches in the south, it had never dawned on me that my father intentionally raised me with a fear of authority and more importantly of the consequences for being untamed. Looking back on my childhood it has become apparent that I lived with this second consciousness that wherever I was or whatever I was doing was to be disciplined, I left childhood with an enormous amount of guilt that further pressured me to closet my emotions as to who I really was, because after all there was a large amount of shame that I had to keep brewing, so I grew up in many ways, learning from my public classroom, but also examining the ways to be seen and how to deal with the judgement of others.

Like my father, I chose the path of tradition, of normativity and passiveness. I had a deeply intellectual mind that focused on emotional data around me, so I made myself into the role of the pushover, never making too much noise, minding the space around me and how much of it I took up. My upbringing originated within a black community that was vibrant and complicated in its social functions. I think that this environment created a sort of conceptual thought tank that never stopped growing, the older I got the deeper my interactions and relationships dug. I want to focus on this enigma of black community because it in many ways was my first artistic conception. I learned about critique in a fluid and at times continuous manor where everything associated with my identity became the grounds for suggestion or gimmick.

By the time I became a student at The Rhode Island School of Design I had many stages of grief for my ego long before I faced the criticisms of my foundation teachers. Though my studio energy was jaded with uncompleted assignments and distracted concepts I managed to exit the classrooms unscathed to the supposively harsh criticisms of my professors. I had already grown accustomed to a critic and criticism that dug much deeper than art history could ever arrouse within me. I was a black child in a white supremacist world so the facade of an art school institution felt no different, and if anything it felt like a shelter away from the critique that mattered most and that seemed to harm my psyche from the more genuine level. In art school what I experienced was formal critique, much different from the critique I faced before. In my past you were always being critiqued, analyzed, and the potential of being emotionally harmed was greater. There was no rhyme or reason, somebody could put you into your place for the mere sake of having nothing else better to do, so as a black child I learned to be quick on my feet, to estimate where harsh discussion would be and how to absolve the wildness of randomized criticism. In art school it felt like swimming in warm water, nothing really was capable of hurting my existential crisis.

My relationship towards formal criticism of artwork felt more like an organized gathering, professors dictated who must speak, what was constructive, and when the critique was over, and on the occasion there would be cookies, coffee, or even wine. The art school prepares art students for the publicity of being an artist, never for the actuality of themselves being a complacent member of a larger society but that art exists in arts space, and the worth of criticism will arrive in a formal, almost, predictable manor. What we have now seen in our contemporary day is the exact opposite as the internet helps certain marginalized groups organize and unify beliefs. Criticism that was once considered low art and or petty gossip is now regarded as valid and important voices that the institution prides itself on embracing. In contemporary day fluid criticism is happening and shifting the formality that was once professional and predicated on the determination of owning an art degree of wealth. With the assistance of the internet the art world now searches for how it can conform and or predict what is prone to controversy, however they are unaware that we are all members of a society that must create us vulnerable at all times for critique.

Because of this focus on formal concepts, and or professionalism, graduate school feels almost like a system of creating predictable norms that will in some way prepare art students for the art world and not necessarily for the criticism of a society. Students are less prepared to engage with artworks that do not convey art historical guidance. In a classroom session for my Contemporary Topics class I watched as my fellow graduate students grew frustrated in the work of artist Torey Thornton, a painter, sculptor, and conceptual artist whose studio practice is a medley of poetry, sarcasm, and vernacular. Many of their frustrations were in their inability to connect with an artwork that was not didactic in its appearance. The titles reference thoughts and concepts that are personal for the artist, not necessarily beaconing toward the history of art showing or artists in general. My sentiment towards these students was similar to this essay, that your own relationship with the work is what matters most, and that perhaps this inability to understand black thought stems from an inability to understand their own reliance on a white washed industry that primes it’s artists and concepts into an allocated formality. Without a literal guide into this black artist’s work, my predominately white grad students felt left opened and in the wind without a challenging tool set of critique that could help them identify themselves and their relationship towards objects that they don’t understand, critical thought that is wild and at times never formal.

shuriya davis is a multi-disciplinary artist and writer exploring the politics of body, race, and gender. she is based in Oakland, California