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Postcards from the Pandemic VII (The Hollow Tribunal of Thumbs)

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Thumbs Up Man, 2018

By Clayton Kashuba

Digital Painting

Remembering back to when I was in college, in particular the time I spent at Maryland Institute College of Art (I like to boast), the discussions we would frequently have about one’s work. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, at that time I completely under valued the forum of critiques. For me, it was equal to taking quizzes or exams. It gave professors and instructors (who were professionally acclaimed artist as well as educators) insight into what you were working on and probably how productive you were. Those notes from your critiques then determined your grade. Because I was slightly older than the average student, I treated school like a job. It was a wonderful little world where it seemed and felt like I was a working artist. I quickly realized the benefits to discussing one’s work through heady arguments on thoughts, influences and techniques. It forced you to articulate your creative voice and vision and strengthen your confidence to speak openly and honestly about what your art means. I remember that you would have a critique about every two weeks, or about every 4-6 classes.

Allow me to illustrate. Most crits were held on Saturdays and would last about 6 hours pending on class size. Each student getting about 30 minutes to talk about what they were working on. Then their work was open for discussion. At the time I hated it, it was like pulling teeth. Garbled incoherent bullshit or a bunch of literary references to obscure poetry, all jam packed around long awkward pauses and uncomfortable arguments around gender, race, religion, etc. Again, it was all part of the process. You had the immediate attention of 12 to 15 colleagues convened in a tribunal for the sole purpose to talk about you and your art. In leu of final exams, your final critique consisted of just you and your instructor along with another prominent pillar of the institution and a guest artist, usually from the Mid Atlantic region of the country. Looking back, it was a gift worthy of the attention and tuition. It was probably the last time any of those students, me included, would get that kind of forum throughout our careers.

Breakfast, 1618

By Diego Valazquez

Oil on canvas

I find myself remembering back because at this time I feel a parallel. So, with no baseball, summer concerts and the scarcity of grad parties (or any parties, painting or otherwise), I’ve got time on my side. While there’s still chores and shopping, there’s gapping holes in my schedule…every day. I’ve resorted back to the level of productivity that I had when I was in school. Pieces that would have taken me months to finish, I’m completing in days. I’m even able to work on a sustained series of paintings with a variation on a theme, huh, who would a thought? However, the glaring absence in all this is that tribunal of colleagues. Not that I had this kind of forum pre pandemic anyhow, but now it’s truly nonexistent.

Summer I (Hope Wall: Rainbow #1), 2010

By Robert Indiana

Digital print

Yes, there is social media but it’s not the same, not even close! I’m not throwing Facebook or Instagram under the bus in any way, but social media platforms have become battlegrounds of social and political vitriol, and rightly so. At the very least, they are a thin veneer of positivity. Make a post about grilled zucchini or a dog in a sunny window and people have plenty to say and even want to share it with their friends. Make a post contemplating the precipice of the social change our country faces and your place in it, or let’s say a painting that is rich in emotional symbolism and all you get is “Thumbs up”. On occasion you get snarky remarks or sarcasm or a polished turd of a comment that is confusing or only entertaining to its author. Most often than not, it just gets a “Thumbs up”.

Now there is a feature within Facebook that allows you to be part of groups. People who like to skydive, people who like cheese, philatelists (stamp collectors), or people who paint can have a forum to post pictures and have discussions about their shared interest. Great, I joined several painting and art groups, it’ll give me that tribunal of critical thought that I sorely miss…I thought.

Well, groups can be any size. Some are small and some have 6000 members, again all like minded folks to connect and chat with. The painting groups I belong to have about 350 people or so in each group. I belong to a couple of groups. One dedicated to professional artist as well as one for people who just love painting. At last, quality discussion about art in particular the method of painting. Well? Not so much. In a group of 300 plus people; 4 people saw your post and 2 of them gave it a “Thumbs up”. Mind you, being in a Facebook group isn’t or shouldn’t have the same algorithm as the regular platform. The idea is to connect people with similar interest outside of the normal advertising processes.

Now, it is possible to sell your work though one of these groups and I’m fine with that, but there is no chatter. Seldom do people post specs like size and medium, or do they say anything about what it is that they posted. There are folks just starting out on their painting journey who will plainly state "this is my first painting” or “I’ve begun to paint again after 20 years!”. They post a clumsy pencil sketch (mind you, it’s a painting group) of their dog or of a crude landscape. Although ridiculous, I can accept this as well. Perhaps you’re looking for pointers and guidance from those that have been practicing their craft for decades. So, I give it to them straight…

“The line quality is weak and the composition is not interesting. If you’re going to work from photograph, take interesting photos. Your DRAWNG (mind you, it’s a painting group) lacks tonal definition, pay attention to details for they’ll inform your color choices later. Keep practicing.”

I get killed. The response is usually half a dozen (yeah, that’s it in group of 300) of people telling me I’m being mean and explaining to me that these people are just starting out or not everyone is a professional artist and that they just do it for fun. NO SHIT!! If you’re not open to furthering your skills by taking advise and learning from those more skilled, then post your ugly contour drawing of your toothless 6-year-old pet on your personal page and not a group dedicated to skilled artist. I’m sure you’ll get a couple of “Thumbs up”.

I understand the absurdity of this whole rant. First of all, as my kids would say, “Who the hell uses Facebook Dad? That shits for old people…” I get that it’s a generational thing. So, I’ll continue to search for avenues with quality discussion about art, painting in particular. I had hoped this blog would at least partially fill that void, but to this point, it hasn’t. I always solicit for comments and criticisms and I post to all my social media platforms, usually all I get is the obligatory “Thumbs up”.

Tribune of the Speaker, 1920

By Kazimir Malevich

Mixed media on paper

In short, that’s where we are. It quicker to text than to call someone, (my kids poke fun at me because I text in complete sentences and with punctuation). It’s easier to drop a snarky quip or zinger on someone’s post than not. As far as that goes, who reads blogs? Certainly, not anyone under 30. Why spend 6 minutes reading an article when you can watch John Oliver on Youtube breaking down current events. Why watch an instructional video on how to paint a landscape or prepare a recipe when you can Tik Tok a 20 second video of a 14-year-old girl gimping around to horrible Hip Hop. Yet, if you bring up Trump or BLM you’ll undoubtedly open Pandora’s Box and the social diatribe goes on for days, and usually results in blocking or dropping someone from your feed. I think this paragraph just added 12 to my actual page.

Civil Rights Memorial, 1989

By Maya Lin

Granite instalation (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do miss those days at MICA. Art is one of those things that you can have a spirited disagreement about and not have it end in anger, or unfriending. No one is quick to get offended if you prefer portraiture to non- representational abstraction. By no means am I saying to ignore the gravity of the political or social climate for which we are all part. Not to end this post on something so heavy, but art is one of the best things about being a human being. Since the beginning of time and being able to walk upright, we’ve had the desire to express and creatively communicate those things that can’t be said with words. Then in turn, seek understanding and connectedness. The thin veil of false positivity that’s expressed with a “Thumbs up” is barely an acknowledgment. Having said that, I expect now no one will acknowledge this post, or ironically, I’ll get more “Thumbs up” then any post to date.

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