Matthew Goulish

Matthew Goulish, Instructor for Abandoned Practices and Professor in the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote the following text On Response to the students of the 2011 Summer Institute.

Today marks the mid-point of our time together, and before we proceed again into the galleries to see your scores, and hear your statements, and to have the responses, we wanted to pause here for a moment to say a few things about how we have approached response thus far, and how that approach will change in the days ahead.

Even if everything said is already understood, it is good to be as clear as possible. Through clarity you locate yourself in the process. I mean, when the speaker states something clearly, it leaves a space for the listener.

I mentioned on the first day, a long time ago, that we would begin this course by emphasizing the experience of the doing, of the making, and of the generative, over the conversation, or the assessment of the work made. We have continued that emphasis for the first eight days. We have many reasons for doing that. We wanted to allow you to find your own way into the themes and concepts of the course. We wanted to allow you some dedicated time with your own processes, in this semi-public space, to come to new understandings of your practice and its potential. With that in mind, we wanted to show how much can be produced, and of such quality, in such a short time, and maybe the critical mind has had to be sidelined to some extent, for that to happen. We also wanted to build a community, to build trust, and to allow you to make the acquaintance of one another through the work produced rather than the conversation and the opinions about it. We now have a foundation, and it is indeed very strong. We have asked you to produce, and you have produced, not only work, but also practices that will endure.

Another question that concerns us about the difference between generating work and talking about it is the tendency of conversation to stall the flow of the creative. This is the recurring problem that the engagement of the critical mind blocks the impulse to create. This problem comes about when we think that the critical is essentially different from the creative, when we think of the critical as corrective, and grant it the authority over the creative, to police its failure, and to reward its successes. We have restricted the responses that we have had thus far to constraints similar to the constraints that have restricted the creative. In this way, we smuggle a creative impulse in to the critical objective, and the result has been extremely valuable. The responses from Jane and Dan and those of you who have composed responses, have paid very close attention to the work and deeply invested in it, and offered insights from that investment that keep the forces of that work alive, and even multiply it. These responses have also been limited to clustering the work of several individuals into aggregates that can be spoken of together. And this is in keeping with the course’s ethic of time management, and of practice as a communal meeting place.

We have two kinds of extremely delicate ecologies that it is our mission to protect here: the ecology of the individual practice, and the ecology of the community. I have just spoken about the community. Now I will say something about the problem of critique in relation to the individual practice. When the critical mind is engaged to praise the success of a work or to police its failures, the result nearly always threatens the ecology of the practice, mostly because those very subjective assessments masquerade as objective rules. What if somebody you respect praises some aspect of your work, and then as you continue to work on it, you realize that is the very aspect of the work that you need to edit out? You will hesitate. You will lose the merciless relation to your work that you must have in order to create. Of course, on the other hand, a negative critical comment can also forestall the development of that less successful quality of the work into something of great value. Understanding your own practice means understanding that nobody else can really enter into its stream, just as you cannot really enter into the stream of another. So with that impossible position in mind, what do we do? I will try to answer that in a moment.

First I will leapfrog to this afternoon when we will begin a project that we will spend more time on, and for which there will be allowances made for more conversation, and more critical engagement with the process. We are ready to decelerate. We have, or will have by this afternoon, the proper foundation. We can engage the critical in a way that does not harm the process, because we have structured a model for how to do that, and because we feel confident enough about our own work to hear somebody else talk about it, specifically, to hear the thoughts of other people in this room. This is never easy, and do not believe anyone who tells you it is. But now we are ready.

So what are we trying to do, or what can we try to do, regarding these problems of the critical? Answer the question by asking it differently: What is the difference between praise and value? I seek praise and avoid condemnation as much as the next person if not more. It’s a kind of addiction, and it threatens my practice, or anyway distracts me from it. It puts me on a course of seeking something to the side of my practice, from the outside of it, something I never really attain, and avoiding something I can never really escape. And anyway, regarding the condemnation part, it is clear that you are all already your own toughest critics. The last thing you need is more of that. What we need is to understand how to value what we have done, to understand what value is. Valuing is an act of naming, or acknowledging, some quality of the work or its practice that a person brings consistently to it, and that another person wants to understand, perhaps to emulate, to carry forward, to keep near, to carry as a reminder. To value is to engage with the materials of the work, the forces that the work captures, and to speak of it and what it is like; to allow its resonance to proliferate. To understand a work’s value is to endow it and the practice that produced it with profound durability. To value is to try to escape the power game of praise and policing, and to replace it with acts of understanding, of moving forward with a candle in the darkness. That’s all we have anyway, each of us, if we are honest with ourselves – our own candle to light our way, and to light another’s. Once that is understood, the candle becomes very difficult for any wind to extinguish. The presentations we will hear now offer us a rare opportunity for such acts of valuing. Listen closely, and your practice will benefit. To listen closely, how you listen closely, now defines this part of your practice.

Lin will take us now to the first responses.

Continue Reading:

Response by Mark Jeffery
A Commonplace Book by Daniel Sack
Performance Response by Daniel Sack
A Future Abandoned Practice by Chris Cuellar