Thursday, November 10, 2011


"OMG you are such... a good... drawler."
"Omg no, are you kidding me? Yours is so... much... better than mine."
"What? No! Seriously, yours looks really real."
"What-EVER. Mine looks like crap."
"No, MINE looks like crap."
"Mine looks like vomit."

That was my high school art class. At my all-girl's school, that was basically the only way to take and receive a compliment about your art. Trust me: nothing makes me more uncomfortable than these sorts of exchanges, so eventually I simply tried saying, "Thanks!" Wow, the looks I got. It's like I'd grabbed the complimenter by her collar, shaken her and screamed, "THAT'S RIGHT BITCH! TAKE THAT!!!!!!!!"

So I stuck to the script-- even when the other person's was not always so much better than mine. Or I came off as obligingly fake-modest, even when I was frustrated that mine really looked like crap. Or when I just wanted to be left the hell alone so I could draw. This was in the South, by the way-- there is no "being left alone," or opting out of the compliment competition. There is also no being straightforward and no rocking the boat.

Imagine, then, when my teacher decided to hold a critique. Get in a group, put the drawing up on the bulletin board, go around and say one good thing about it and make one "constructive criticism." No one vocalized anything, there was certainly no formalized plan; but there was an innate understanding, unanimous agreement. The first drawing went up on the board; it belonged to one of the bow-heads (if you're unfamiliar with this classic clique, they are not the Mean Girls, the uber-popular elite; they're not the nerds, either. They are well-liked, reasonably book-smart, well-adjusted, often religious, and they play team sports and volunteer with underprivileged kids after school. Typically wear pastel colored clothes and ponytails with ribbons tied in a bow around them.) The teacher could have selected an unpopular girl's piece and maybe someone would have come up with a criticism. Or maybe a popular mean queen's piece; people might have been ready to bring her down a notch. But she didn't.

"Bow-heads" volunteering in a team. My friend also named this clique, "Pastel People." I know it seems like I'm making fun of them but they were pretty cool-- I just couldn't relate to them at the time.
The first girl called upon started with the good: "It's really... pretty."
"Ok, good! It's pretty! Ok. So do you have any constructive criticism?"
Long silence. Finally,
"I can't."
"Oh, come on, you can think of something!"
"No I can't."
"It's perfect?"
Sigh. Eye roll. "I can't think of anything." The teacher takes a deep breath.
"Ok, let's go to someone else. Katie? Something good?"
"I agree it's pretty."
"Pretty how?"
"Like... I don't know."
"Come on."
"It's got like... nice colors."
"Ok! Nice colors! Yes! And what is your constructive criticism?"
Stony silence.
"Katie. Something."
Stonier silence.
"I can't."
"I can't."

At this point I should mention that, while the drawing was fine-- I vaguely recall it being a landscape-- there was clearly room for improvement. We were high schoolers, not pros.

"Ok. Ladies. We are talking about constructive criticism here. Not a personal attack. Somebody needs to come up with one item of constructive criticism before this class is over." She surveyed the room and landed on another Katie, a teacher's pet.

Katie, like many sixteen-year-old Southern girls, aimed to please (and appease). She must have been genuinely torn between teacherly noncompliance and saying something bad about another girl. I probably would have been, too, as I was a goody-two-shoes, but thankfully she hadn't called on me.

Katie was silent. Her eyes darted back and forth, searching for help from the other girls. Everyone looked down.


Publicity shot for the movie, "Mean Girls." [Image: the three main popular girls. The one on the right smiles at the camera, one stands slightly behind the middle girl making a smirking face, and the middle girl glances sideways at the smirking girl she cannot see, looking extremely uncomfortable.]

Katie took a deep breath and maintained her silence. She was the weak link but her decision to remain silent set the tone. By this point no one would speak, good or bad. There was literally nothing the teacher could do. She was powerless in the face of social pressure. She could have failed us all, but it was understood: you cannot say outright negative things about other girls in public to their faces.

Ten to fifteen minutes later the bell rang. The classroom was vacated in under thirty seconds.

Writing about art criticism reminded me of this incident. I've also been thinking recently about hosting a group critique, inviting some artists I like, since critiques were a favorite part of art school for me and I miss them like crazy. But then there is the memory of that one critique from high school (the teacher never tried to make us do this again). What if it devolves into girl-compliments and critique-fear? It would be absolute hell. But I'm still thinking about it....

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