Art and Arnold

A Competitive Sport: Crit Group at The Contemporary Austin

2015-08-26 14.46.05

There is something hypnotic about R. Eric McMaster’s A Change in Atmosphere.

Maybe it’s the silent acrobatics of the video. Maybe it’s the high level of craft obviously gone into the making of the gymnastic vault. Maybe it’s the meditative juxtaposition between the two and the wondering if you could pull off what the gymnast does. It’s a real gymnast who’s come out of retirement at the age to 22 to re-start his career. At that age, he faces a formidable task, as did McMaster who was forced to jump through several bureaucratic hoops at The University of Texas in order to make the video. However, after several rejections from the President’s office, he finally succeeded and was granted access to the pool, as long as two separate life guards were on duty at all times of filming. The result of his labor: a large video projection that tells the story of a gymnast desperately trying to execute his vaulting routine while under water paired with the actual vault he used.


I spent a considerable amount of time watching the video loop and thinking about the rest of the show The Only Knowledge Worth Possessing currently up at grayDUCK. It’s diverse, and each piece exhibited is incredibly strong. There is no denying the fact that these are good artists performing at the top of their current game. I say “current,” because I believe they’ll keep getting better and are worth watching over the years to come.

But what makes a good artist?

I think McMaster’s piece metaphorically answers the question. The fluidity of the gymnastic performance interrupted by the fluidity of his context visualizes the tests of character and dedication any artist faces. Art making is a tiresome processes with false starts, disruptions, and challenges. There is little public acclaim and even less monetary reward. But still artists feel some deep, soul yearning drive to continue with their labor. As I tell my students, art is a vocation.

But it’s more than that. While artists feel compelled to do and make, they also feel compelled to get better—at least the good ones do. They want their work to be something. What that thing is, they dictate, and part of this demands having the awareness of fellow artists. Not only do artists make art, they also watch other artists. They study them, take note of what they do and don’t do. They compare their works to the works of others, they borrow—and even steal (to quote Picasso)—what they see as successful. When you have a gathering of personality types this, one thing becomes immediately apparent.

Art is a competitive sport.

And whether they want to admit it or not, artists are competitive people. They want their work to get more notice than the other guy and get written about it newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Twitter feeds. They covet those moments when they spy someone taking a picture of their artwork and not the piece next to it. They want their Instragram images and Facebook posts and pages to get liked. And they long for the elusive solo exhibition where they and their work will be front-and-center. In my art history classes, I always enjoy telling about Michelangelo and Bramante’s rivalry while they were under the employment of Pope Julius II, or Matisse and Picasso’s subtle feuds that were hashed out on the surfaces of their canvasses. Even if by some accounts these conflicts are more myth than fact and make for better folklore than history, they possess some kernel of truth and demonstrate the artistic drive to make one’s work stronger.

Artists want to succeed.

All of this is just fine. In fact, competition breeds excellence. One’s ideas and abilities are pushed and tested, and they get better because of this process.

However, this field of competition looks different than the ones we see at football games, basketball tournaments, and tennis matches. It’s spread across galleries and webpages, reviews and sales, grants and awards. It’s not a face-to-face showdown where the last competitor standing with the highest score wins. Instead, winners and losers emerge overtime as careers are compared to others, and one can take stock of an artist’s worth by measuring his or her contribution to the art world.

But sometimes the winners and the losers are immediately obvious, and the field of competition is more apparent. Whereas artists like Michelangelo had the Pope, artists today have things like juried shows and events like Crit Group at The Contemporary Austin. Co-facilitated by Andy Campell, Sarah Bancroft, and Andrea Mellard, Crit Group is a six-month program that uses both group critiques and professional development in order to foster artistic professionalism for the artists selected to participate. It’s an educational program that trains artists how to get the most out of their work and careers by focusing on both the craft of manufacturing an artwork as well as developing the needed supplements of artist statements, grant proposals, photographing work, applying to residencies, and understanding copyright law, among other tools of the trade. And it’s free, as long as your application is accepted.

I’m assuming this program responds to a slight lack in education found at the higher levels of academic art instruction in Austin, and I think it’s a great response to fixing this problem by giving artists the opportunity to learn and grow. However, the program does replicate the graduate level application process absent of the staggering price tag that comes with it. Your application needs to be accepted.

So from the outset, it’s a competition. The artists who apply to Crit Group are already jockeying with each other to get in. And if that acceptance letter, email, or phone call finds its way to you, then you can count yourself among the lucky who will get the education, press, and professional network offered by the program. I guess the first lesson Crit Group teaches artists is that not everyone makes it. And that’s a good lesson to learn.

But for those who don’t get accepted, take heart. There will be another program, another opportunity, and another application just around the corner. All you have to do is keep swimming.

Posted 26th August 2015 by Arnold, H.C.

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