Regarding Soft Talk — AKA Innocuous Language — In Art Critiques

The chair of my grad program, Tracey Cockrell, was big on critique as democratic agreement. We spent a great deal of time through the course of my program defining what we wanted out of critique, a big one — no innocuous language. Meaning, no “that’s pretty,” “I like it” etc. Anytime we would make an innocuous, unhelpful statement in a crit, we’d have to back it up with substance. We all helped each other out with this but asking “why do you think it’s pretty” or “why do you think it’s disturbing?” Having us all working together on delivering the most helpful critique to not just the artist being critiqued, but everyone in the room, was a powerful process. I’m sure we weren’t always successful, but we started each critique with an attitude of generosity.

I just found this article about “soft talk” that reminded me of some of our critique manifesto. It includes a discussion of innocuous language but also mentions, as makers, we sometimes are not aware of biases, racially insensitive content, or classism that could potentially arm others. Innocuous language might be hiding sensitive conversations that need to come out.

“We might inadvertently manifest class privilege, for example, or a wish to intimidate or impress; our work might display unconscious bias, or it might reiterate and repeat the racism of our world.”

This got me thinking more and more about really uncomfortable critiques I’ve been in that involved racial stereotyping.

As a member of a critique group, whether inside or out of school, it’s vital to establish that the critique is a “safer” space (the word safer, I learned from Empress Rules). Meaning:

  • Critiquees should be comfortable putting work out, knowing that they are not their own work, and so any ciritque on the work is not necessarily a critique on themselves (though it’s very possible critiques will surface biases that the artist needs to self reflect on).
  • Critiquers should give feedback from a stance of generosity.
  • All parties should assume good intentions.
  • Listening is vital. If someone is speaking, don’t let ideas bubble up and impatiently wait for the person to stop speaking so you can start. Listen carefully, let pauses happen. Let words sink in.

Now that I think of it, innocuous language may not exist, because when there is unspecific meaning in our words, we tend to assume things and fill in the gaps. Practicing and helping others practice clarity of thoughts and ideas lets us all grow into better loving humans.

As an alum of two private art colleges, I have seen a tremendous underrepresentation of non-white identifying students. Much of this has to do with how uncomfortable it is to be a minority. How much overt and subliminal racism students of color have to endure in order to get a degree, and how little it done by (mostly white) professors in trying to create safer spaces for all. It is not the job of students of color to correct us whites. We need to take a few steps back, do the work, educate ourselves more, and help each other stop being unintentional assholes!

Much love. Much work. We got this.

P.S. Found this other general critique article on while looking for photos for this.