Father Theophan: Critiques Of Style

Various styles of pottery. Photo by Fr. Theophan

By Father Theophan
Saint Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church
Los Alamos

Art school seems like a lifetime ago. Twenty-four years ago I started the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at New Mexico State University after leaving my childhood family and moving 2,000+ miles from Upstate New York.

Culture shock, to say the least; living on my own for the first time and working full-time to support myself for the first time made the college experience less than leisurely for me. My grades dipped and my weight increased. But things settled and I was able to complete the required work.

We were all finding ourselves, our voices, during that time, which is what college is designed to do. When an art project was complete, it was followed by the requisite “critique” by the professor and peers. It was a nerve-wracking, often embarrassing, and occasionally soul crushing experience. The point was to challenge the artist on their motivation, use of materials, technique, etc. The goal was to be able to answer those questions satisfactorily and convincingly.

If the work was lacking in some way, if one could misdirect the conversation, or spin a web of obfuscation, one might get away with the deficiency.

“These lines on your sculpture seem messy and unfinished.”

“The proportions of this figure seem off.”

“This construction seems precarious; there are cracks in this.”

One common attempt was an appeal to “style.” A student might explain, “Well, I meant to do that. It’s part of my style.” Under any professor worth their salt, however, that response would call down the wrath of the art gods upon the unsuspecting art student.

Messy and unfinished, proportions that would make Picasso uncomfortable, and precarious construction could, in fact, be excused, even lauded, if it was consistent and intentional. But merely appealing to one’s “style” was a weak argument.

Craftsmanship, competence, consistency, these were the best defense against stylistic criticisms.

We are often too concerned with appearances; we worry about what our impression is on the people we meet, rather than the consistency of our internal life. It is one of the things that naturally improves with age if we let it. It is easier to be true to ourselves when we have grown out of adolescent self-consciousness.

If we are people of character, integrated and honest, our public face will directly correspond to who we are inside.

Laziness and inattention are neither healthy nor efficacious, in art and in life. And they are really difficult to defend.

Practice makes perfect; it also develops a style, unintentionally and organically. Master the basics and a style will develop naturally, beautifully.

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” ― Lao Tzu