Critiquing A Cardboard Box
rating: +46+x

What they ask, tells you everything you need to know.                                                                                                                            
An ancient exhaust fan screeches to life on the roof of my downtown-warehouse-turned-studio.

I can relate, as I too struggle to start off on a positive note.

I stall for a few minutes with a show of close inspection, gathering my thoughts. I have to grin a little as I do. A graffiti-coated magic refrigerator box. He certainly gets points for whimsy, if nothing else. That doesn't really help the situation, though. Critique may be the most important part of an artist's development, but it's often also the most painful… for both student and teacher.

I know already this is going to be one such critique.

But its still always nice to start with a positive comment when you can.

“This right here; the passive recharging construct? This is clever.”

My student breaks into a lopsided grin. It doesn't take much to flatter a young artist, but I do mean it. It's the sort of strangely brilliant kludge built out of guesswork and duct tape only a novice at the Craft of sculpting reality comes up with, before they know it shouldn't work.

“How in the heck did you do that anyway… wait, now I think I see. Okay that's really clever. Just, um, don't use that trick again until you get the hang of warding… and I get the chance to stock up on Prussian Blue…”

Amazing what you learn when you teach. The way the aura keeps flickering is more than a little concerning, and I haven't completely figured out yet how he scribed the thing without blowing up his apartment, but with some refinement… I have some sketching to do later.

“Now then, as to the rest of the piece…where to start? Decent flexibility on the conditional triggers…not bad work there…”

I'm intentionally being a bit free with the compliments.

“… the layered structures aren't interfering with each other as badly this time…”

It takes us self-taught artists a while to learn to thank someone for pointing out our screw ups and telling us why we're doing everything wrong accept critique.

“…and the overall composition is more harmonious, too. See how much more stable it makes the whole system when you unify the color gamut and balance the forms?”

I need to ease into the real problem here, or he's just going to tune me out.
And that problem runs a lot deeper than some technical issues.

“I can tell you've been practicing what we talked about. Huge improvement over your last-” I pause and clear my throat as I see his sheepish expression. “Yeah. Huge improvement.”

Those poor pigeons. I'm still finding feathers around the studio.

“Still plenty for you to work on, though. Like this bit- you got really sloppy here. How many times now have I said you need to control your brushwork? I don't even need the Sight to make out some of these runes.”

The smile retracts as he grunts and studies a splatter of paint on the concrete.
We both know it's the weak point in his skillset, and I've been prodding him about it a lot lately.
I'm sorry, but you'll thank me years from now.
Right after you stop hating me.

“I'm also not really sure what you were trying to do with the perspective in this vignette. Stylization is all well and good, but even Escher had to follow the rules of perspective. It's especially bad considering this is a Work with a transpositional component. You want to bend reality, you have to make it really clear what it needs to be bent into. Otherwise, well… I told you about my buddy who does- well, did- hyperdimensional landscapes, right? Screwed up adding a new expansion to his garden, warped his neighbor's clothesline, neighbor died, Foundation got involved, had to flee England and change his identity, stopped working and started drinking because of the guilt, huge mess…? Yeah. Perspective matters.”

I see a younger me in those eyes. Younger me does not seem impressed by older me's stories, but does at least seem to be trying to figure out what I mean about the perspective in the vignette.

“You could have tripled the active radius, too, if you hadn't gotten lazy with your acoustic detection lattice. You're trying to control everything by brute force here. Its just like the perspective thing. Take the time and do the calculations, rather than just slapping down something that looks about right.”

A tense twitch, but he knows by now that it's futile trying to interrupt when I'm in lecture mode. I remember being on the other side of that expression well enough to guess what he's thinking, though.

“Yes, I get that setting up each cluster individually would have been a lot more tedious, but it would also make it that much more sensitive and resilient. If you're going to pull a juvenile prank, at least do it properly.”

A wry expression folds into an indignant glare as that last part registers.
I'm impressed by his restraint. Real younger me would have been knee deep in a rant by now.

“Look, I get what you're trying to say with this. But the problem is that a cardboard box that teleports to enclose people who say synonyms of the word "containment" is an irritating practical joke, not art.”

As the end of that sentence comes out of my mouth, I see the welcoming faces of teachers, critics, and elders greeting the newest member of the Ancient Order of Closeminded Old Bastards Who Think They Get To Tell Me What Art Is. Now you get it! Hope you don't mind if we stick around to see how much better you do explaining it to him.


A car rolls by outside.


Don't want to talk about this.


No. Needs to be said. Get it over with.


Go to… ah hell lets do this.


“That's what the anartist faction has never understood.”

Now he starts to say something, but I keep going. He not-so-secretly idolizes some of the anartists, I know… but I'm a COBWTTGTTMWAI with a lesson to drive home, so I can't don't care.

“The Anartists learn some low-level Craft, call themselves activists, and they think that makes them judge and jury to the world. They use Works to force their beliefs and opinions on others, and punish those who do not share them. They produce insipid gimmicks to flip off the Foundation or the GOC or whoever else they've decided is the source of all evil that day. They traumatize, maim, and kill helpless Pedestrians to make shallow commentary about society. And they have the gall to call all of it art because they tack on a tag with some half-baked moral and a catch phrase.”

I've hit a nerve with that one.
Might finally have hit the right nerve, though. I can tell he's thinking about that last bit.
That's right kid. Don't waste that fire lashing out at me.
Put it to work under the boiler where it will do you some good.

I let him vent a little, to keep him thinking.

“So what are you saying? That we should just make cheap junk and parlor tricks the censors won't storm in and destroy? Sell out and make sleazy toys for rich morons to show off to their drinking buddies? Oh, or how 'bout we let the Craft die? Would THAT be Cool‽

I sigh and shake my head.

“The anartists aren't trying to teach people or open the Pedestrian's eyes to the full reality. They may say they are- hell, some of them might even believe it- but they aren't. They're a bunch of pretentious brats with a pathological need for attention and cruel sense of humor. They ask if they're Cool because they have no idea what Cool is.”

I lean back on one of the ceiling's support poles in a way that I hope makes me look wise and James Dean-ish. “Come to think of it, the whole root of the problem,” I tell the ceiling, “can be found in their oh-so-clever catchphase.”

I write the four damning words in the air.

Are We Cool Yet ?

I've got younger me's attention back.
Heh. Get the Craft involved and suddenly I'm awesome again.
Apparently "awesome" does not negate "pissed off at", though.
But I'll settle for having his attention.

“Think about what they're asking. Not 'Are You Cool Yet?'. Not 'Is This Cool?'.”

"No. What they ask,”

Are We Cool Yet ?

“…tells you everything you need to know.”

He just stares off into space.
Hard to tell if he's starting to get it or if he's trying to think of a counter argument.
Maybe both.

I finish making my point.

“Art isn't about the artist. Its not about destruction or vengeance. Its not about standing on a soapbox ranting, or proving your own superiority. Its about turning an idea or a feeling into something others can think about and feel. Reinventing the familiar in a way that makes it seem completely new, or showing the exotic in a way that makes it seem familiar. Its about making something that didn't exist before you started. Art is about creation.”

We stand there in silence for a while, both studying the refrigerator box he swaggered in with a little while earlier.

More cars drive by outside. Street's busy today.

I decide its as good a time as any to show him.
Couldn't hurt anyway.

“Want to see something Cool? Come back here, I'll show you something Cool.”

He rolls his eyes, but follows anyway. I lead him to the back of the building, to one of the former offices sectioned off from the rest of the warehouse. This particular one's where I do my sketching and thinking, and keep my personal collection. He hasn't been in here before, for good reason.

“Word of warning:”, I tell him as I find the right key, “Don't try the Sight in here until you've learned to tamp it down, unless you want a migraine.”

I unlock the door and set the wards to allow him through. I sigh seeing him wince as he enters. You can lead a horse to water…

I walk past the rows of Works received as gifts or in trades with friends and colleagues, or bought from those I admire over the years. Looking over my shoulder I can tell he's trying to stay mad at me while staring at the wonders scattered around the room; moving paintings and synesthetic calligraphy, sculptures made of frozen light or twisting through the fourth dimension, physical realizations of abstract concepts and memetic narratives. I stop at the wicker birdcage beside my drawing table. The Work that surpasses all the rest I curate.

“This is part of a set created by one of the masters I learned from, one of the last Works he created.”

I open the cage, and a tiny form flutters out and lands on my finger.

“Her name is Etsuko.”

The paper crane perks up from preening her creases at the mention of her name.

“I've never seen anything like her or her nine hundred and ninety nine brothers and sisters at any of the showings I've attended before or since.”

“Her lattices are so intricate and delicate I don't dare examine them too closely, but what I can see is some of the most complex Craft I've ever encountered. They aren't mere animate sculptures. They're sentient, feeling things, each with a distinct personality. I'm told some of her siblings even have offspring. They serve no agenda, have no sociopolitical message, harm no one. They exist simply to bring wonder and beauty to the world.”

“A master's magnum opus: Life, from a thousand scraps of paper.”

“I still don't understand most of how she was made, or how she works… but there is one thing I do know:”

“Etsuko is Cool.”

I leave him for a while to look through the rest of the pieces and finish pouting.
With the wards I've got on that room he couldn't hurt anything in there if he tried.

When I check on him later, Etsuko is perched on his head, his sketchbook is out, and the lopsided grin is back.

Might just make an artist of this one yet.

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