How to actually critique a piece of art

How to actually critique a piece of art

Inspired by a recent LinkedIn comment on the politics of politeness, a commentator suggested this also applies to critiquing artwork, and that "faint praise" gets in the way of making valuable work.

While I agree, I wanted to add more nuance to the topic, and found myself stymied by LinkedIn's character-limit.

Due to my background in art and teaching, and because I've seen many people struggle with critiquing and critiques, I thought I'd pen an article on how to go about tackling the process.

Hollow praise may, indeed, not be helpful. It causes artists to plateau.

But a poorly thought-out critique will suck the life out of both a piece of work, and the artist, faster than you can say "golden ratio".

That is where our topic finds its focus.

Let's begin.

You are faced with a piece of art, and an artist has asked for a critique

How do you begin?

First, you try to discern, if not presented via an artist's statement or a story summary, what the work is trying to do.

Not what you wish it to do, what it's trying to do.

It may be the case an artist/writer has made something they are not fully aware of, and so their explanation is perhaps not fully defined.

It's your job as a critic to figure out where the work is trying to go, and offer tips or suggestions on how to get it there.

Once you've sat with the work enough to understand it, or if you have been given something to look over for the desired intent, then you can form your ideas about how to best serve the work.

Now that you've thought about what the work is trying to do...

How can you help get it to where it needs to be?

What one must do as a critic is analyze the structure, the contents, the characters, the figures, the lighting, the concept, the technique, the pieces and parts, and measure it against what the artist is actually trying to accomplish.

If, say, a writer has written a short story about ghosts, with a conceptual slant to depression making one a ghost of their own life, what diction are they using to create a haunted affectation? Does the dialog need to read less comedic, more dramatic? Are there spelling errors/can you help with that?

Consider painting.

Say a painter is working on hyper-realism. Where does the "trick of the eye" falter in impressing realistic work so real it fools the viewer? Can you instruct the painter on how to better employ light, as human eyes see it? Should the painting be bigger to account for the details?

What can you offer to help the writer/artist upskill and reach their Intent?

Critiquing a piece of artwork is not actually an easy thing to do.

Nor is it just having mere opinions on the piece of art.

Opinions are not critiques

Be mindful of biases and misunderstanding the work

Anyone is entitled to their opinions on a piece of art. However, an opinion is not a critique, and opinions can be wrong, depending on how someone approaches the work, or how versed they are in a subject matter.

It's good to note that seeing how the work is read by those not versed is valuable. Art is a conversation with many, and they may not all have the experiences.

Yet, this is not always valuable:

Say an artist has made a needlepoint work on a piece of canvas. The canvas is an old dress of theirs they've repurposed.

The work has been outlined as conceptual by the artist; the reclaiming of old memories, and the incorporation of threaded line-work to sew-in new memories, is the focus.

A critic approaches the work. They suggest using real canvas, because over time, the old dress will degrade.

It is quite possible the intent was to have the dress degrade (conceptually), as memories fade with time. While this is not a great gallery practice, it has conceptual relevancy.

The critic could save their critique by asking if that was the artist's intention.

If it was; then this critique is moot. If it wasn't, this gives the artist something to think about.

The critic could prove they're a master by suggesting to capture the degradation on film: this mimics the deterioration of memory. That is a helpful critique, and centers the work in its Intent.

Contrary to this, if the critic personally just doesn't like alt-fabrics on stretcher-bars, that would be an opinion, and is therefore moot.

Critiques are not opinions, and they are not made by misunderstanding a work.

Critics must work to understand that which they hope to help grow. To do that, adopting a Socratic-lite approach is beneficial.

Moreover, if the artist's own self is subject of your critique, this isn't a critique

The crux of this article becomes clear, and gnashes its teeth:

Tearing down an artist has no place in a critique. Too often, artists (of all ages) get discouraged, because laymen and experts alike disparage them—specifically. It is both a morally repugnant practice, and an intellectually histrionic one.

This is not a critique:

"You have no talent in [x]. Why are you even here?" [REAL QUOTE]

This is a critique:

"I think [x passage] is strong and think carrying it over into more of your prose would make it really sing. There is a concern with grammar and diction, however. Have you watched [x video on topic]? You may want to check out [insert book here], I think it's a lot like what you're trying to do in terms of your character concepts. The work itself seems to stumble where dialogue is concerned, have you tried [x,y,z]?"

If you see no difference in the two, or employ the first ever, you are not capable of critiquing work, regardless of skill, career station, or otherwise.

Yes, students. If your teachers use the first 'not a critique' item, it's best to ignore them. They're hacks. :)

Artists: critiques can be an ego death, and hurt like one, too

Try to focus on making the work better, and ignore invalid critiques

The best piece of advice I received at massART was as follows:

If a critique doesn't benefit the work, it doesn't help you push forward, if it doesn't ask important questions to help raise your skills, reframe your vision, or generally serve the work itself, ignore it.

A caveat to that: you may be very precious about your work. That is understandable. Critiques can be agonizing, you can feel hurt and take things personally.

This doesn't make you a bad artist. Nor does this make the work "bad".

There is no "bad" work, only work that hasn't found its best evolution.

What would make you a "plateaued artist" is not being willing to listen when people are, actually, trying to help you make your best work.

Knowing the difference between a valuable critique and an invalid one is very important.

Knowing what to act on? Even moreso.

Critics: You need not always be gentle

But you must always serve the work

Please keep in mind that although you don't have to be gentle, you do have to know if you're helping a piece of work, or hurting an artist.

Those two things are different.

A little ego death never killed anybody's creativity, but a bold-faced rejection of their creative person has swallowed many would-be artists whole.

Know when to critique (did they ask?), how to critique (are you being Socratic-lite, and conceptually aware?), and why you're critiquing (to help someone make better art).

Only when you understand and own these pieces of the puzzle are you truly ready to offer your insight.

Critique work this way, and the artist will surely listen. And if they do not, perhaps they were not ready to hand you their "creative child".

That's okay. There is a time and a place for an artist's growth, and if you want to help them grow, you have to know when they're able to hear your lessons clearly.

Cheers~

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