Thoughts on What Makes a Helpful (or unhelpful) Art Critique.
Lately an art teacher friend of mine sent out some questions to her fellow artists, asking "What makes a helpful art critique?" I was impressed by her willingness to get feedback, refusing to inflict her students with the average unbearable, eye-rolling art critique. Most art teachers would never ask this question. Most would just launch into critiques as they have always been done: Hang up your painting on the wall, watch as the teacher and five outspoken peers make comments like "I like the colors!" or "Maybe add more blue?" or "This is decoration/illustration! Not art!" ... and this goes on for four hours.
The questions below do not fall into the troll trap pattern of asking "What makes a good critique and a bad critique?"
Asking what is 'helpful' is much more practical, in that it is asking what moves us forward as artists.
Is it an art school's job to be helpful towards artists? I think anyone who answers 'No' to this question may have never been a student of art, never paid $1,000- $25,000 a semester for the chance to make paintings, drawings, or ceramics ... and after years of work .... not get any better as an artist. The classical art critique format can be so adverse, and art school/class/teachers can be so unhelpful, that not going to school at all may be better for artist growth. It's just that bad.
Here are my answers to the questions from the art teacher on what makes an art critique helpful or unhelpful, and how we can self-assess as artists.
Question 1: What kinds of critiques have been most helpful to you and what makes them helpful?
The critiques or feedback that I get from non-family, non-artist folks are usually the most helpful. From what I have seen, an artist's friends and family will either outrageously support them, or make them feel pretty bad about their art. Other artists are also not always the best source of critique because their own world of perspectives and goals absorb them. It's not you, it's them. This is the reason why I put my work on sites like Twitter and Instagram - I want to see what dentists, 14-year-olds, construction workers, and interns think about it.
The reason why this critique type is important and useful to me is because I want my art to appeal to all kinds of people, not just other artists. Hearing a voice about my art, where the voice emerges from somewhere completely beyond the art world, is incredibly valuable and helpful for building perspective.
To formally gather this kind of critique might be difficult, but I think you could do it easily with a social presence and encouragement from a teacher. The hardest part of art is having the confidence to “Get out there” and "Show your work." Public posting works well for this, or forcing yourself to get a show in a small venue. Sometimes comments from the untrained eye can be cruel and blunt, but they are objectively useful.
Question 2: What kinds of critiques have been least helpful to you and where did they go wrong/what effect did it have on you?
I had a critique in school that was systematically ineffective. The teacher had each student write 2-page critiques/show reviews of one other student. The student critiquing my work ended up writing a critique of an ‘art show’ of mine, only the ‘art show’ did not actually exist - it happened in the future, involving artwork that I hadn’t even made yet.
It was a whimsical critique and creative in its own hopeful way, but, I felt this critique of the ‘future show’ was unhelpful because it didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the work I was making at the moment. But at the same time, the ‘unhelpfulness’ of the critique wasn’t just under the student’s ownership; the teacher should have had the sensibility to realize that artists in the class wanted to make art - they didn’t want to comment or write at-length reviews of the work of others. In a way, the teacher’s offloading of critique onto the students ended up in a disaster.
Overall, one lesson I gathered from this experience was that making any at-length critique is really hard, and sometimes, it is a job that nobody wants to do! Writing well about art and talking about it in a helpful way is a far cry from making art. A two-page dedicated critique, one that listens to the art and understands the artist, one that is organized, perceptive, and imbued with key takeaways is a lot more valuable than a couple words blurted by a fellow student (“I like the colors!). If only it weren’t so hard for most of us to do.
Question 3: When were you hardest on yourself and was being hard on yourself helpful in your artistic growth?
I am consistently known for being hard on myself, and to be honest, as far as ‘when I was hardest on myself’ - I am extremely hard on myself right now!
Being hypercritical of my own output and having the ever-sinking feeling of “Never doing enough” has forced me to count up my paintings, assess their quality, and figure out, empirically, that I am doing okay most of the time.
I’ve made 60 paintings so far this year, which for me is productive, maybe even my most productive year yet. (Here is a blog where I counted up all of the paintings I've made in 2017)
If I don’t do this, if I don’t count my paintings and look back, I end up kicking myself all the time and generally thinking that I am the Worst Artist. I would be swathing myself in blankets, sipping ramen noodles, and seeing myself as a complete failure. So, I count the paintings to stay sane. I think the practice of art, at its best, is a balance of kicking yourself in order to do something, and celebrating when you have done it.
Question 4: How has your attitude towards your work or methods changed over time?
About ten years ago I used to make extremely abstract works, think ‘color fields’ and texture-based paintings. Many people loved these paintings, and I liked them as well. However, people who were deep in the more conceptual, heady side of the art world disliked them - some even hated them. They were just too simple and they didn’t talk about anything like economics or politics - they were mere abstracts.
I made paintings like this because I was not interested in representing ugliness in art. My attitude was - and still is - that the world is ugly enough already, full of conflict, pain, and pointless suffering. Do we really need to add another ugly painting or shocking performative thing to the world?
However now as I am a bit older, I am more interested in storytelling, figuration, and other non-abstract aspects of painting. I’m deeply interested in relationships, transformation, and love.
An overall theme of my work though, in both the abstract forms and figurative work, seems to involve peace, the processes of understanding (i.e., relationships). So, despite being slightly embarrassed of the over-simplicity of my paintings from ten years ago, I can still appreciate them at this time, and the attitude that I had at the time still informs what I do today.
^ work from 2007, left, and 2017, right
Question 5: What do you view as healthy in regards to self-assessment?
Time is the key here. To measure progress within oneself, we must involve remembering the past - documenting art and then looking at it six months or a year later will show an artist a lot about where they were, and where they are today. On a similar level, it is important to set goals. We have to understand and forecast what we are capable of in order to self-assess well.
When we look back at those old paintings, we can ask “Did I get better? Did I make what I wanted to make? Did I say what I wanted to say?”
The other question we can ask ourselves here is “If someone happens across this painting/sculpture/digital work 100 years from now, how will they feel when they see it? What will they know?”