Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The whole art critique thing

After I wrote about workshops yesterday, an interesting comment was posted that deserves further discussion. 

K. Crane said, "I don't get the whole art critique thing. I understand asking another artist to help solve a design problem here and there but I don't understand the need to consistently have your work critiqued and certainly not by the same person.  I once went to an SDA meeting and was told to bring something to work on and when I got there the understanding was that everyone's work would be critiqued. I said no. Everyone continued to comment on it anyway."
Ah yes, the whole critique thing.  In theory, critique is a good thing; comments from your peers can reveal strengths and weaknesses in your work, provide useful information on solving problems and help you make decisions.  But in practice, critique often fails to deliver on its potential.  Let me count the ways.

Sometimes the comments are too prescriptive; after all, the result of critique should be that the artist, not the viewer, solves the problem.  Sometimes the comments are snarky and hostile rather than constructive.  Sometimes the critiquers have little ability, so their advice is worthless.  Sometimes the artist gets defensive or hurt if others ask questions or seem not to like the work.  Sometimes the critiquers project their own mindsets and preferences onto everybody else's work.  And unfortunately, sometimes these sins are committed not just by peers but by teachers, who presumably do this for a living and should know better.

Yet I will not condemn critique out of hand.  When it works correctly, it can be helpful on several levels.  It can help you solve small problems -- my dye isn't as brilliant as it should be, what's a good shiny thread for quilting, why are the corners of my quilts so fat and bulky, I'm having trouble piecing curves.  It can help you solve design problems, as K. referenced in her comment.  It can kick the tires on your whole approach, asking questions that you may not have good answers to, or forcing you to reconsider your assumptions.  And it can make you feel good when you have done good work, putting self-doubt to rest.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a member of a small critique and support group for at least a dozen years, and have often given those friends credit for much of my development as an artist.  When I was new and struggling, this group helped me navigate the mysteries of entering shows and other tricks of the trade, as well as watched over my shoulder as I made every piece of art in my history. 

But as artists mature it's a challenge to change the way you give and receive critique.  You realize that your objective is not simply to make good art, but to be true to your own vision and your own narrative arc.  As well as your friends and colleagues may know you, they can't get into your head and know where you're going, so perhaps critique becomes less specific, if not altogether irrelevant. 

The kinds of comments I need now are probably questions -- for instance, why I am choosing to finish my partially completed pieces from years past instead of making new work.  No matter how self-contained and accomplished you become, you can always use a bit of kicking the tires.  Presumably you're already doing that yourself, but a bit of help from your friends is always useful.

1 comment:

  1. Art school critiques are a whole different animal from quilt group critique. And art school critiques vary widely depending on the subject. Our advertising critiques could get down right vicious, depending on the students. You learn to let it roll off your back and continue to do what you do. It hardens you for the work world where client always need to change things to be in control. As quilters, do you need that? I always welcome design critique, especially if it is done well by someone you respect.