Painter, Weaver, Textiles Artist
Art Prof & Partner
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This is such great advice, I seriously wished I had watched this before transferring to art school!! I started at a liberal arts school as an Applied Math major where things are either wrong or right. Period. So, coming into a studio class and putting personal work in front of a group of my peers was very daunting, and it definitely took me a few weeks to learn how to not take criticism so personally. (I actually remember going home and crying a bit after my first negative critique, which is so embarrassing to admit now!). But ultimately, critiques really have taught me to not treat all of my work so preciously. Now, I LOVE to get critiqued and give critiques! I think it is so valuable to be in a space where you can get other artists opinions and get out of your own head, and to give that gift to someone else as well.
I also think that the way an artist responds to a critique is an excellent indicator of the kind of collaborator they would be outside of the classroom. Learning how to be a thoughtful, active, and gracious recipient of a critique is great practice for the work you may do outside of art school.
There’s so much here that I wish I had known before coming to art school! There’s seriously no way to know what direction a crit will go in — which is good. I can’t count the number of times that people have pointed out details of my work that I’ve never noticed, or glossed over flaws that I thought were glaring, which is part of why it’s so important to present your work without making excuses. I often feel like if you try to beat yourself up about a piece, either you’re setting people up to see your work in a bad light (like Clara said), or they’ll pity you and try to “go easy,” which means you won’t get the information you need to improve the piece.
I also love what Annie said about not being a “passive participant” in your own critique. I’ve left many critiques feeling frustrated that I didn’t receive any useful information or advice on a piece, and it didn’t occur to me for a long time to ask questions of the viewers. It can really pick up a dragging conversation, and you can get specific advice on what you, as the artist, are unsure about.
I’ve seen cases where artists accepted no critique whatsoever, and end up with a piece that could be easily misinterpreted. However, in less common cases I’ve also seen artists accept every single critique from very different sources and people, and change their artwork in accordance. At that point, the piece would go haywire in terms of artistic direction, and the artist’s own choices could not shine through.
Taking critique involves receiving with openness and thinking deeply about it. If others will make the effort to think about your piece and express their observations, you must also put in the effort to think in order to make the most of it. Ask questions, be receptive, and never be mindless, whether it be mindless rejection or mindless acceptance! Ultimately, it is about understanding someone else’s observations, and everyone’s observations are precious and different!
The advice I would give in regards to not getting defensive in critique is to ask yourself, before you respond to someone’s criticism, whether you’re trying to simply rebuke their opinion, or rather give context to generate further discussion.
I think it’s easy to confuse these impulses, so first and foremost your main goal should be to listen to what your peer has to say – particularly to their first reading or reaction to the piece – and to let them finish their point before butting in. It’s also great to ask questions – even if you think you disagree with someone’s interpretation of your work, try to get as detailed a sense of that interpretation as possible, because the entire purpose of critique is to get an outside opinion! One that isn’t tainted by the over-familiarity you have from hours of work, and which you can easily pass on to a viewer by over-explaining.
This should be required viewing at every art school! Even in the intense environment of the classroom, its rare for professors to give a “how to” before critique. I can’t stress getting distance from your work enough – whether its a really personal piece or just a project you’re proud of and have put a lot of time in. The second you get defensive in a critique is when you stop learning!
To put it another way, always have in the back of your mind that your work can improve. Nothing is perfect, so be ready to hear ways you can take it further!
I love the part you guys mentioned about the fine line between advocating for yourself and being defensive. I’ve spent a lot of time observing the social dynamics of group critiques, and one thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes the tone and content of the first person’s comment sets the tone and content for the entire critique. Sometimes this is just fine and super valuable, but other times it can feel like the critique has gotten away from you, and this is where I see artists panic and start to go on the defensive.
What I’ve found really helps is to come in prepared with several questions you have for your audience about the work and how they’re responding. This can gently steer the conversation back to areas that are useful to you, or act as an ice breaker if you’ve got a silent audience.
This is so true, I’ve seen in a lot of classes that people are quick to piggy back on someone else’s comment, and the danger there is you don’t end up getting diverse opinions. That’s where I think it’s super important for the teacher to help balance things out; even when a student is getting nothing but immense praise from the other students, I think there is always something to improve on.
That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to also have one-on-one critiques in addition to group critiques. The dynamic of a group critique is much more public, and I’ve found one-on-one critiques really useful because students can talk to me about aspects of their work that they would feel uncomfortable talking about in a group situation.
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