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Art Critique - Give and Take

Critique is an act of love. Or at least it can be when it's done right. A good critique allows the artist to grow, while a bad critique can turn into a humiliation. By following a couple of guidelines and avoiding certain traps, we can improve our conversations and grow as artists. I will proceed to give advice on how to conduct a critique for both artist and critic.

Advice for the Artist

1. What you give is what you get

Present the work in the state you want it critiqued. Often we have elaborate ideas of what our unfinished work is going to be like, so when we look at our own work, what we see is a mixture of the object as it really is and our fantasies of what it will turn into.

This is impossible for anyone else to know however, so when we present our work for criticism, we often end up saying things like:

«This is just a sketch»

«Ignore that part»

«That's what I'm planning»

«I know that»

This is very frustrating for the critic, who are trying their best to help. These defensive statements indirectly communicate that you think the critique is invalid. This tears at the good will of the critic.

The best feedback comes when we present a work that is finished to the very best of our ability. That way the criticism can take us beyond the full extent of our current knowledge and skills. That's what growth is, after all.

Critiquing sketches is of course okay, but clarify this with the critic first, so they know what they're getting into and can tailor their feedback accordingly.

2. The burden of creativity is on you

If a critic points out a problem with your work, it's your responsibility to fix it, not theirs. Don't ask the critic for a solution either, because in the worst case, this comes off as humiliation. You're the one with the creative expertise!

Of course, it's also up to you to judge whether the critique is valid. It might not be! However, don't critique the critic back. This comes off as humiliation and you can be sure they'll be afraid to speak their mind again, which is the opposite of what you want.

Smile and say thank you, even when you feel defensive.

3. Be humble

The only fair way to demonstrate that we know something is to perfectly execute it in our own work. If we can't do that, then for all intents and purposes, we don't know it yet.

4. Purge yourself of ill intent

If there's any hint of malice in you when you are having a conversation with the critic, it's going to seep through no matter what you say and the effect will be harmful to both parties – the critic is hurt and we lose the faith they put in us.

5. Look for uncomfortable opinions

Sometimes the people who make us uncomfortable make us uncomfortable exactly because they have views on our art that scare us or reveal our vulnerabilities.

A classical composer may benefit from hearing that their work isn't radio ready. A pop composer could be lacking depth in their arrangements.

We do ourselves a disservice if we always consult the people who make us feel good.

6. Show appreciation

Criticism is an asymmetrical relationship where the critic has power over the presenter. As we've seen, that sometimes leads us to criticize the critic back as a subconscious revenge. This only breeds resentment.

It's better to say less. Pay acute attention to what the critic is saying and take notes. This shows them that we value their input. This will bring the best intentions out of the critic in turn.

Do ask for clarification when you need it. And make sure to thank the critic afterwards! Criticism is after all supposed to be an act of love.

If on the other hand the critic is being unfair, we can have a private conversation with them. Tell them that what they said that was unfair and how it made you feel. If the critic rejects you, maybe it's best to simply avoid them next time.

Advice for the Critic

1. Purge yourself of ill intent

If there's any hint of malice in you when you give criticism, it's going to seep through no matter what and the effect will be harmful to both parties. The artist will be hurt and you'll lose the faith put in you.

2. Focus on the object, not the person

You are on the same team as the artist. Allow both yourself and the artist to remain detached.

Imagine that you're standing beside each other, studying the same object, as if a rare bird suddenly appeared in front of the both of you.

«...Are you seeing what I'm seeing?»

Sometimes however it's possible that the artist's bad habits are getting in the way of their progress. It could be sub-optimal workflow, not enough effort put into the work, or conceit. What to do in this situation?

First of all, we have to know the presenter and their development so we can be sure it's actually a bad habit. Speculating openly about bad habits will have the effects of an insult rather than a strengthening critique. To critique the person, we need a trusting relationship and we need to be tactful - preferably in a private conversation.

It's possible to inquire about the artist's method to get this information, but tread carefully.

3. Consider the artist's intention

Words like "good" and "bad" are rarely helpful. It's not that simple. Instead ask yourself:

What is the intention of the artist and how is it achieved?

Are there contradictions to this intent, and what specifically are they? Maybe it's too beautiful to be a horror film soundtrack? Or did the artist intentionally beautify the horror?

Focusing on the goal of the project lets you ask the right questions, and often those questions are more useful than value judgements.

4. Give both praise and criticism

It's easy to spot flaws in other people's work, but surely the artist has also taken steps forward? Maybe there's something we take for granted, but is actually a major achievement for the artist you're critiquing? We are all at different levels, and what's easy for one person can be a major achievement for another.

5. Suspend your taste

Divorce yourself from your own tastes and judge the work on its own merits. Maybe we prefer jazzy chords with lots of extensions and color tones? That may not be the case for the person you're critiquing, so there's a fair chance that bringing this up when critiquing a work based in triads would be misguided.

6. What you see is what you get

To give good criticism, we need to know what kind of critique the presenter is looking for. If you don't know, feel free to ask them!

For example, when critiquing a sketch it may be better to take a more exploratory approach:

«This part grabs my attention. It makes me feel as if...»

«What would happen if this was extended?»

«Would it be possible to make a work entirely based in this part?»

«I like this, but what if you tried the opposite?»

Feel free to convey your own interpretation and feelings around the work as if you were part of its audience, sorting out your impressions. Also, make sure the presenter is on board with this.

In any case, make it clear that we can only critique what's in front of us, and not what's inside their head.

Finally, remember that it's possible to give words of criticism and be friendly at the same time!

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