The Value of a Good Critique

Whatever your endeavor, it is important to expose yourself to critique, and equally important to learn how to handle it. Learning to be critiqued and not feel stung is a very powerful tool that can be honed with practice. Practice can slowly trickle in over the course of a career (I could wallpaper a whole house with the rejection letters I have received) or you can actively seek it out to speed up your learning process.

When I was young and spending some time in NYC I decided to go around to some galleries peddling my portfolio. In retrospect that endeavor seems so misplaced and naïve but the experience gave me something that has continued to benefit me to this day. Obviously I was setting myself up to receive constant rejection and dismissal, which I did. I continued anyway, telling myself, “Okay, three more rejections then I can pause for lunch,” and so forth. Occasionally I would meet a gallerist who admired my tenacity or felt sorry for me and would throw me some words of encouragement, but that is not why I continued in this pursuit for days. I continued because I felt something very powerful happening. I was realizing that I still felt okay about myself and still felt okay about my artwork despite the brutal responses from most of the people I was pestering. Feeling okay anyway made me giddy with power, like I had on a bulletproof vest and could get shot and nothing would happen. I was learning that my own belief in myself was more powerful than someone else’s. I was learning that I was my own validation. I felt like an invincible superhero when it was all done. That core belief in yourself is pretty necessary if you want to be comfortable putting your creative endeavors out into the world, and pretty necessary if you want to be able to gain as much as possible from critiques.

Now I can’t pretend that this invincibility is always the rule. When I am emotionally tied to an outcome from a certain person I can feel defensive about their critique, but I am aware of the sensation and try to treat it as such – just a sensation that can be superseded by intellect. I have also learned that there are people to whom I can’t relate, who come at the discussion only from the perspective of their own art needs and mindset, who seem to continually sap my confidence and instill doubt in me about my direction. I have learned to take these critiques as an opportunity to see how my work might be fitting into someone’s larger view of the art world without feeling the need to abandon my own course. If I am sure that I am not being defensive or personalizing a review and the person tends to regularly give assessments that leave me feeling defeated, I decide to avoid that person’s opinion.
A poor critiquer directs. A good critiquer elucidates. A good critique invites you to further explore. A bad critique leaves you feeling like you ought to be trying to be somebody else. You can learn the difference through experience. Don’t miss out on the value of the former by avoiding the discomfort of the latter. And don’t worry, I will have to remind myself to reread this after my next critique.

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. I have learned more, and more quickly, from thoughtful critiques than from all the workshops I’ve taken and books I’ve read. I’ve experienced valuable critiques from Tania, Dan Young, Lee Shapiro, and a wonderful group of Russians who call themselves the Hermitage Group. Each of those conversations moved my painting up another important notch. And, by the way, this principle applies to many other pursuits. For example, critique and critique technique were central to my mediation training years ago.

  2. [For example, critique and critique technique were central to my mediation training years ago.]
    How is that, Michael? I’d like to better understand and I would like to become better at giving critiques.

  3. For those of us who are not saints, hearing criticism can be challenging. When a negative comment is directed toward us, it can trigger many possible emotions (e.g. defensiveness, sadness, anger). The valuable message in the critique can easily be lost in those emotions; we may miss the message entirely.

    The danger for the critic is the potential to subconsciously offer a criticism in order to feel right or clever, which may be why we are sometimes eager to criticize.

    Listening is the essence of mediation. The student mediator is taught to elicit listening among people who are in conflict. Listening is also central to the teaching of mediation.

    When I was a mediation student, we would simulate a mediation session, and then those who were the faux disputants would critique the mock mediator. My teacher insisted that the critique begin with as least two positive comments before any negative comments were offered. At first, if felt artificial or patronizing to say those positive things. But when one digs deep to find the genuine positive aspects of the other person’s attempt at mediation (or art), the negative comments that follow are easier to hear. Also, the criticism may be informed by its relationship to the positive aspects of the person’s performance.

    However, none of this should be an excuse to ignore a message just because the messenger is insensitive. Some of my best lessons have come from inelegant critiques.

    BTW, last evening I started a painting that is inspired by one of Tania’s new paintings (Desire) at her Forre show. In my head, the idea of the painting was wonderful and, so far, the painting itself sucks. So, I’m reminding myself of what Tania said about the danger of thinking too much about the painting, which I usually do. (Nov 25 blog: “Just do it and just be with that brushstroke…”) Maybe, I should also find two things that are good about it.

    1. Those are good comments about listening and finding positive comments to start with. When you are talking about something technical that sounds easy, such as the technical aspects of a painting and if they work or don’t work. Where it gets harder for me is when you are trying to discuss less concrete things, like the intent of the art. Is it supposed to be just pretty? Is it supposed to mean something? Is it supposed to carry an emotion or be relevant? I have been through a lot of phases in my own art practice, and at the beginning I was largely just trying to paint something well that had some meaning to me. I never know how/when to get into those other aspects or if someone is even ready for that.

      BTW, last evening I started a painting that is inspired by one of Tania’s new paintings (Desire) at her Forre show. In my head, the idea of the painting was wonderful and, so far, the painting itself sucks. So, I’m reminding myself of what Tania said about the danger of thinking too much about the painting, which I usually do. (Nov 25 blog: “Just do it and just be with that brushstroke…”) Maybe, I should also find two things that are good about it.

      As for the inspiration, thanks! I would love to see the piece. Maybe you can post it so we can practice good critique skills.

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