On Critique

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You will never grow as an artist if all people do is kiss your ass.

I have a Bachelors Degree in Art.  I also have an Associates of Arts Degree.  I have spent a lot of my life doing academic study of art and artistic technique.  I have no issues with people who are self-taught, many self-taught artists are wonderful, successful, and immensely talented.  I made a decision to pursue formal education and, as I’ve written about before, it is a decision I constantly struggle with.

A large part of that education was critique; critique of other people’s work, and people critiquing my own work.  With base level art classes, time in class is often allocated as work time.  The instructor wants to see what you are doing and how you are doing it.  Being able to provide real time guidance in technique and vision are important in this stage.  Later, in upper level classes, class time is mostly devoted to critique.  You are expected to do your coursework, your art, outside of class.  Often times you would have 6 hour classes of nothing but critique.

I loved these classes.

It always felt like I was defending my children, my creations. And defending them to the death, because the knives certainly came out.  And I gave as well as I got.  I have no qualms about confronting a piss poor artist who thinks they are all that and letting them know their pathetically low effort, cliché riddled painting was the cultural equivalent of a dumpster fire.  This wasn’t posh know-nothings playing at polite, high-brow exposition, this was scrappy, hungry, highly visionary, adrenaline-fueled artists who were passionate believers in their craft.

Constant critique honed your skills, and your ideas, in the way only hand to hand combat can.  It forced you to solidify the meaning behind your art.  Usually you couldn’t get away with shallow, fluffy, nebulous sentiment when explaining why you created what you did.  “I just went with my feelings.”  Nothing has a more hollow ring to my ears than that sentence.

Good critique is difficult to find. Especially these days. Certainly social media is partly to blame.  We don’t put up our art to get shot down.  We strive to amass “followers”.  My advice to new photographers is never try to get “followers”, try to get better.  Find someplace where you can get honest feedback about your work.  There are still dark corners of the interwebs where knowledgeable people share their advice in a helpful manner.  Seek them out.  Or, better yet, print out your work and get involved in your local, real world community of artists.

Most importantly, however, is know that you learn to receive critique by giving critique.  It sounds strange, but critique makes more sense the more you give it out.

Here’s some quick tips about giving proper critique.

Be clear: It’s so easy to talk just to hear yourself speak, especially in the arts.  Artists almost always get tripped up by drowning their critique in multi-syllabic, fancy sounding words. The more obtuse the word, the better they think they sound. Artists love to pretend like they know what they are talking about, even when they don’t. Especially when they don’t.

I squandered most of my academic career slogging through publications like ARTForum magazine, where they had long (My God, so long) reviews of exhibits or 10,000 word essays on meaningless, useless contemporary art theory.  I imagine that most of the articles could have been hacked into much smaller, more digestible pieces.  I’m not saying always avoid being Dostoyevsky and only be Hemingway, but often the less you say, the clearer the message.

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I recently got invited to shoot this monster out in the desert, a 2017 Ford Mustang RTR. I am extremely proud of how this set came out, but I still shopped it around to a few of my trusty online critique groups for their reaction.  One person in particular managed to write the longest, most rambling nonsensical critique I have read in a very long time.  I actually had to revert to diagramming some of their sentences just to decipher what they hell they were saying.  Don’t be this person.

Be clear, be concise. Don’t be afraid to use small, proper and powerful words.

Be specific:  It might be fun to tell someone, “Your photograph sucks.”  And, who knows, maybe it does.  And sometimes people need to get knocked down off their high horse by hearing such a comment.  But it never helps people improve.  Saying “I don’t think putting your subject in the center of the frame works for this photo” is much more helpful than “Your composition is boring.”  Saying “You should avoid over smoothing a model’s skin” is much more helpful than saying “Your model’s skin looks weird.”

Be objective:  Or, more specifically, don’t try to turn someone else’s artwork into your artwork.  If someone said that their artwork is about the evils of racism, but as the viewer you cannot interpret any meaning or connection to racism in the work, the you can say that the work had failed to meet its objective.  However, if someone said that their artwork is about the evils of racism, and you said that was boring and clichéd and it should have been about the evils of postmodernism in social media, then you haven’t critiqued the work at all, you’ve simply projected what you would have made onto what someone else had made.  Don’t make this mistake.  “I would have have desaturated the red.”  Is that because it would improve the artwork, or would you have desatured the red just because it’s your style?  Be very careful not to project your own tastes and preferences on other people’s work.

Be nice: There are times when harsh critique is called for.  However, for everything else, there’s manners.  And never resort to personal attacks.  You are trying to help someone, act accordingly.  Especially if they are genuinely interested in getting better.  Which we all should be interested in.

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