In my final year at art school I had one of those classic critique moments during my mid-term. I had spent a large chunk of my time working on a large painting (8’ x 10’) exploring the myth of the labyrinth and its connection to the process of art making. The painting was about half finished and I was still working things out. I was hoping for some feedback on whether or not my concept was getting across. Instead the professor focused on the style of the painting, an attempt at merging ancient Greek white ground technique vase painting with late Matisse color sensibility, but he did so in a non-constructive way. His only comment was, “You are not a Greek from ancient Athens.” When I asked for more feedback I was stonewalled with something to the effect of “That is all I have to say.” Eventually I broke and commented back, “You work in an Impressionist style, yet as far as I can tell you are not a Frenchman from the 1870s, although I could be wrong.” Needless to say I did not receive a good mid-term grade.
I bring up this incident from my ancient past as an example of what a critique should not be so that I can talk about what a good critique can be and how it can benefit an artist. A good critique is a dialogue between the artist and the critic. Each participant has a role to play. The artist’s job is to present his/her work in an honest and open manner. They need to hold themselves at a distance from their work in such a way that comments about the work are not seen as personal attacks, but are instead taken as a constructive means towards making the piece or the artist better. Additionally, they should be willing to ask questions of clarification from their critics. An artist should not stand passive, but remain an active and curious participant in a critique.
The critic’s role is very similar to the role of a good interviewer. They should ask honest questions of the work and the artist with the goal of uncovering the intent and thrust of the work. They should question the method and means by which the artist has attempted to get their message across. The critic should guide the conversation in such a way that both the critic and the artist come away from the critique with a deeper understanding of the piece of work, the intent of the artist and the possible ways forward for the piece and the artist.
A good critique provides something for both the artist and the critic, and like any good conversation it goes deeper than the subject on which it is based.