For the most part, we artists toil in studios alone with our thoughts, ideas, and tools, some days thinking we are on to something, and others thinking what we accomplished that day belongs in the scrap heap. In educational settings, however, this degree of solitude isn’t the norm. One of the most difficult and frightening things for me after graduating from art school was no longer having anyone see my work or talk to me about my process. In art school, this practice was known as “critique.”
For the uninitiated, a “critique” is an essential (some might say torturous) part of the art school experience where students display recent work and everyone gives their opinions about how or why each piece has merit (or doesn’t). In a sense, this serves as a precursor to an art critic reviewing one’s professional exhibition. For some artists, this type of exposure creates endless anxiety. And no wonder. Only in the arena of creativity does one put themselves out into the world so vulnerably to be judged.
Despite this degree of intimate exposure, I always loved critiques in college. Sometimes they went on for hours as we chain-smoked and drank copious amounts of coffee. I really looked forward to critiques and prepared for them in earnest. In hindsight, they made me feel more like a real artist. Not only were we spending long studio days making art; we were also discussing our ideas about the practice. Knowing I would be asked hard questions, I learned to track my creative process and also write about it in order to face my peers and professors with confidence. To me, this felt like the way artists in the real world developed their craft. I welcomed insight into my work that wasn’t apparent to me when I was making it.
While this was relatively “light” dialog in my undergraduate program, I believe it prepared me for graduate school where the dialog became much more intense. Committee meetings (which were essentially group critiques conducted by a group of professors) felt at times like I was scrutinized at a level where I had to account for every decision I made regarding the piece I was presenting. As brutal as it might sound, I am grateful for the experience. It forced me to seriously consider my choices and to think about what meaning I might be conveying with each mark, brushstroke, or image. After all, one of the goals of art is to spark or initiate a dialog. This is one of the ways that art connects us.
So how do artists pursue this kind of dialog outside of school? The short answer is that many don’t. There is a big difference between a productive and serious inquiry from your peers, and congratulatory praise at a gallery opening.
Organizing a small group of artists to create a studio round robin of sorts can help us feel less like we are creating in a vacuum. Especially when working towards an exhibition with our body of work, we may need extra input. Or perhaps we feel stuck in our direction and need confirmation that we are on the right track. Wherever we are in our artistic career, here are three benefits of inviting critique:
We Learn to Love and Defend Our Choices
In art school, and especially at the graduate level, critiques can become about “defending” your work. Someone suggests a slightly unfavorable aspect of your piece and you retort (sometimes ad nauseam) about how or why it must remain as is. While it can feel tiresome or even demoralizing to convince someone that your art has merit, we should welcome this kind of exchange. It doesn’t mean we should feel compelled to change our work or our direction. On the contrary. Part of this discourse helps us understand our choices and articulate why we are using certain media, processes, or imagery. Defending our selections helps us to believe in our work. Comments from our peers should be seen as constructive, however, and not cause us to become overly defensive. Critiques help us develop a thicker skin and, even if our work is very personal, they help us to be more objective when considering it.
We Learn to Face Rejection Gracefully
It may seem that artists only want to hear praise and we do want praise, of course! But empty praise can feel like flattery that, in the end, says nothing deep or important about the work. There is no discussion or dialogue in flattery. Artists want to be challenged. Or we should. It’s easy to become complacent when all the talk we hear is positive. While initially we may be crushed when our work is not met with the enthusiasm we expected, a greater purpose is served by disappointment, allowing us to stretch ourselves and make our work stronger. For artists just out of art school, being rejected by your peers prepares you for the inevitable rejection you will face over and over again from the art world at large.
We Learn To Speak Intelligently About Art
There is a certain vocabulary specific to art that is important. I am not referring to “art speak,” which can be elitist, intimidating, and downright pompous. The last thing you want to do is alienate your audience with this type of language. However, artistic discussion should happen at a level worthy of your time. Comments such as “I like the colors” or “How interesting” are not very helpful. Or at least, they shouldn’t end there. Why? and Because are important for your comments to be constructive and helpful to the artist. In art school, it was expected that viewers would give their thoughts first, without the artist explaining their intentions. Getting gut reactions to our work before we address a group with our own ideas can help the group stay more honest in their assessment. They won’t be influenced by our explanations and can give feedback without any preconceived ideas.
As artists, we can become so attached to our work that we may have a hard time seeing it with fresh eyes. This is where a critique can best serve us. To see our work anew, excited to return to the studio with a different perspective, is invigorating. In the end, no one is going to be the ultimate authority on our work. Still, we should welcome a response—whether it’s positive or negative—and try to find its value. When we engage with our work on this level, we continue to evolve in our craft and ideas, while helping our fellow artists do the same.