“The Art of Critique,” an essay by Janet Grace Riehl, Part I
Everything I learned about critique, I learned in art school. My art school used to be called the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland, California (for those of us who studied fine arts) and San Francisco, California (for those who studied design and architecture). Curiously, in recent years, the college opted to drop “crafts” from its name and here ever after be known as California College of the Arts. By making this name change I felt they’d ripped my BFA degree from me, but that is another subject.
I chose the California College of Arts and Crafts over the San Francisco Arts Institute because it was known to be project-centered, whereas the style of instruction at the Arts Institute was said to be more open-ended—just put the students in their studios and see what happened. Both produced results. But, since I was arriving in art school at mid-life, I opted for more focused results.
Hand-in-glove with the project-centered approach was a central role of critiquing as a method of learning. Every two weeks, in every studio class I took, my project was put up for formal critique. Since I’d already fulfilled my academic requirements for my degree, the only non-studio classes I took were art history. Therefore, it happened during the three years I worked on my degree, that I might be putting up as many as five projects for critique simultaneously.
What does this mean to put projects up for critique? The project—be it painting, handcrafted book, sculpture, performance—must be completed. The artist has a short statement about the work and selects a clean way to present the work. The artist identifies the issues she wants the viewers to observe and discuss.
Ideally, during the discussion, someone takes notes, and afterwards, the students and teachers participating in the critique write down their comments and present these to the artist. The written comments help because presenting one’s work is such an emotionally charged event that if the comments aren’t written down, it’s easy to forget what was said, or to misconstrue what was meant. Over the course of presenting work for critique, I began to format detailed questionnaires to pass out to make it easier to get the information I needed.
Critique and the act of giving a critique are widely mid-understood. The American Heritage Dictionary gives the first definition as: “A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with a literary or other artistic work.” And, the third definition as: “The art of criticism.” What is this art? Close at hand in the dictionary is the word “criterion” which is said to be “a standard, rule, or test on which a judgment or decision can be based.” This word and “critique” and “criticism” all come from Greek origins. Here, the root Greek work, krites is a judge or umpire and krinein means “to separate, choose.”
I feel these are the matters at the heart of critique. Under “critic” we have as the first meaning “One who forms and expresses judgments of the merits and faults of anything, and second meaning, “A specialist in the explication and judgment of literary or artistic works.” Often, during critique, there is at least one person who takes upon themselves the third meaning of critic, “A person who finds fault; a severe judge.” The fourth meaning is marked obsolete, but to my mind, is more to the point: “A critique, from Latin criticus, “from the adjective, decisive, from the Greek kritikos, able to discern.” Discernment is the faculty that is being trained during critique—both for those commenting and the person whose work is being commented upon.
The critique period is rife for misuse because egos are hard to master on either side of the process. I’m surprised there aren’t plays, comic strips, and situation comedies demonstrating the stereotypes of personality traits that surface during critique: the Ding-Bat, the Sonorous Voice, the Professor, the Mean Person, the Raconteur and so on. Often there is a scoring of points during critique leading it to turn into a blood sport.
The critique can leave the artist and her work far behind as other social and personal agendas rocket to the forefront. To sit back and observe critique as a sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist might is not a badly entertaining pastime, as long as your own work is not at the stake.
I once cried during a critique. It was an upper-level course on visual story telling taught by two eminent people in their fields of photography. I had written a letter to get into the course, petitioning that it serve to fulfill a lower-level requirement I felt I’d already learned through life experience. I’d gotten in, participated, but then blew it by crying during a critique of my work, in which I felt my work eclipsed by too many ricocheting rays of agendas.
Before the next session the two instructors ambushed me at the top of the stairs and strongly suggested, almost to the point of threat, that I drop the course. Crying during critique, they felt, was an ultimate bumble and upset the class. Neither crying nor the person crying the tears, could be allowed in their sphere. I felt as if I were back in my elementary schoolyard fending off bullies in the playground, but I held my ground with them at the top of those stairs and went on to stay the course and earn an “A.”
(Part II, conclusion, runs tomorrow)
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