Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

“Art of Critique,” an essay by Janet Grace Riehl, Part II (conclusion)

Critique. I dreaded it. I hated it. I learned from it. And, finally, I was fortunate enough to encounter a teacher, Betsy Davids, who fully understood what critique really meant and what its purpose really was. She saw critique as a form of appreciation, as a time of joining with the piece and giving back to the artist who created it.

In viewing the artwork she became quiet and took the piece under consideration as the object of her contemplation. Then, she took us all on a tour of what she saw and how she responded to the piece. She responded to each element—texture, color, shape—and how it affected her feelings and body. Her response to our artwork was fully considered and intimate.

She was there for us, not to make herself more grand. She was there to help us and to know our art and art-making more fully. If there were goofs, gaps, or gaffes in our work, she knew how to point these out very gently.

Her seeds rooted in me and bear fruit even today, ten years later. I feel that she is one of the art mothers that the world needs now. I call on us all to be art mothers and fathers…to nurture each other in our work as well we might and to be fully present to find out what it is that is wanted and being asked for during critique.

Worthwhile critiquing requires that we take responsibility for our work and the kind of feedback we want on that work—and when. As writers we may need to give voice to the work, to feel encouraged, to ask about a particular technical issue, or to wonder what responses the work evokes. Finally, after the critique, there are so many voices to sort out.

In the end, only the author knows. For years I wrote vignettes that were on the edge of prose and poetry. I asked the local critique group I regularly attended which way I should go with them. I never received a satisfying answer. I just kept writing them.

Finally, eight years later, putting together my first book of poetry, I discovered these vignettes, slightly re-written, fit neatly into my collection of story-poems Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary. All my doubt cleared and, with delight, I found significant locations for each of the vignettes I’d written in my younger life as a writer.

Similarly, there are times to write with the door closed, not discussing our projects, not sharing the work with others, and letting it build power inside us before unveiling it to the world.

The art of the critique is an on-going lesson we learn as writers and artists in association with our colleagues. When you receive an artful critique, take it in, hug it close to your heart, and use it as the food it is to improve your work and the art of your own critiquing.

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2 Responses »

  1. The most important element for my growth as a writer is steady, on-going peer critique sessions with two fellow writers: Carol Cowen and Mary Benson. Having a combination of intelligent feedback in an intimate one-on-one session with people you trust to be kind and also honest is priceless.

  2. Janet,
    This essay is so important that it warrants a wide readership! You help us in defining a serious process, show us how to exercise it and, finally, why we need it. Your comments about "art mothers and fathers" show us how to best be critics to our peers...and ourselves: nurture, direct, love. Thank you for stirring the pot of consideration.

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