How to actually critique a piece of art
Read this helpful guide to learn the secrets to critiquing art effectively, and how to handle critiques of your art so that you may thrive.
Inspired by a LinkedIn comment on the politics of politeness, someone suggested that "faint praise" gets in the way of making valuable artwork. While I agree, I wanted to add more nuance to the topic and found myself stymied by LinkedIn's character-limit.
Due to my background in art and teaching—and because I've seen many people struggle with critiquing art—I thought I'd pen an article on how to go about tackling the art critiquing process.
No, hollow praise isn't helpful. It causes artists to plateau. However, a poorly thought-out critique will suck the life out of both a piece of work, and the artist, faster than you can say "golden ratio."
That is where our topic finds its focus. Let's begin.
You are faced with a piece of art, and an artist has asked for a critique
How do you begin?
First, you try to discern, if not presented via an artist's statement or a story summary, what the work is trying to do. Not what you wish the work would do, what it's trying to do.
It may be the case an artist/writer has made something they are not fully aware of, and so their explanation is perhaps not fully defined. However, it's your job as a critic to figure out where the work is trying to go and offer tips or suggestions on how to get it there.
Once you've sat with the work enough to understand it, or if you have been given something to look over for the desired intent, then you can form your ideas about how to best serve the work.
Now that you've thought about what the work is trying to do...
How can you help get it to where it needs to be?
What one must do as an art critic is analyze the structure, contents, characters, figures, lighting, concept, technique and elevate it. Basically, you need to measure all the creative "stuff" against what the artist is actually trying to accomplish to see how to help them succeed in their vision.
If, say, a writer has written a short story about ghosts, with a conceptual slant to depression making one a ghost of their own life, what diction are they using to create this? Does the dialogue need to read less comedic, more dramatic? Are there spelling errors/can you help with that?
Consider painting. Say a painter is working in a hyper-realistic style. Where does the "trick of the eye" falter in impressing realistic work so real it fools the viewer? Can you instruct the painter on how to better employ light as human eyes see it? Should the painting be bigger to account for the details?
What can you offer to help the writer/artist upskill and reach their Intent?
Critiquing a piece of artwork is not actually an easy thing to do. It's like being a mini-scientist with an eye for artistic improvement.
Opinions are not critiques
Be mindful of biases and misunderstanding the work
Anyone is entitled to their opinions on a piece of art. However, an opinion is not a critique. Moreover, opinions can be wrong, depending on how someone approaches the work, why they're critiquing it, or how versed they are in a subject matter the art exists within.
It's good to note that seeing how the work is read by those not versed in it is valuable. Art is a conversation with many and they may not all have the same experiences. Yet, opinion formed with little experience are not always valuable and this is what critics must understand.
Say an artist has made a needlepoint work on a piece of canvas. The canvas is an old dress of theirs they've repurposed. The work has been outlined as conceptual by the artist; The reclaiming of old memories and the incorporation of threaded line-work to sew-in new memories.
A critic approaches the work. They suggest using real canvas, because over time, the old dress will degrade. It is quite possible the intent was to have the dress degrade (conceptually), as memories fade with time. While this is not a great gallery practice, it has conceptual relevancy.
The critic could save their critique by asking if it was the artist's intention for the work to degrade over time. If it was, then this critique is not valuable. If it wasn't, this gives the artist something to think about.
The critic could prove critiquing competency by suggesting to capture the degradation on film, as this mimics the deterioration of memory. That is a helpful critique and centers the work in the artist's true intentions.
Contrary to this, if the critic personally doesn't like alt-fabrics on stretcher-bars, that would be an opinion and is therefore not valuable. Moreover, if a critic has a bone to pick with an artist, author, or otherwise? All critique becomes invalid the minute it gets personal.
Ultimately, critics must work to understand the art they wish to help nurture, as well as center the artist's intention. If they don't, this becomes an opinion, and opinions are not critiques.
Artists: critiques can be an ego death and hurt like one, too
Try to focus on making the work better and ignore invalid critiques
The best piece of advice I received during my undergrad practicum work at massART for accepting art criticism is as follows:
If a critique doesn't benefit the work, if it doesn't help you push forward, if it doesn't ask important questions to raise your skills, reframe your vision, or serve the work itself, ignore it.
A caveat to that: You may be very precious about your artwork. That is understandable. Critiques can be agonizing, you can feel hurt and take things personally. This doesn't make you a bad artist. Nor does this make the work "bad".
There is no "bad" work, only work that hasn't found its best evolution.
What would make you a "plateaued artist" is not being willing to listen when people are trying to help you make your best work.
Knowing the difference between a valuable critique and an invalid one is very important. Knowing what to act on? Even more important.
Critics: You need not always be gentle
But you must always serve the work
Please keep in mind that although you don't have to be gentle when critiquing art, you do have to know if you're helping a piece of work, or hurting an artist. Those two things are different. A little ego death never killed anybody's creativity, but a bold-faced rejection of their creative person has swallowed many would-be artists whole.
Know when to critique (did they ask?), how to critique (are you being Socratic-lite, and conceptually aware?) and why you're critiquing (to help someone make better art). Only when you understand and own these pieces of the puzzle are you truly ready to offer your insight.
Critique work this way and the artist will surely listen. And if they do not, perhaps they were not ready to hand you their "creative child."
That's okay. There is a time and a place for an artist's growth and if you want to help them grow, you have to know when they're able to hear your lessons clearly.
K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️⚧️