Critiques are common in art courses and instructors say they are a necessary part of teaching art at the college level, but surprisingly, there is no single accepted
definition of what a critique is. This chapter first offers different ways that art instructors define critiques. Following these definitional considerations, art students offer narratives of actual critiques they have been part of, for better and for worse, in the past and recently.
A lack of a set definition of a critique is viewed here as a good thing. Critiques are living phenomena that change according to who participates in them, where, and why. Critiques change over time. This book is not an attempt to find or formulate a fixed definition of a critique. However, the book is dedicated to identifying and promoting best practices and eliminating those that are not beneficial.
In ordinary English the term “critique” is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, in general usage, “critique” refers to “a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory” as in the phrase “a feminist critique of objectivity.”1
As a verb, “to critique” is to offer such an analysis, commonly in written form. The term “
criticism” in ordinary language is defined as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.”2
In ordinary language, “to criticize” is to indicate faults in a disapproving way.
Consequently, unfortunately, and unavoidably, people commonly associate terms like an “art critique” and “art criticism” with the negative connotations of finding fault that derive from daily usage of “criticism.” However, neither term “art critique” or “art criticism” necessarily denotes
negativity: Critiques and art criticism are occasions for contemplation and commentary.
Common notions of studio critiques and art criticism are also intermingled in ways that cause confusion for art students as well as the general public. Art criticism and critiques are significantly different. Art criticism is writing about art for a public audience, such as the readers of the New York Times
or a blog.3
Published art criticism has been carefully considered, written, revised, and edited by a publisher. Art critics do not write articles for an artist who made the work, they write for a larger public audience. Criticism is not written to help an artist make better work, it is written to inform interested readers. Contrary to popular belief, art criticism is more often positive than negative. Critiques, however, are discussions for the benefit of a student artist and classmates.
Studio critiques are for those participating in them and not for the public. They are usually oral rather than written. They are spontaneous and unedited. They are usually motivated by a desire to have art made better and are often in the form of advice giving and instruction.4
Different kinds of students with different levels of experience participate in critiques including: general education students who take art courses for their
enrichment with no intentions of majoring in art or becoming professional artists, art students fresh out of high school art classes, advanced undergraduate art majors, students who are advanced in a specific medium but are
taking a level-one course in a medium new to them, and students beginning or completing Master of Fine Arts degrees. Some students are there to become knowledgeable and skilled art teachers rather than professional artists.
Students participating in critiques have varying degrees of knowledge of art history and art theory; some may only be familiar with Western art history, and others will never have heard of Postmodernism. Presumably, all will be welcome in any critique: Everyone has a different perspective that can add to the conversation. Presumably,
instructors will facilitate critiques in varied ways to meet the differentiated needs of those taking part in a critique.
All of the instructors surveyed for this book agree that judgments are important to critiques, and some maintain that they are essential: “A critique is an examination of a work of art to determine how successful it is.” Another instructor says that a critique is “an on-site, at-the-moment, in-person evaluation of students’ artworks,” and a third instructor specifies that a critique is “a verbal evaluation done in the form of a dialogue about student work.” A fourth instructor adds that a critique is a “co-evaluation” with the student and instructor to judge how successful a student’s work of art is.
On what basis will success be determined? Two instructors specify that success is based on “the
objectives of the assignment”
goals and guidelines previously established.” These two assertions situate the critique as fulfilling goals and
objectives set by an instructor, and this may often be the case in introductory courses or in initial explorations of a new medium or idea. Eventually the problem of establishing goals for your work will be yours.
Although some situate the critique between instructor and student another instructor invites
commentary by many
viewers: “an event during which the artist finds out viewers’
responses.” A different instructor defines a critique as “an opportunity for artists to solicit
opinions regarding their work.” There is an invitation here for you to ask for critiques when you want them. In addition to inviting or requiring commentary from more viewers than the instructor only, this definition identifies an important criterion about opinions, namely, that they be informed. The implications of the statement are that comments about art are opinions, but that some opinions are informed and others are not, or that some opinions are better informed than others, and thus ought to carry more significance.
The specification for informed opinions asks you to weigh the statements you make: Is your comment merely idiosyncratic and based only on your personal preferences, or is it informed by knowledge of art and the world? The criterion also disallows you from dismissing someone’s comments by saying or thinking, “Oh, that’s just your opinion.” If the opinion is informed it deserves your consideration.
Additionally, a critique is an event during which the artist finds out viewers’ responses “so that the artist can evaluate how
image is interpreted and judged by others.” That is, when hearing commentary on your work, you can decipher the informed from the uninformed, and even when commentary is informed, you still get to decide whether and how you will further consider it or if you will act upon it.
Some instructors shift emphases away from explicit judgments of success or failure, away from questions of how good the work is, toward topics of interpretation, namely, what the work is about and what it expresses. Three instructors define critiques with interpretation being central: 1) a critique is “a conversation about why and how a work of art was conceived and created,” 2) “an opportunity for students to get guidance and support from faculty and peers to gain greater consciousness of the ‘hows and whys’ of their works,” and 3) “the best opportunity for students to receive public reactions to their work. They can find out how their art is perceived by other students, and the faculty member can gain insight to the thought processes behind the student’s creation.”
One instructor sees a critique as “an occasion for students to develop a
critical awareness of their own work, or one might say the ability to step outside their own
subjectivity regarding the work, and gain some idea of how the work relates to contemporary art.” A different instructor wants to use critiques as “a means for a group to get at big issues” outside of ideas about art itself to
ideas about the world we live in. This instructor also wants critiques “to form a bond of purpose for a class,” bringing them to realize they have a commonly shared purpose that encourages cooperative rather than competitive artmaking and learning.
intent in making a work, or learning about what your work expresses to others, is not an end point. It is a beginning for you to explore whether your intentions are actually realized in the finished work. Consequential questions then arise: Is your intent itself worthy? Might the artwork express more or differently than what you intended? If so then what? If you or another artist intends one thing but achieves a different thing, does that make the artwork unsuccessful? Upon examining your work during critiques through questions of interpretation about meaning and expression, you may decide to alter your work to more closely reveal what you intend the work to express. It may be not be about changing your work but shifting your thinking about it because of what you are able to learn from others about your work.
We can draw some conclusions from these definitions about critiques offered by instructors who are actively engaged in and concerned about teaching art. Perhaps most importantly, none of the instructors dismissed critiques as trivial or a waste of time. While all the instructors think critiques are important, none of
them appeal to a universally agreed upon definition of what a studio critique is or should be.
Critiques are live and organic events among students and instructors. Critiques are “out-loud” rather than silent internal discussions. They involve someone in addition to the artist, often an instructor and a group of peers. They provide opportunities for you to learn more about art, yourself, and your fellow artists.
Most of the definitions specify that critiques are and should be occasions to measure success or lack of it in art making. Many definitions emphasize discussions of artists’ expressive and ideational intentions in making work, asking you to consider both intentions in themselves and intentions as they are revealed to others in your work. Sometimes critiques invite and foster discussions larger than the work itself. Critiques can serve to bond you with other students to work together as a purposeful and cooperative group.
This book is in consort with the instructors quoted above, especially with those who stress objectives that go beyond the judgment of the success of artworks and that embrace larger issues than the immediate artwork in question. The following section considers what students said have happened in critiques, regardless of how critiques may have been defined.
The following are narratives written over a span of twenty-five years collected from art students in response to two questions:
“What was your worst critique?” and “What was your best critique?” Some of the narratives are people’s recollections from many years ago, and others are recent. For those who tell the tales, their experiences of critiques are vivid, some lasting many years after their occurrences, reminding us that critiques can be powerful.
Some occurrences in critiques as told by students are baffling. One student wrote, “I was a sophomore in a painting class and made a landscape and the instructor looked at it and laughed at me, long, with no comment,...