Ask an artist about critiques and you’ll most likely get a groan. And then a story. And usually, this story resembles a hero’s journey. It is full of desire and passion, met with soul-crushing defeat and torment, only to rise up from the ashes of despair like a phoenix raining fiery sparks upon the naysayers. It sounds dramatic, but that's because it is. I have my own stories of art school crits, as does my guest and interestingly enough, most artists agree that the navigation of soul-crushing defeat while staying grounded in self is one of the most valuable life lessons one can receive. Out of all my hours of education and training, Art School was the hardest and also the experience I am most grateful for. These critiques while brutal, were also honest and taught me how to not only be an artist, but also how to be a human.
Before we dive in about critique and all things feedback, I want to provide a few definitions for you all so we are all on the same page.
So what is feedback and what is critique? Are they the same thing? No, not really and I actually prefer critique better, but critique doesn't jam in the workplace. So enter feedback.
The transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source.
Information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.
A careful judgment in which someone gives an opinion about something.
A descriptive and balanced detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
As part of my research study on feedback and critique, I have developed a feedback quadrant.
For reference, the definitions are as follows:
Free from harm or risk. Unhurt. Secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss.
Dangerous. Able or likely to cause harm or damage.
Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways. Of a valuable or productive kind
Not fulfilling or not expected to achieve the intended purpose or desired outcome.
- Safe + Useful. This is the golden nugget of the critique process. Ideas about the artist’s work are presented in a way that feels safe. Feedback centers on the work and not the artist as a person. Feedback is easy to understand and is presented alongside ideas for improvement. The ideas shared are useful because they are honest. They do not mislead the artist to believe that the work is a success if it isn’t, that their skill level is beyond where it actually is, and that the work is aligned with their intention if it isn’t. All of these useful elements are provided in a safe way. Safe does not mean dishonest, or untrue. It means that in the case of an art critique, the feedback does not arrive as a personal attack or a simple celebration of the work without answering the artist’s questions about the work and supporting the progress of the artist professionally. As we will discuss below, safe feedback can also be useless.
- Safe + Useless. Safe and useless critiques are the worst and can feel just as empty and confusing as Unsafe + Useless critiques. This occurs when the feedback is free from personal attacks and is delivered in an appropriate and easy-to-understand manner, but lacks any significant ideas toward the progress of the student as an artist. This doesn’t mean that the work cannot be extremely successful or finished as is, but in the case of the work being great, in order for that feedback to be useful, it needs to be specific. Why is the work great? What area of the work is a success and why? How did the artist harness their skill and intention to make the work successful? To simply say the work is great, or wonderful, or successful while it might feel good, is also super useless.
- Unsafe + Useful. This one is tricky and definitely takes some experience to make use of. Sometimes feedback can be presented in an unsafe manner, but when distilled for meaning is actually useful. I’ll illustrate with a personal example. When I was in art school I had a painting instructor tell me during a critique that he was frustrated by my stubbornness and lack of understanding in that I just should not paint at all. “Why do you keep trying, Lisa? Just stop.” So that feels pretty unsafe, right? And to be honest, had I not been through that machine of unsafe critiques about a million times in my art school career I do not think I would have been able to make use of it. Toward the end of the dreadful endurance of insults, the instructor did manage to provide something that was ultimately helpful, albeit very difficult to distill from the madness. He added that if I was going to insist on providing the world the misery of my paintings then at least make them smaller so they were harder to see. Yeah, that really happened. Ha! Where this information became useful is that I was actually able to get past the personal hurt of the feedback and take his suggestion of painting on a smaller scale. And wouldn’t ya know, it worked. Really, really well. So well that in my next critique my classmates commented on how much my work had improved on a smaller scale. Something clicked by working small. Who knew it was all about the scale? Super useful feedback that actually informed my trajectory as an artist from that point forward. Unfortunately, it was delivered in an unsafe wrapping.
- Unsafe + Useless. This is the worst of the worst. In this circumstance, there is not much to be gained or distilled from the feedback. It is delivered within a personal attack and is so misinformed there is little that can be learned. This is the kind of feedback that makes you wonder who hurt the person who is so very much trying to hurt you. And this happens and is unfortunate. Many times in fine arts class critiques this type of feedback goes on without any instructor intervention. Believe it or not, this type of feedback is viewed as part of the learning process. If you can get through this and show up to class the next day, the thought is you are better prepared to be a professional artist than you were the day before. The profession is not kind and the thought is that this flavor of feedback prepares one for that. I both agree and disagree. It takes a lot of internal work to get through this kind of feedback and of course, art school does not offer this kind of internal work as part of the equation. But if you can come out the other side, it does create a fearlessness simply because you have heard it all and learned that sometimes there is just nothing to learn.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode here.