Critique Vademecum

Collected here are various artists’ views on critiques:


Critiques in general
– Give a condensed version of your artist statement.
– Show a concise, relevant edit from your practice which you want discussed.
– State your questions or describe what kind of input you are looking for.

Plan your presentation, do not ad lib. Formulate your questions in advance and in writing. Test your questions beforehand with friends and peers. State what kind of feedback you would like, which work and what your issues, concerns or questions are. There isn’t time to talk about every work from every perspective. Don’t leave us guessing which work or where the heart of the matter is. Don’t show everything you ever did. Present a cohesive body of work and edit it to what is important to represent the project and your questions.

Critiques: The time is yours, you decide how you want to use it. You may use different strategies depending on what you want to know. For example: if you have something specific you want to communicate and you aren’t sure it is coming across then don’t want to state what it is right away. Let it be known this is a concern you want addressed. Another strategy is to show work and state specific questions, then show one part or piece which is a good example for each question. It’s important to direct the discussion towards your issues, so that the time isn’t spent unfocussed or on issues you aren’t concerned with. The clearer you are with yourself and others about what you hope to have happen in your discussion the more satisfying it will be. Keep in mind, the more questions you want answered, the less in depth they will be. You may want to ask different questions in different critiques.

Taking notes or ask someone to record your session. Don’t spend the time defending the work. Most questions are intended for you to consider, answer them later. Make a time to have a coffee with a fellow student, perhaps your note taker afterwards to discuss your presentation and the feedback you received while it’s fresh.

Principles for Dialogue
1) The goal of dialogue is to help the artist move forward.
We focus on what the piece needs to continue on its journey. We announce that we are forming a Temporary Community of Inquiry around this artist’s work. We use what we know, but we do not impose our artistic concerns or strategies onto the artist’s work.

Too often, artistic dialogue falls into a good/bad paradigm, and discussions either attack the work or form a bland support group around it. We are helping the artist to uncover and refine her research, some of which may be unknown to her. We are there to point out the blind spots and the secret strengths, and to ask the difficult questions that artists need to be asked.

2) Let go of wanting to be congratulated.
Dialogue about the work can be inhibited or distorted by the desire for approval. Sometimes it is helpful to name the forces that inhibit helpful dialogue: the desire of the artist to be congratulated, the desire of the viewers to sound intelligent or insightful, and the desire of the viewers to “fix” the work or make it more to their taste.

It’s not a focus group, it’s a brainstorming session. Artists should not try to average out or combine all of the feedback, which will, by its nature, be contradictory and diverse. All that matters is: what’s the one thing that is dislodged or provoked in you that allows you to get back to work? Let go of everything else.

3) You can’t fix the bicycle while the bicycle is being built.
There are three distinct phases in an artistic process, each demanding a specific kind of dialogue: Emergence, Development, Completion. Calibrate the discussion to the stage of the piece.

Emergence Feedback
In this initial phase, we emphasize finding the heat of the piece, not fixing or optimizing it. Our conversations focus on noticing what is distinctive and compelling. We try to enter the work on its own terms, pushing the artist further along in her work, not trying to make her work look like ours. Questions we ask:
• What in the piece taught me or showed me something new?
• Where is the heat in this piece?
• What is distinctive about the way things are put near each other (the structure)?
• What do I see as the compelling questions, collisions, and investigations?
• How can I help push this research further?

Development Feedback
In the development phase, we are remaining alert to when the world of the piece emerges. Outside eyes can be useful for discerning the world of the piece, for naming things that are so close to us that we don’t see them plainly.
• Where is the heat in this piece?
• What is a possible World Of This Piece?
• What are possible structures for the piece that embody the content?
• How can I help push this research further?

Completion Feedback
The world has emerged. The artist now focuses on the complex process of structuring and polishing the many elements. While there is still room for reinvention and radical shifts, dialogue can focus (at last) on making the piece strong and clear on its own terms.
• What is the World of The Piece?
• What is congruent/incongruent with the world?
• What is the balance of clarity and complexity in the piece? Do we get ahead of the piece (not enough complexity)? Or do we get lost (not enough clarity)?
• How is the “song” of the piece? Does the piece break rhythm?

4) Let the artist specify the discussion she needs, either in tone or with specific questions.
Because an artist can’t always anticipate the discussion that will propel her forward, you can allow conversation to (inevitably) overspill the banks of the artist’s specific questions. Sometimes what we need to hear is not where we think it is.

5) There are five steps or levels in discussing work, and strong dialogue depends on understanding the distinctions.
a) Description: the elements that make up the piece. “I saw…” or “I noticed…”
b) Analysis: the way the elements combine over time
c) Interpretation: what the combination of elements embodies: meanings, narratives, contrasts, ideas, images
d) Evaluation: how well and at what moments the piece embodies its heat
e) Suggestion: concrete ideas to refine the piece

People tend to move quickly toward Interpretation-Evaluation-Suggestion, skipping Description and Analysis.

Avoid conflating the levels, sliding sneakily from Description to Suggestion in the same sentence: “I noticed that slow fall at the end (description) as if you were dieing (interpretation) and it was so cool (evaluation) and I think that could just go on twice as long (suggestion).”

One way to frame this: After seeing the piece, do a round of Description; everyone says a sentence beginning with “I saw…” or “I noticed…” and naming something concrete. This ground the discussion in the reality of the piece, and helps build trust between viewer and artist.

Preface evaluations with “I have an opinion.” Preface suggestions with “I have a suggestion.” We allow for opinion and suggestion at every stage of feedback. Prefacing it helps the speaker and the listener to put the opinion/suggestion in its proper context.

6) It’s the people.
Good dialogue comes from good dialoguers. Gather the people you really want to hear from, whether or not they are in your discipline (or in the arts). And do it more than once. Groups learn from being in conversation and from witnessing the power of complex dialogue.

Artwork feedback system devised by Headlong Dance Comp


Ten Guidelines for Constructive Feedback
1. Avoid any excessively complimentary or excessively harsh language. The creative process is on-going and such comments, even positive ones, can inhibit the artist when he/she returns to the work they have presented or begins to create a new work.

2. Use “open” questions that will enable a discussion of an aspect of the piece you have found problematic, challenging, or intriguing. Instead of asking, “Why did you use red lighting?” ask “What were some of the ideas informing your use of lighting?” or “What ideas led to this lighting decision?” Each aspect of the piece is a creative choice and should be treated as such.

3. The artist reserves the right to engage a question, simply answer it, or remain silent during points of critical feedback. The audience should respect these choices, especially if the work presented is a work-in-progress.

4. Be mindful of the consequences and implications of comparing the artist’s work to that of another artist. Focus instead on comparison of themes and tones between works. Saying something such as, “Your work is just so Matthew Barney” or “You are the next…”, even if meant to be flattering, can be harmful to the artist. Indeed, the purpose of constructive feedback is to provide an honest, engaging response to a work while inviting the artist to articulate, more clearly and precisely, his/her creative vision. Such comments do not aid in this process.

5. The artist has the right to ask questions of the audience and, especially during the aftermath of a work-in-progress, and should expect the audience to respond in a critical and engaged manner.

6. Technical issues may be addressed if they have a strong bearing on the overall aesthetic, vision, or reception of the work. However, small technical details, which do not have direct bearing or are not immediately correlated to the entire work, can distract from and, ultimately, belittle the artist’s effort.

7. When addressing problematic points in the piece, provide specific explanation as to why they did not work. For example, “The staging didn’t work for me because it seemed excessively ornate and provided too stark a contrast to the minimalist, gestural dialogue between John and Peter.” Avoid simply dismissing aspects of the piece because you disliked them.

8. Similarly, when addressing positive aspects of the piece, provide specific explanations as to why they worked. As much as possible, be generous with all comments, questions, and statements. That is to say, remarks should engage with the artist’s intention, vision, and objectives for the work. Statements such as, “I wouldn’t have used a landscape in Mexico, I would have referred to Spain and I would have used x, y, z as props” do not push the artist’s vision forward.

9. If comments or questions are explicitly related to a specific aspect of a discipline (performance, installation, collaborations) open your question or comment to both the artist and technicians involved. This can open up a rich dialogue and inform the artist of possibilities that he/she may not have imagined for the work.

10. Don’t defend or explain.  Always use titles (working titles are absolutely fine — or — ‘untitled’ if that adds context) to get your point across.  Let your audience (the group) view the work (carefully and thoughtfully) and respond to what they’re receiving from it. Give us the facts in how it might be realized.  if you’re not sure, ask for suggestions.

Ten guidelines from Jeanne Marie Casbarian