Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Art of the Art Critique

The art world is run by the critic. The ability to strip away the personal aspect of art and analyze the piece on its own merit is skill both feared and prized. A review by a professional critic can make or break a show or opening. What may be unknown to those outside of the art world is that the ability to provide a useful critique is learned; and like any other skill, must be honed and fine-tuned over time and practice.

I am taking an intaglio print class this semester with Eccentric Print Professor. He is amazing. He is truly an invaluable resource to his students (when they take advantage of his vast repertoire of art world knowledge). On Thursday we discussed the art world and what it means to have competition. Competition has become global in the art world (much like any other market). Unlike many schooling areas, Art School actually does prepare you for the real art world: you have to constantly be working your ass off if you want to make it anywhere. Life after school does not get any easier. There is not the magical addition of an extra hour in the day. You have to work incredibly hard to succeed. If you don't, you won't be going anywhere. Everyone else, the best artists in the world are working just as hard, if not harder: "Why should [those people] not succeed, when you're not?"

The reality is, most fine arts students do not continue to make art once they are out of school. It is rare that they go into a field that is even related to art. Very few go on to do art, and even fewer go on to be working artists that make a living on just making and showing their art. That is why the critique in school (and in the world beyond) is so important.
The following exchange occurred during a crit we had:

Eccentric Print Professor: "Tell me what you really think. Be honest. If you think this print is crap, or the worst print made in the history of printmaking, feel free to say so. [Motions to Student] Don't you think so?"
Student: "Well, no. I think that's rude." (In a very upset tone.)
Eccentric Print Professor: "How? How is that rude? You have an obligation to tell someone when they're wasting their time on junk."

And he's right, of course. You are not doing that person any favors other than stroking their ego when you compliment them and do not inform them if their work is weak. No one benefits from saying everything is always great. No one. Just like any other field, a person can not know where their work needs to be improved if they are not informed of needed improvements. You can acknowledge the strong points of a work, but do not shy away from pointing out the weaknesses.

Here is where I am inevitably asked: "But art is so subjective! How can you possibly judge anything? How can one piece be inherently better than another when it is all so subjective!" Well, yes and no. There are certain 'rules' to art, for lack of a more fitting term. Certain aspects of a piece, such as color, shape, and arrangement in a space affect how effective that piece is in conveying the artist's idea to their audience. A piece can be objectively judged based on those (and other, more in-depth) criteria. Just like how an essay, news article, or any other piece of writing is judged based on style, organization, and word choice, and how those convey the author's intent. If those criteria do not convey the author's meaning, then the piece of writing is not very good, is it? The same for art.

Now, this has no bearing on aesthetics, an entirely separate beast in the art world. I can go into a museum and realize that a piece has a cliché, poorly organized, visually confusing picture plane, but for some reason I just like it. And that's fine. Aesthetics are personal. Critiques are not. There are tons of pieces that I just can not stand aesthetically (99% of Andy Warhol's work), and I can not stand their creators (again, Andy Warhol), but I understand why the pieces are objectively strong works and why they are important. This is an essential part of understanding the critique. The majority of people in my program annoy the piss out of me, and I can not stand them as people. But many of them are able to produce some incredible work. The work may not appeal to my visual sensibilities, but the work is strong regardless.

The art critique has also given me a real world asset: thick skin. If you take every little negative thing someone says about your art personally, then you are going to be eaten alive by your peers and professors, and not last very long in art. While your peers may pussy-foot around saying that your piece sucks, your professors will not. You need to be able to take that. It's hard. But over time, you develop a thicker skin and are able to take the criticisms in stride, and learn from what people have to say; which is why you have crit in the first place. It is so you can learn what worked, what didn't, and where to move on from there.

The art critique is a skill that runs the art world from the moment you set foot into it. It is the tool used by artists to learn and grow and expand in their ideas. As a Surly Painting Professor said: "Stop crying. We aren't talking about you. We're talking about the piece on the wall. The piece is terrible. And you need to hear that."

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