Having had experience of late with some well-meaning but hurtful criticism, I’ve been thinking about how we approach one another’s shortcomings.
Critique was a major aspect of college art courses. It was important, we were told, to observe closely our own work and that of others, and learn to talk about it in critique. I think “to observe critically” speaks about the detachment we should feel toward the work, so that it can be honestly appraised, without attachment to the process, the subject matter or the maker. Too often, it was interpreted – by teachers and students alike – to instead mean “find the flaws.”
That never felt comfortable to me. No matter how diplomatic, no matter how true, criticism is always hard for me to take. Too often it seemed an exercise in ego rather than a learning experience. I decided early on that I would not participate in that way.
When my work was being critiqued, I would listen and nod thoughtfully at whatever was said. I would thank them for their thoughts and ideas. I would never defend or argue. I would take everything I was offered and sift through it when I was alone, to glean from it what was helpful and discard the rest.
When it was up to me to offer critical assessment of someone else’s work, my policy was to speak only positive comments. That is not to say I offered only gushing superlatives. Words like “wonderful,” “beautiful” and “outstanding” can be nice to hear, but on their own are not appropriate or helpful in a critique. It’s helpful to break a piece down, before speaking about it. Does the color appeal to you? Is one area stronger than another? What works? A critical comment might be, “My eye keeps moving toward the upper right corner where your color is so dense and lush…” or, “I’d love to see the background darker, to show off the beautiful line quality.”
Whenever I teach, the rules for talking about work – whether your own or someone else’s – is “Positive Comments Only!” It seems especially important because I often teach children. We can easily see the reasons for not discouraging a child’s early efforts. I think we’re all children at heart, though. We all tenderly and cautiously put ourselves out there, exposed, hoping for approval. We can each be knocked down without too much effort, by the criticism of others.
I think most of us are pretty good at self-assessment. We usually already know what our failings are. We know what’s going wrong. Sometimes, we look so hard at those things, it’s hard to see what we’re doing right. It’s certainly hard to know if others do. It seems to me, in life as in art, to hear what is working is more important than to be told what isn’t.