Tag Archives: critique

Timeout for Art: Critique


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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.



Talking to Myself



I do it all the time.

Talk to myself, that is.

I live alone.

I’ve always been a loner.

Much of the time the conversation is only going on inside my head, but sometimes I talk out loud.

I’m the only voice I hear most days, out here in my home on the Fox Lake Road.

I could suggest that I’m talking to the dogs, but even they can tell the difference.

I talk to myself at work. As I walk into the kitchen to pick up an order, I’m often reminding myself what I need to grab in the way of condiments and side dishes. As I arrange the plates and bowls on the tray, heaviest items in the center, all handles turned in, tall items squeezed between other things so that they won’t topple, I’ll say, “Okay, don’t anybody move,” as I lift the tray over my head. I am often unaware that I’m speaking until Kathy comes around from behind the grill to ask “WHAT?!?” From the look on my face, she determines that the conversation was only with me; she rolls her eyes, waves her hand and goes back to her station.

I talk to myself while walking the dogs. I work out ideas for class plans or art projects. I work out furniture arrangements or planting schemes. I hold imaginary conversations. I assert myself in ways I rarely would in real life. I replay discussions. I never speak out of turn, lose my temper or say mean things, in these talks. I am also never prevented from speaking my truth.

Lately, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time defending myself, to myself, in conversations in my mind.

It seems like I’ve been fielding a lot of criticism lately.  More people, in just the last two years, have felt the need to tell me I am lacking – and how, and why – than have in the last thirty years! I’ve questioned whether I am in some way inviting negative opinions. I have not been requesting critiques! Of course, there is some truth in everything that is said. That does not mean it is a valid or necessary insult. I’m often not in a position to defend myself.

That’s where talking to myself proves invaluable.

It helps to sort the truths from the exaggerations and distortions. It helps to clarify who I am, despite how others choose to interpret my words or actions. It helps me to move forward and away from the hurt.

When I was told that I am an inconsequential story-teller, I said – petulantly – “my stories are too consequential!”

When my boss found fault with my scheduling on a regular basis, I defended the over-staffing or under-staffing – to myself, in imaginary conversations – just as regularly.

When I was told I never really stood up for anything, I had long, grumbling talks with myself. “I marched for Peace in the ’60s!”, “I fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s!”, “I have voted in every single election!” , “I left two good jobs to stand for my principles!”

When it was suggested that my service was not up to standard…well, the conversation in my head turned into the blog titled “Dear Harry”. If you’ve read it, you have an idea the way my mind works when on the defensive!

When I was told I was not working hard enough to maintain a friendship, I talked to myself until I was able to talk – and clear the air – with my friend.

Most recently I have received a letter filled with a one-sided account of an unfortunate encounter. It makes me look pretty sorry, indeed: petty, mean-spirited and vengeful. If it were wholly untrue, it would be easier to brush it off. Because there is truth to it, and because of the source, I don’t take it lightly. Because it was delivered with a clear directive to not respond, I am impotent to clarify or work it out…except in talking to myself.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Do you talk to yourself? I’d love to know I’m not alone!