How to Critique | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


[DIGITAL TONE] This week, I want to talk
to you about something that’s been weighing on my
mind lately, and that’s the issue of critique. If you spend any
time on the internet, it’s something you
come across frequently. If you’re the victim
of internet trolls or if you are an internet
troll, listen up. There is an
etiquette to critique that has been in play for
a long time in art schools all over the world. Let’s see if we can learn
something from that world and apply it in ours. So here’s how an art
critique usually goes. An art student
sets up their work to show their teacher,
a group of teachers, their friends, their class,
or an even bigger group. Then, discussion ensues. Questions are asked. And criticism is offered. Sometimes, things do go awry. Tears are shed and
expletives hurled. But it’s usually a
civilized affair. And there is an
etiquette to these things that I think it would be
useful for us to discuss, in relation to
the art assignment and to the internet
community at large. But first, let’s talk
about why we should critique in the first place. Because it’s the internet
and you can anonymously say whatever you want? I’d say no. Because you’d like to change
the minds of the person you’re critiquing? Definitely no. Critique it’s often most
instructive for the person offering it. In looking at
other people’s work and formulating
your opinion of it, you’re learning a great deal. I don’t often see people
responding to internet comments by saying, gee, thanks. I never thought
about it that way. I agree with you now. But that’s OK, Because it’s
still a constructive process. It can help shape your
beliefs and teach you about different ways of
looking and thinking. That being said, here are
some critiquing guidelines. One, be attentive. The internet has
trained us to look at something for a millisecond
and to scan text quickly. Fight that urge. Let something
linger on the screen for seconds or even minutes. Look at it once and, then,
look at another time later in the day or the next
day or the next week. I often have
instinctual reactions when I first see something. But then, my opinion changes
the longer I spend with it, or even a week later
when I’m remembering it. Use your faculties
and your patience and trust your reactions. Two, don’t be lazy. I am a terrible
example to follow. When I look at all
of the responses that come into “The Art Assignment,”
my head fills with ideas. But then, I get a phone
call or I’m in a hurry, and I just reblog something
or say something tepid instead of saying something
substantive about it. I also lean way too heavily
on the word interesting. It’s value-neutral,
which is helpful. But it also says very little. For example, the history
of documentary photography is interesting. But “The Simpsons”
is also interesting. It’s not a particularly
specific adjective. There are lots of lazy words. And it’s OK to use
them sometimes. But try to follow them up
with something that has teeth. Instead of saying,
this is great! –say, this is great, because
you’ve done A, B, and C and then surprised
us all by adding D. Three, be generous. Try to look at each work of
art for what is successful. Performance artist
Mathew Goulish tells us in an
essay on criticism to look for the
aspects of wonder. We want to encourage more
wonder in the world, right? So when we come across
it, let’s celebrate it. Criticism can be an
incredible act of empathy. What made someone
make that thing? Why did they do it that way? Be sympathetic to
the maker and realize that the mere act of putting
yourself and your work out there takes courage. Four, find your point of entry. You don’t have to have a PhD in
art history to talk about art. So find your point of
connection to a piece, as personal as
you’d like it to be. For example, this
reminds me of a bath mat, in the best possible way. Because its tactility
is enticing, and it transports me instantly
to my friend’s bathroom, circa 1997, which had
floral wallpaper and smelled like Garnier Fructis Shampoo. As it happens, it is a bath
mat and not an artwork. But it could be an artwork. Think about what the
thing in question reminds you of, whether it’s
from the same discipline, something personal, or
something far flung. Think about the decisions that
were made along the way– maybe it’s the materials
used or not used, maybe it’s the way it’s
been arranged in space or documented for us
to see, maybe it’s what the maker decided
to include or exclude from the frame of the work. What are the skills on display? Maybe the artist is not
an amazing draftsperson but still ended up with
a delightfully peculiar, delicately-rendered
drawing that communicates much more than a perfectly
photo-realistic drawing might have done. Maybe the ideas behind a
project outweigh the execution. Maybe the execution
outweighs the ideas. And if you can’t think of
anything declarative to say, ask a question. Don’t be a jerk. There is a lot you can say about
something without declaring it to be good or bad. It can be a productive
challenge to try to not make any value judgments
while talking about a work. Most art critiques
take place in a room where all of the
individuals have to look at each
other’s faces and deal with the immediate consequences
of saying something provocative. Pretend you’re in the
same room with the person you’re critiquing. Pretend they’re
someone you know. I’m not saying to
lie or blow smoke. I’m saying, don’t be a jerk. And finally, why make yourself
available for critique? Faced with the reality of
all the internet trolls in the world, it’s
completely understandable to stay in your hole
and not participate in internet communities. I totally get that. But the positives
of participating in this and other
online projects can be real and rewarding. It’s hard to have
perspective on your work. And offering it up
for review means you might have the chance
to see it with fresh eyes and learn from the
experience of others. But it also makes
you vulnerable, which can be a miserably
crappy feeling but, sometimes, a liberating and empowering one. If you can try to take
your ego out of it, you can learn a great deal. I want you guys to talk
about each other’s work. I don’t want this to be just
me passing judgment on you guys and the amazing work you do. We must be in this together. So talk to each other. Comment on works. Don’t be mean. But think about what the aspects
of wonder might be in each work and share that with each other. It will make the experience
of “The Art Assignment” better for everyone involved. OK, so here is a
self-portrait I made in college in a painting
class I took with the artist Ed Paschke. It was an experiment
in under-painting, which is a technique
where you paint something in all the same hue,
like a darker hue, and then you paint
color over it. Let’s critique. Or if they’re commenting
on videos or Tumblr posts, it makes this community
interesting and worthwhile. Ah! I said interesting.

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