critique01_db.jpgArchitecture Students Present their designs at the Savannah College of Art and Design

On the Ragged Cloth Cafe blog, I wrote about the nature of critiques, mostly summarizing James Elkins’ Why Art Cannot Be Taught; I won’t go into his ideas — you can read a summary on Ragged Cloth if you are interested — but I have been evolving my own thoughts on the subject.

Last Tuesday, in a painting class, the instructor failed to show. We were scheduled for a long critique session, and, being self-sufficient and interested in each other’s art, we continued with the critique ourselves. The critiques in this class had always been group affairs, ones in which the instructor led but did not direct the conversation. So we could easily emulate his processes.

Elkins’ speaks of critiques as fraught with dangers, having multiple ways to can go awry, and he loves the fascinating explications of human nature and thought in action which critiques provide (which is also why they are fraught with dangers).

Some of the danger, as I see it, lies in the fact that while the artist wants information that will help improve her work (and also is hoping to impress the viewers with her artistic abilities and insights), the “panelists” — students or professionals in the field — are almost always struggling to explain what they are seeing. If the panelists (in our case, the other students) are to be successful, they must have insights into the work they are looking at, and then find ways to articulate those insights so that the artist will benefit. It’s a struggle on both sides, since the artist has to be totally alert to the thoughts of the panelists — sorting out, when comments seem confused, whether the speaker are struggling to find her idea, struggling with expressing the idea, or struggling with explaining the idea in terms that will benefit the artist.

And when comments are not confused and the panelist clearly states an opinion or question or makes a comment, the artist has to sort out whether the comment comes out of a concern which the panelist has with his own work or obsession or whether it is truly applicable to the art that is being presented. Other kinds of interface problems can occur — the panelists may get off course and meander into digressions; they may find themselves hostile or overly sympathetic, and so forth.

All this is outside the sometimes awful experience of attack critiques, those legendary events that leave the artist a quivering heap of jelly. I think they arise not out of art or articulation or ideas, but an entirely different culture and one that I haven’t encountered.

Nevertheless, critiques, as I know them, are a substantial and important part of my art education.

In this critique, I limited myself to three works, a “straight” naive/realistic painting of a nearby street scene, a more complex and abstracted view of a warehouse area from above, and a semi-abstract “forest” scene.


Hawthorne & SE 20th, Mid April, 12 x 16,” oil on board


McLoughlin Warehouse District, Mid April. 12 x 16,” oil on board


Forest Scene, mid-April, 12 x 16,” oil on board

I was interested in people’s responses to three very different kinds of paintings, all done within a couple weeks of one another. I was particularly interested in this group’s comments, because they are very articulate about what they see. I am somewhat intimidated by their ability to explain what they see, what they like, and how they read a canvas. So I am learning as I listen to them, not just about my art, but about talking about art in understandable ways.

The responses to the three pieces were that they enjoyed the corny street scene, that the colors in the warehouse piece were good (the reproduction here doesn’t do them justice) and that the composition in that one was excellent (they liked the water tower, just as they liked the old lady crossing 2oth Street), and finally that the last was puzzling, interesting, weird, Hansel-and-Gretel-ish,or maybe smelt of Hieronymous Bosch. At any rate, the last, for them, seemed to be coming out of some inner state, whereas the other two were evidences of external scenes. There were other comments but these are the ones that I remember most clearly.

But what the group really wanted to know was where I was going in terms of this last piece. Was this a direction I intended to pursue? What would I be painting next?

I talked for a while, and then realized that the the group consists primarily of abstracting landscape painters — people who take their references from landscape and then work those references into abstractions. Here’s David Trowbridge’s work. David is an accomplished artist, currently exhibiting in downtown Portland, whose work I admire. It is fairly representative of the working process and product of most of the group members.

David Trowbridge, Sheffield XI, acrylic and spray paint on plywood, 35.5 x 48″

So when I debriefed myself about the nature of the critique, I had to consider that the abstract attracted the panelist’s attention most because they themselves did art like that. And the questions about where I was going from there were both out of thinking this might be a new path for me, but also a function of knowing that the class was coming close to its conclusion. We were all going to have to decide “where we were going.” I did ask directly and firmly, at least twice at the conclusion of the session, what suggestions they would have for me. They had none.

So my question is, what kinds of critiques have you had that left you with interesting debriefings? Why were the critiques useful? What unanswered questions were there? Do you believe in critiques — if so, what are their limitations?