Guidelines for Group Critique

In preparing for a critique in this or any studio art class, it is at least as important to determine what you want or need from the critique, as it is to understand what is expected of you. Your critique should address form and content, and should consider the work of art in and of itself, and in the context of issues discussed in the reading assignments. Terry Barrett, in his book Criticizing Photographs, defines criticism as "...informed discourse about art to increase understanding and appreciation..." As such, criticism involves much more than the relatively simple act of judging--of determining whether one "likes" or "dislikes" a piece. Rather, it is a means toward the end of understanding a work of art. Critical consideration usually consists of at least three main activities:

  1. Describing the work (what does it look like? what is it made of?): Assume the audience has not and will not view the piece and that you are the sole mediator for their understanding of it's formal qualities.
  2. Interpreting the work (what does it mean?): Here you are asked to synthesize any contextual or biographical information you have with your own subjective interpretation of the work's significance.
  3. Evaluating the work (is it art? is it interesting? does it "work"?): This is, perhaps, the most difficult critical task, yet it is usually the one to which most people skip when criticizing a work of art. To thoughtfully evaluate a work of art, you must determine what your criteria are for judging its relative worth or effectiveness. Only you can provide this information. Do not assume the reader (or your fellow student) shares your point of view. Explain why you feel the way you do. "Thumbs up" or "thumbs down" will not cut it. This is college.

Here are some simple guidelines for a successful critique:

  1. Listen! Most people new to the critique forum fail to understand that criticism of a work does not mean the work is "bad", or that the artist has failed in some way. In order to refine our ability to produce effective artworks, we must listen to what the participants in the critique have to say about it. This is not to discourage robust debate, by any means. Some of the most lucid insights arise out of heated arguments about a work of art. Rather, it is imperative that each point of view be expressed so as to maximize the benefit of this most unusual form of public discourse. The whole point of the exercise is to go make better work.Describe the image: What do you know with certainty about what you see? What do you see? What adjectives come to mind? What is the subject matter, really? What about form? How does the relationship between light and dark, contrast and tone affect your description? How does the technical treatment of the print affect your reading of it? Can you compare/contrast this image with another in the group?Interpret the image: What does this image mean? How is this meaning manifested? Can you discern a difference between what was intended and the result? Are there metaphors you can decipher? Although the denotative meaning may seem clear (a photograph of a still-life set that includes a roll of toilet paper, a plastic garbage bag, and a wad of aluminum foil can be said to denote (show) a roll of toilet paper, a plastic garbage bag, and a wad of aluminum foil), what is the connotative meaning? The same photograph could, for example, connote (suggest, imply) fragility, entropy, waste, excess, or any number of completely different ideas. Do the objects depicted in the image have a connotation that owes its context to the nature of the materials they resemble, or is the connotation based in something else like light, shadow, form, composition, color, etc.? Further, from what perspective do you bring your interpretation to this work? Comparative? Archetypal? Feminist? Psychoanalytic? Formalist? Semiotic? Biographical? Intentionalist? Technical? No work of art nor artist ever existed in a vacuum. Can you identify a combination of approaches or cultural influences in your interpretation?Can you categorize this photograph according to Terry Barrett's system? Is it Descriptive, Explanatory, Interpretive, Ethically Evaluative, Aesthetically Evaluative, Theoretical, or some combination thereof? Explain your criteria for determining the appropriate category.What is this image's internal context (that which is descriptively evident)? What is its original context (what was physically, psychologically, and/or politically relevant to the artist at the time of the creation of the work? What is its external context (the situation in which the work is seen or presented)? How does the latter inform the former?
  2. Is this a successful work of art? Why/why not? What criteria have you used to make your judgement? Be very specific.
  3. Whereas it is mandatory that you respect your colleagues in the class (I don't tolerate abusive behavior at all), we are here to get work done. Please check your ego at the door. I need you to be willing to say what you think about others' work and to hear potentially harsh criticism about the work you've done. In order to become better artists, we must be willing to speak openly about the issues at hand and to dispense with qualifying opening remarks such as "this is just my opinion" and the like.

The most important thing to remember is that, although we may each be in this class for different reasons, we are all (presumably) striving to make more and better works of art. The old adage "...I don't know about Art, but I know what I like.." is no longer applicable to your mode of inquiry. Yours is to be a rigorous and rich process of taking your work apart and putting it back together--better than before--with the help of this lively critical forum.