Friday, May 13, 2011

Get Your Critique Heard

A Different Perspective

If you are a photographer, writer, painter or simply someone who loves viewing art and providing feedback to the creator of that art, you should be aware that often the content of your critique can be utterly dismissed simply by the manner in which you offer it. Anyone can provide a critique, and most do. Stating something as simple as "I like that" is a critique. It's not a very good critique and it doesn't help the artist improve, but it is a critique nonetheless. Likewise, "that sucks" or "that's not my cup of tea" is equally valid as a critique, and is similarly dismissed out of hand as not being useful.

Often opinions are offered simply to express the appeal, or the lack thereof, of a work, to stroke the artist's ego, or to stroke the ego of the person providing the comment (I can do better than that.) If, however, your objective is to help the artist improve or, at the very least, to consider your perspective, you need to be able to convey your message effectively.  Anyone can provide a critique, but having your opinions heard, understood, and accepted as valid is more about a constructive approach to communicating those opinions than the actual opinion itself.

The key to getting your comments understood, accepted, and considered is to provide respectful, polite, and even-handed commentary. If your goal is to help the artist improve, you should also provide constructive critique.

Find What Appeals to You
Constructive critique not only identifies the issues the viewer perceives with the work, but also provides suggestions on how to improve the work. Constructive critique is all the better if you can offer some specific technical recommendations to the artist, but even if you're not an expert or even familiar with the artist's medium of choice, you can offer constructive critique of a generalized nature. Your goal shouldn't be to tell the artist how to recreate his or her work according to your standards, but to identify how the work could be made to be more appealing to you. You may not be the artist's intended audience, but you can have a valid opinion about how the work makes you feel and what could be modified to make the artists future work more appealing to you, i.e. how to expand the intended audience. It's up to the artist to consider and then accept or reject your comments, but there are certain approaches that will virtually guarantee your opinion will not even be briefly considered.

There's no faster way to have your commentary rejected, deleted, and any future communications promptly ignored than to approach the artist with anything less that politeness. You may absolutely hate the artist’s work, but if your goal is to get the artist to heed your opinion, you are not going to do it by being mean spirited or disrespectful in your approach. It's said that respect has to be earned, and if you want the artist to respect your thoughts, you have to provide respect as part of the process of delivering your opinion. So drop the snarky or condescending attitude and be polite and gracious with your words. Even if you're an expert in the artist's field, there is no reason to adopt a know-it-all attitude. Obviously your words will carry more weight if you are indeed an expert, but a gracious novice will influence the artist far more than an arrogant expert ever will.

Be Polite and Respectful
Avoid name-dropping. Telling someone that another artist wouldn't do it that way or that so-and-so said to do this won't help you to get anyone to meekly accept your opinion. One goal of art is to be unique, and good artists strive for that. They aspire to have their own style. An appeal to authority generally doesn't work with an artist.

 While it is important to be honest when presenting your opinions, don't confuse honesty with meanness. With some thought, you can truthfully state your perspective without resorting to unkindness. Malice has no place in a constructive critique and will shut down your communication faster than almost anything else. Too many people try to use “honesty” as an excuse for petty cruelty. These people seem to enjoy pointing all the flaws in a piece of work as spitefully as they can. When they get called on it their claim is that they are “simply being honest and the artist can’t take an honest critique.”  Honesty is good. It does neither the artist nor the viewer any good to receive a less than truthful critique. But anyone with at least half a brain knows the difference between honest and just plain mean.

So, what can be done to make your commentary more likely to be considered, accepted, and utilized by the artist? There are a number of approaches that can be used, singly and in various combinations, but you should start by finding something positive to say about the work. Always strive to start with that.   If, after thorough consideration, you can't find at least one positive aspect to the work, then reconsider whether the piece is even worthy of the critique. After all, why should you go to the effort of providing the critique if it’s so awful as to have no redeeming qualities and you simply can’t help the individual improve?

Consider the artist's perspective and the message (if any) that he or she is trying to convey. Tell the artist what you perceive the message to be and how effectively the piece “spoke” to that message. If you feel the message is weak, explain why you think so and offer any suggestions you might have on how to improve the delivery of the concept.

Be Honest, but don't be Mean
Strive to identify both the "good" and the "bad" about the piece. Usually some components of the art will appeal to you while others will not. The better the work, the more elements you’ll find that appeal to you. For example, the composition may be appealing, but the artist's choice of colors may not. The artist may have used fantastic lighting or an excellent brush technique, but the choice of the subject might be not be to your taste. As clearly and concisely as possible, explain what you find appealing and in equal measure explain what you don't like about the piece. For either, but especially for what you don't like, suggest improvements and provide examples (if possible). You may not always be able to offer valid suggestions, but any attempt to do so will be more appreciated than not.

Finally, when summarizing, identify the overall impact and appeal the piece has for you and provide some words of encouragement, even if that means suggesting another avenue of creative expression. Of course, you may not have the time or the inclination to follow all the advice provided in this article, but if nothing else, you should understand that kindness, respect and encouragement will do far more to get your message across than any level of expertise or experience you can claim.

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