Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Art of Critiquing


There is an art to the critique, but over the years I have learned that most people have many misconceptions of how a critique should be given or received.  It took me a while to learn the art of a good critique, but over many years of school and critiquing sessions,  I felt it would be a good idea to share what I have learned. Lastly, it is my intent for this article to be able to work for any medium whether it be the visual arts, music, writing, culinary, performing arts or even a worker's performance in day to day life.

So, what should a critique be? This might seem like a silly question, but I have found that many people confuse a critique with a criticism. This leads many critiques to often tear down the person receiving the critique, when in fact they wanted some constructive feedback so that they can improve.  When someone asks for a critique, they are either asking for a pat on the back, how they can improve or a bit of both. Over the decades it has long been debated in our school system whether it is better to use negative or positive reinforcement. The truth of the matter is that both methods have their merits, but alone they can cause damage. Keeping this in mind, when giving a critique, it is best to give both the pros and the cons. Focusing just on the positive can make the recipient misunderstand the intent of the critique such as: the artist thinks he/she is a professional level artist or that the critic is being insincere. Equally if the critique focuses just on the negative then that artist might end up changing something that was good, especially if there were a lot of negative points, or that artist might even give up all together because of feeling a loss of worth.

A better approach to a critique, is to apply both positive and negative reinforcement. With this approach, the person receiving the critique will be more receptive to the areas that need improvement and in a addition they are more likely to keep the aspects of their work that were successful. Some might argue that this is to avoid hurt feelings, but this is not the case, it is about good communication between the critic and the receiver which in turn will lead to a positive outcome.

There are somethings that a critic should and should not do. A critic should not try to point out a problem if they have no knowledge or experience in that given area, because this will provide bad feedback for the person on the receiving end of the critique. If the critic does detect a problem through intuition, but it is beyond their experience then stating the problem area is acceptable, but it must be pointed out that he/she doesn't have the exact knowledge of what is wrong. If the critic is not only an expert, but is skilled as well, then the critic should explain how to correct what is pointed out. Such an explanation is a courtesy, but is more constructive than without. The critic, however should not be obligated as to the length of such an explanation, if the critic feels any explanation  is needed. It is good form to provide additional explanation or help if the receiver requests such information, but again this is not an obligation.

While I have stated that a balanced critique is one that provides both positive and negative feedback, sometimes this is harder said than done. If as the critic, you can't find any positive thing to say about the receiver's technique and skill, then pointing out the concept of what they were trying to achieve in a positive light can help. If the receiver shows they made a lot of effort in the work they did, then acknowledging that effort can help. If as the critic you can't find any negative feedback then try following up with alternative ideas that fit within the intent of the receiver's work because this might inspire them to reach higher than their current ability.

The receiver of a critique also needs to understand how to receive a critique with grace. First the receiver should keep quite until the critique is finished and to not be quick to defend. In fact, the receiver should not try to defend their work at all, because most of the time they asked for the critique. After the critique is given the receiver may and probably should explain what their intent was in the work that is up for critique. Sometimes this may be given before a critique and it really depends on the protocol that has been established in a session. When the intent is communicated then the critic will understand better and will offer better feedback. This is often needed because the intent is not always apparent. It is good to get critiques from different sources for the same work, because if there are overlapping comments then odds are good that they know what they are talking about. If the receiver feels that the critic is in error then that is fine, but it is bad form to call them out. If the critique is given online then it is fine to check out their work if the receiver needs that validation if the all or part of the critique was thought to be in error due to non-experience; don't accept the talk if they can't walk the walk.

Remember, a critique is not about criticizing, but it is about communication and constructive feedback to help the receiver of the critique improve their skills and knowledge. Hopefully I have covered what makes a good and balanced critique, but life can always throw you a surprise, so please feel free to ask any questions you may have and I will answer it to the best of my ability.