Teaching with Contemporary Art

Rethinking “The Critique”

Illustration by Miguel Gonzalez Enamorado

Like many art students, I couldn’t stand critiques when I was in high school and especially college. I even had a professor in grad school that would survey the finished work silently while we waited what seemed like days for those first syllables of sophistication to leave his crummy lips. And each time, right before he spoke, he would abruptly pull out the pushpins on five or six works that didn’t meet his approval. More than once I saw my drawing gently fall to the floor like a leaf. Hours of work sitting in the middle of eraser shavings while the class discussion took place as if nothing was wrong with this scenario.

Now I absolutely realize that most critiques are not this horrific and that many, many teachers from coast to coast do not conduct business this way. But still, I wonder about the purpose of critiques at the “end” of assignments, projects, or units of study. I mean, as an art student, I rarely if ever went back to a “finished” work and improved it after a class critique. As a matter of fact I can only remember doing it once and it was primarily to get a better grade, not because I thought the composition really needed that extra banana.

Often, students are “done” (in more ways than one) with a given assignment before the final critique rolls in, and what we’re left with is usually an opportunity for a teacher (or students) to pontificate or for a class to try in every way possible to say things that won’t hurt someone’s feelings…. and yet somehow be constructive- not an easy task.

I propose we think long and hard about planning less critiques that take place at the end of assignments and more that take place in the middle of them. In-progress critiques allow for constructive criticism and suggestions right when students need it the most- when they have formed an idea and are in the midst of giving that idea form. Students get to ask questions of each other instead of being judged and often receive suggestions from classmates that I would never have come up with myself.

Next week I would like to introduce some specific strategies for setting up in-progress critiques. See you then. Don’t touch that dial.

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. selin says:

    i completely disagree:

    assuming that you are past your initial few years of art education, you are at a stage where you are asked to produce work instead of homework:

    a critique is not a test, where you could quantitatively measure your success or achievement.
    i always thought of the final crit as a collective reading of the production as if it were a cohesive form.
    the cohesion (after a point of individual’s technical [both formally and conceptually] development) i find is what takes the longest time for an art student to master.

    in-progress critiques can never get past technical discussions and advice because the piece has not been realized yet.

    so the end-of-project critique does not expect you to go back and fix the problems (it probably is not a masterpiece anyway),
    it provides you with information on how your work is viewed by others, so you can use that knowledge when producing the next piece.

    at least that’s what I think.
    disclaimer: i’m sure there are plenty of crappy professors around, i’m speaking of my proper educational system
    best,

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  2. b, while doing something else says:

    Well, ok, then : I’ll leave pushpins in place.

    No, in fact I clearly understand the violent understatement that’s behind that behavior. I heard of a teacher who ripped the drawings away. (it was a long time ago…)
    Never experimented that, but I guess I’d have been violent…
    In the other hand, working with students looks more and more like working with kids, awaiting a precise answer to an exact work, wanting the teacher to give an exact direction, solve the problems, thinking it’s not worth the work asked…or thinking the work’s too good to be criticized. (that’s not new)

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  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Selin, I’ve had plenty of in-progress critiques where it got way past technical discussions and advice, and I feel that students need input from more than know-it-all professors who spend the time judging vs., as you put it, sharing knowledge to help produce the next piece. Students just seem to get more from critiques that happen during the forming of the work, plain and simple.

    You say a critique is not a test, but unfortunately students see it that way much of the time. And when I read things like, “I’m speaking of my proper educational system,” all I can think is that your system is a little outdated and perhaps narrow-minded.

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  4. Nettrice says:

    When I was in my foundation year at Pratt my drawing teaching, Al Blaustein, tore away my first homework assignment during a critique and then cursed me out. The cursing part stood out, of course, but I soon learned that it was because he knew I was not working to my ability. He was right. I rushed the drawing so I could go out dancing several night before. It didn’t take Blaustein long to explain his actions. He kept me after class and gave me a stern talking to. I realized that he cared that I grew as a student (he was on the panel that chose my h.s. portfolio for a scholarship). I shaped up and worked hard the rest of the semester.

    Blaustein was the first art teacher that I had that showed me the power of the critique, as part of the production process. After years of doing critiques with high school and first-year art students I’ve come up with some alternatives or revisions to the standard formats I learned when I was in school. Students draw names and they are required to analyze the work they select. Everyone talks and I can insert my comments in. We do informal reviews before final critiques and students work in smaller groups (student-led). I do not tear art off the walls but I do tell students my Blaustein story. They seem to appreciate it.

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  5. Joe Fusaro says:

    Love it, Nettrice. Thank you for sharing that story! Makes so much sense.

    Reply

  6. Nolan Clark says:

    Totally agree Joe. I am an art instructor myself and there is no way we hold critiques in my studio. We are supposed to be supporting and building each other, not destroying each other’s spirits. By us we hold “encourager” sessions where I would tell the student what is wrong AND how to fix it. I would also then tell the student what he / she has done correctly / well too. As an instructor, if I was to critique someones work, that would mean I did not do my job of instructing the student properly in the first place, or it wouldn’t be wrong.

    If I have done my job correctly, then I can see that the student has grasped, but not yet mastered the techniques I have have taught him /her. That means the student just needs encouragement and practice to get it right. If I can see the student has not grasped the concepts / techniques I have taught, then it is up to me to explain it in a different way that makes more sense to the student, not to critique the student for my inability to explain correctly.

    Fellow students also quickly catch on to our “encourager” method of critiquing when they join because nobody likes to be criticized, so they will also point out good points and make suggestions for improvement, ie., come with a solution, not a problem.

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  7. Nettrice says:

    You’re welcome Joe! I caught a few typos but I was writing fast, in between classes. Towards the end of this semester students in my visual art/design class are totally ready and “bought-in” for critiques. I don’t even have to tell them to write down their names to draw from. They just do it and have no problem talking about the work. They are also more comfortable giving constructive critique and now the hands go up whenever they are asked to review work. I love it!

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  8. Pingback: Rethinking “The Critique” : Possibilities | Art21 Blog

  9. Ramya S says:

    A very good article – feels like the musings of any art student. Often makes me wonder if the purpose of a critique exercise is to make a person reach perfection or to break your confidence…well penned. Nice caricature!

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  10. I Agree; there are waay too many critiques out there that don’t hold the “constructive” aspect in delicate balance. The whole point of the critique is to grow, not tear down an artist. ;) This is a great idea; critiques in the middle!

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