The Art of Criticism


Art and criticism seem to go hand in hand, don’t they? When we are asked what we think of a book, a song or a painting, our first inclination isn’t to share how the piece of work made us feel or what it made us think. Instead, we pick a side: we like it or we don’t like it; it’s good or it’s bad.

I feel this dichotomy most strongly when in the post-modern wing of the art museum, standing in front of a canvas worth millions that looks like the artist threw paint at the wall in a tantrum.

Is this art?

Because I feel unequal to think that the Art Institute wasted their money on this canvas, I stand there and try to decide if the work makes me feel something. I look at the canvas and slip into a kind of meditation, imagining what it must have been like to throw color at the wall. Are all the arm strokes up to down, or do they differ? Is this emotional? Is this cathartic? The art starts to make me feel something, think something, and it no longer matters if I like it or if it’s good.

If I stand there long enough, following the lines of the patterns and the movement of the colors, I eventually land on, “Everything and anything is art; everyone and anyone is an artist.”

I am an artist

Oh, that feels strange to say. So I’m going to make myself say it again: I am an artist.

I few weeks ago, when I was struggling through another round of revisions on my manuscript, I looked at my Instagram and huffed. “Travel Writer,” it says. I wrote that in a fit of aspiration back when I thought getting my rough draft to a point of sharing would be easy, but now the words Travel Writer taunt me, daring me to straighten up and fill their silhouette.

But I am a writer.

Am I a paid writer? No.

Am I published writer? No.

Have I let anyone read more than ten pages of my manuscript at a time? No.

But I am still a writer because I am writing. I am an artist because I’m creating something.

The Value of Criticism

I could dance on and on about the way art makes me feel, both sitting with the art others have created and sitting with the art I’m creating, but right now I’m inspired to focused on criticism and my experience with it as an artist.

Criticism is difficult. On my god is it difficult! Despite knowing how much I benefit from it, it’s difficult to stand still with that apple balanced on top of your head.

In a recent peer-review with a friend, my expression was downcast. I stuttered through excuses, defending my work because I felt attacked and demeaned under a rigorous showcase of all the ways I could be and do and write better. Despite this reviewer’s smiling face and kind tone, affirming that I had the skill to fix the issues, the criticism cut and I internally screamed at the sight of blood.

Not ten minutes after the call, though, I was literally dancing through my apartment, making notes and newly energized and inspired to make the piece better. Their criticism did make the piece better, but I’m hesitant to workshop with them again.

Types of Shitty Critics

Sure, artists could grow a thicker layer of skin when it comes to criticism of their art. You understand why it’s hard though, right? Art is about vulnerability, taking something that is felt or thought internally and giving it means to exist in the perceived world. So it’s kind of hypocritical to ask someone to share that kind of vulnerability while also asking them to have thicker skin through criticism.

And people are also just really shit critics.

In college creative writing classes, we followed a set format. Each class we’d arrive having read two or three pieces from our peers and spend the hour discussing each one. We’d start by talking about all the things we like about the piece; a feel good moment to compliment our fellow writer and, hopefully, dull everyone’s fangs. Critics in a college creative classroom are the worst. They are nit-picky, mean and almost competitive as if their shallow confidence in their writing cannot stand up next to anyone else having a good piece.

I’ve had peer reviews as an adult, where reviewers send a list of every grammatical and spelling error I made (and I made a lot) or they simply say, “It’s good. I like it.”

Tell me I’m shit. Tell me I’m doing great. Tell me I’m pandering.

Cool. That’s being critical without being helpful.

How to Give Critical Feedback that Helps

The method of workshopping I learned in university is a good place to start:

  1. Focus on what you liked, willfully overlooking the things you didn’t like and the things that confused you. Do you like the story? The description? Is the writer poetic? Does the writer cut through the shit and just gets to the points? Do they make you think? Do you like the characters? Care about the characters? Art, by definition isn’t meant to be any certain way; it’s supposed to make you feel and think, so focus there.
  2. Once you’ve exhausted everything you like about the piece, then turn to the areas of improvement. What could be stronger? What was confusing? What character do you want to like but just can’t get there? Nothing is bad or stupid; it simply has room to be better.

Easy enough, right? Follow that two-step process, and you’re off to a good start and probably won’t crush any dreams or ruin any friendship.

*Interchange writing for any artistic medium.

How to Give Great Feedback

I actually think giving great feedback is easier than giving the decent feedback I learned to give in university.

What makes great feedback? –Excitement.

It’s exciting, isn’t it? You are asked to review the work of an artist. You are being invited into their vulnerability. They created something and for some reason they trust you to see it and they trust you to give them honest feedback. That is amazing. If you are being asked for review someone’s early work, they think you are a cool person whose opinion has value.

Recognize the height and the compliment of that.

So celebrate that art. Celebrate its bravery, recognize its honest where you see it, and tell the artist how their work makes you feel. This leads to generative dialogue and suddenly this isn’t a relationship between art and criticism; it’s creation itself, a whole art form onto itself.

When I come away from a good dialogue about my work, I feel fat with words and feeling instead of dwarfed by self-doubt and loathing. I am excited to keep on creating.

Not everyone is going to have their art hang in a museum, play on the radio or purchased by a publisher, but that kind of art has a lot to do with marketing and business. So if an artist is asking you do make their art marketable, this advice isn’t for you. If an artist is handing you something they loved creating, bring love into your feedback. You don’t have to like it, you don’t even have to think it’s good, to celebrate it.

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