Artists almost always encompass their work, on very fundamental levels. When we create, we imbue in our creativity a piece of ourselves, a little slice of our soul, so when we put that work to the world and praises aren't immediately raining down upon us, there's a sting in that which sometimes overshadows the opportunity these situations present... an opportunity to understand our audience, our product, our art, artistic trends and personal tastes. So I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the "art" of critical commenting, how to offer a critical comment and, more importantly, how to be receptive to a critical comment.
- A critical comment is not a stand-alone opinion based only on personal aesthetics. Have you received a comment like this: "It's not my style, but I guess someone will like it." and have you ever wondered why that comment is helpful? Well, it's not. It's not helpful at all. It's a meaningless, passive aggressive expression of dislike, disdain or disgust. It's rude and never furthers a discussion and certainly doesn't propagate growth.
- A critical comment is not about an emotional response to the work, unless the purpose of the work is specifically to incite an emotional response. More specifically, it's an analysis of the emotional reaction one experiences, what caused the reaction, what could alter that reaction. A critical comment is an analytical synopsis of the viewer's interaction with the poem, the photograph, or artwork, including a thorough explanation of each element in relation to the reaction it causes.
- A critical comment contains an understanding of the work and the process, the skill required, or basic "laws" associated with the medium used. Though proficiency isn't necessarily a prerequisite to making critical comments, it's important to avoid discussing elements, in a critical manner, about which you have little practical knowledge.
- A critical comment should never be offered when unsolicited. Meaning, if you don't see "Critical comments welcome!", or "Please tell me what you think!", do not comment critically. Understand that sometimes artists simply don't care what your reaction is. They had an experience, while creating their work, that supersedes your opinion, and they want to share this work for no other reason than to express their own pleasure. Don't rob them of this experience.
- A critical comment should never contain the phrase "I don't like....". Personal aesthetics aside, critical comments should focus on technicality. "But it's art", you say, "It's not technical at all". Well, that's not really true. All art, for every artists, is born from a methodology, an understanding of color, form, function, symmetry, and these are all fair game when commenting critically. Instead of saying "I don't like blue and pink together" how about "Blue and orange are complimentary colors and might have a stronger presence in your work". Focus on possible improvement, not perceived "flaws".
- A critical comment should offer a solution!
A few months ago, I posted to social media a wire wrapped pendant to which I added an olive green knotted paracord necklace. The reaction was, not surprisingly, quite mixed, because the two mediums are vastly contradictory. I encouraged critical comments, and received some that were very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and some that were really just empty "attacks" by the handful who had an (apparent) violent aesthetic reaction to the combination of materials, and some that were "fillers" who had nothing critical to contribute.
The following is a (fictional) example of the type of negative comments I received, and exactly what not to do when commenting critically:
"I don't like the green. You should have gone with a black or white. And it's just too big."
Is there a reason you didn't like the green? Why would you have preferred black or white? Though an opinion was offered, there was nothing to substantiate it beyond his or her own tastes. This is what I like to refer to as the "unhelpful helper". They might actually believe their comment offers something to the discussion, or helps the artist improve, but in reality, they've not offered any solutions.
The following is a re-creation of the comment above, but written critically:
"I find there isn't enough green in the stone or focal itself to support the color of the cord. There are pinks and peach in the stone, and the wire is copper, so perhaps a red cord would accent the tones already present. Black and white are always neutral color choices that might also frame the wire work in a complimentary manner. The knot work is large and intricate and seems to over-power the detailed wire weaving, so cord in a smaller diameter might allow the viewer to experience each element in the design as part of a whole, and not in spite of each other."
See how this comment offers solutions? It focuses on a flaw, or perceived flaw, or opportunity for improvement, and then offers a fix, while distancing itself from an emotional reaction to the piece, or from an emotional interaction with the artist.
Some art is meant to incite an emotional response, and distancing oneself from an emotional comment is difficult. Let's say someone posted a black and white painting they completed, of a sobbing woman. The strokes are heavy, the outline is abstract, the features are distorted. And you think "This is depressing!" Commenting as such is, however, not productive. Not for you, as you experience the work, and not for the artist. It is fine to express your emotional reaction, but only in the context of the elements of the work. Instead of "This is depressing!", a critical comment might say "The heavy strokes evoke a burdensome feeling of oppression. The distorted facial features symbolize, to me, a lack of acceptance, thus inspiring a sense of despair and sadness. The hunched and sobbing form totally encompass the spirit of depression, but I feel a touch of color, a soft skin tone perhaps, might have involved me more in the work, since the black and white appear so stark and offending and separate me from the subject".
I like to think of it this way: If a critical comment evolves into a discussion, then you've commented well. Taking the time to have a reaction to the art, and to analyze that reaction, is just as important to you as it is to the artist whose work you are viewing. You'll find that taking an objective look at the work of others often helps improve your own artistic endeavors.
RECEIVING CRITICAL COMMENTS
Just as it's important to understand how to comment critically, it's equally important to receive critical comments as intended. I remember once, when commenting on a poem I'd read, I discussed the rhyming form utilized, how the meter was inconsistent and how removing a word from a line would create a stronger flow, and the response I received was immediately defensive: "Well if you don't like rhyme, don't read it!" The author posted it in a contest called "Critical Comments" and specifically noted he or she would prefer honest critique.
I call this "projection", when we think we want a critical comment, but really we want readers or viewers to validate our own opinions. Now if we're creating art only for the sake of creating art, our own opinions are the only ones that matter. But if you are creating art for an audience, or a customer, then we can utilize critical comments to understand our target audience, and to improve on the relationships we build with our audience, via our art. In which case, it's important to separate the comments we receive from our own experience with our art.
Though some comments are intended to upset, to express discord or are attempts to help without an adequate understanding of tact, having the appropriate reaction to the comments, as the comments were intended to be received, is always a helpful tool in furthering ones art. If we can approach our comments in a responsible manner, using words and phrases that specifically distance our reaction to a piece from the artist who created it, if we can comment by utilizing technical terms, by addressing each element of the work, systematically, we can also learn to READ these types of comments as we receive them.
The lesson here is that learning the art of commenting critically, allows you to identify and receive a critical comment. I recommend joining forums or groups which utilize this tactic, offering critical comments on established members, practicing the analysis of the work and your reaction to the work, and then putting your art out there to receive the commentary in return. Keeping in mind, of course, that a negative comment without a critical element is simply the signature of a bully. And that, my friends, is another post entirely.