On Taking Critique

Art is subjective. But there is a such thing as GOOD art.

I have no doubt, that after that sentence, my inbox will be full of hate mail from artists and photographers from all walks of life. The statement stands.

There is a such thing as GOOD art.

This is a loathed statement to artists because this implies that there is also such a thing as bad art. This implies that it’s possible that their art is bad art. On the surface, this is a deeply hurtful statement, because art is so personal to the artist. Most of us pour our heart and soul out into the work, baring feelings and thoughts and emotions that are very hard to share with the world. Most artists will automatically jump from reading “your art is bad” as “your innermost feelings are bad.” Now, this is not the case.

A personal image. 2013

As artists, we really have to learn to separate our art from the feelings, thoughts, and experiences that it represents. Our feelings, thoughts, and experiences are valid. They are not innately bad, despite the reactions people have to the representation of it. It’s good that we find a way to share these experiences with the world, but the world’s reaction to how we share that doesn’t invalidate its inherent quality at all. We really have to learn to separate those things.

Creating art for the sake of creating is great. However, if you want to create Good Art, you will have to open yourself up to critique. Critique worthy of your time will speak on your technique, how well you convey a message, the intent and outcome. It will speak on how the work will be received, and if you are actually conveying your concept. If you shut out the critique of your art, then it won’t grow.

I’m reflecting a lot on this lately as I’m nearing my midpoint thesis review. I will be presenting the thesis to a panel, who will have seen the physical prints of the images, read the thesis proposal I’ve sent, and they will respond. I will answer their questions for about 40 minutes after my presentation, and then they will convene in private and let me know if I have passed or not. Being so close to this phase of my MFA, I am up to my eyeballs in critique, and so are my classmates. What pains me, is that there are a few classmates that will fail the entire program if they do not learn to take critique, very, very soon.

Now, I’d like to take this time to explain that in order to obtain an MFA, you must be able to essentially prove that you can create and talk about work on par with the experts. You have to become an expert. I feel that the bar here is a little high. However, I want to point out that I don’t think that you need academia or formal education to be an expert, or even to not be an expert but to simply create Good Art.

As a bit of a definition, Good Art is intentional. It can be deep and meaningful, but it can also be neither of those things, as long as it is intentional. Intentional art takes skill. Skill is learned, always. You are not born able to, immediately after leaving the womb, pick an appropriate aperture for the depth of field you need in order to isolate your subject and create the effect you want, match the shutter for good exposure, focus the lens and take the shot. I don’t think that skill requires a formal education. You can learn skill in a myriad of ways, be it a formal education, apprenticeship, internships, youtube, or simply doing. I believe in the the old adage of “it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything,” and how you accomplish that is up to the individual and their resources.

So back to critique, this is where your peers and mentors and the industry experts can help you. If Good Art is intentional, it is highly likely that other experts or artists can tell when you’re not being intentional. That’s not to say that they can’t be wrong, they can, but a good offer of critique will allow you to explain if anything they feel is off may have been intentional, after all. There are a lot of things done to photography that are meant to cover up a lack of skill or intention. A trained eye will spot these instantly. A piece that has elements that were not intentional, and do not add to the work (but rather detract from it), I hate to say it, but it’s probably not going to be Good.

If all you’d like is to create art as a form of self-expression, but never share it with the world or sell it, then critique is likely not necessary. If the opposite is true, then perhaps examine your colleague’s comments on your work. Absorb what is working for them and what isn’t, and listen to them if they tell you that they “just don’t get” your intention. Whether you’re conveying a message or story, or are just wanting the viewer to appreciate the form of it, the artwork’s success will depend on how intentional you are in its creation.

Listen, accept what you can do, throw out the useless advice, and know that you can always put your own spin on their suggestions. You are not confined to someone else’s ideas just because they critique your work, but it will certainly help you know what’s working and what’s not. And as always, keep creating.