Critique in art school is one of those strange institutional rituals that can either be a completely traumatic event, or a positive experience that builds confidence and momentum. I’m unsure on the historical roots of the art school crit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it originated in the Colosseum where “artists” had to “defend” themselves from “lions.”
Gladiatorial bloodsports aside, critique often does feel like a trial. You present your work and intentions, and your friends, peers, and teachers examine whether the evidence you put up on the wall supports or disproves you. It can be a grueling, emotionally charged, and frustrating process. But after teaching a few years, and having been in school not too long before then, I think there are a few things you can keep in mind to maximize your use of crit, especially within an illustration program. In this post, I’ll just focus on the student side of things:
Personally, I think you first have to believe in a few original arguments on quality:
1) Some work is better than others:
Forget all of your post-structuralist theory. Some work is qualitatively better than others, especially in an “applied” art like illustration. Often times you’ll have projects with strict parameters that are essentially asking you to solve a problem visually. In illustration, it is possible to not solve that problem. It is also possible to solve it really, really well.
This is one thing that I hated in school. I majored in printmaking, not illustration, and oftentimes crit would take these long, meandering, semiological strolls through, well, nowhere really. Half of the class would be asleep, half of those remaining would be drawing dicks on the desks, and then the rest would be holding their tongues, wanting to flip a desk and yell at how shittily that dude’s face was drawn.
2) There is no such thing as talent:
I think there’s something wonderfully democratic about this neurological idea of “we are what we repeatedly do.” There’s a lot of ways to say it, the 10,000 hour rule being the most common shorthand, but the gist of it is this: no one is inherently better at this than anyone else. Hard work, good practice, and immersion creates quality over time.
In crit, this means that no one is just magically better than anyone else. Everyone’s experience and accumulated skill are earned and valuable. Additionally, it lets the critique have distinctive touchstones for dialog that are actually useful: “Your composition works well BECAUSE you spent a lot of time at the thumbnailing stage.” “This composition doesn’t work as well THEREFORE you need to spend more time at the planning phase.” Work pays off, period, and it’s important for everyone participating to know this. Be honest in both your praise of hard work, and your derision for the lack of it.
Tips for students:
Beyond the obvious stuff like, turning off your phones, or bringing work, there’s a few things that I think students can discuss within their class, and consciously prepare for before crit.
A) Show up:
This sounds stupid, but that Woody Allen quote of “80% of life is showing up” is true. You guys are paying way too much fucking money to sleep through critique, or otherwise not contribute to the conversation. Doodling in your sketchbooks is one thing, I’ve been guilty of that, but it’s not that I’m not listening. Maintaining a good learning environment within the classroom is so important to how well it runs. For example, I taught two blocks of the same class last semester; in one class, everyone was on board and excited about creating work, and they literally covered twice as much ground than the other class where everyone was just phoning it in. So if you don’t participate, you’re not only wasting your time, but everyone else’s as well. And considering how much money it takes to attend most private art colleges, I’d be pissed at my classmates for not showing up.
B) Be nice, but honest:
Just because we’re sitting around pretending to be dicks, doesn’t mean we have to act like it. I’ve never experienced a situation where a student vehemently attacking another student led to any actual insight that was worth it for either of them (now, as an instructor, this is a different thing altogether.) Again, cultivating a good environment is so important to how well critique runs. More often than not, you’ll be with the same group of peers for your entire academic career, so you’ll be increasingly comfortable with them and their work. This doesn’t mean that you should sugar-coat things however; you need to have a thick enough skin to talk organically and candidly about each other’s work. You want to approach it in the same way that interpersonal relationships occur in the “real world” ie. it pays to be nice, but be prepared for some real talk.
C) Say what you mean:
I think a lot of the times, students are just at a loss for things to say, or that they feel like they have to have some kind of meaningful insight. Sometimes this can lead to people not speaking up, or the conversation veering towards the banal.
I think when in doubt, just keep it simple and break down the image based on your knowledge of image making. If we believe that there isn’t such a thing as talent, than that means that a well-crafted image has a lot of work behind it. And 99% of the time this means that they are solidly executing the fundamentals well. So, break it down into nice digestible chunks: What is the image trying to convey conceptually, narratively, emotionally? How do the essentials of the image either support or distract from that intent: value, color, shape design, research + details?
There shouldn’t ever be a loss of what to say, because every image can be dissected this way. Additionally, if you believe that some work is better than others, than the entire class benefits by breaking down the more successful projects and understanding how they work, or conversely, analyzing why a weaker one fell a bit short.
D) Be able to edit:
Editing is an integral part to your everyday life. Your brain has to constantly sift through information and distill what’s signal and what’s noise. If we didn’t do that, then you would be constantly bombarded with inconsequential information: imagine a world where the stranger’s face you saw on the street had as much importance as your lover’s. You need to be able to do the same with critique.
No one is right all the time. Not even me! (I know right?) Therefore sometimes you’ll get responses in critique which don’t really apply to you, or might even be outright wrong. That’s fine— at the end of the day, you should be honest enough with yourself to acknowledge where you had problems, and whether or not certain comments have merit. What I will say however, is that having a large audience fixate on your work and break it down is invaluable. You see your work so differently even by just getting up and taking a break from it— now multiply that by 20. I tell my students that if a large consensus of people thought that something was a problem, then that is, at the very least, symptomatic of an issue and needs to be considered.
E) Don’t forget why you’re there:
It’s easy to forget the larger picture of why you are all there in the first place, especially in such a strange environment such as a group crit. You need to remember that even if someone runs out of the room screaming, the world will continue to spin despite all of our drawings. Take a deep breath, and just think about how awesome it is that you get to draw all day, are surrounded by people who also draw all day, and that you then all get to sit down and talk about how to get better at drawing.
Remember that at one time in your life, this is what you really loved to do. And hopefully that can continue for years to come.
Pic of my seniors thinking about lunch, courtesy Lexie Shaunak.