Q: I’m starting art school in September, and I’m a little bit nervous about it. I’m most worried about showing people my work for the first time. What if they don’t like it? Could you offer some advice on how to deal with professional critique?
I don’t know what your education has been like so far but when I was in school, the criticism I got from my art teacher was very light, practical stuff. “The shading isn’t right there” or “That hand looks wrong, you need to learn about foreshortening and I’m going to teach you”. It was the most surface-level, objective approach to criticism, and it was incredibly helpful. It never felt emotional. Like yeah, sometimes I’d kick myself for thinking that hand looked fine before seeing it through her eyes. But the aftermath of the criticism was fine. I’d been given a problem to solve and I had to get on with it. I had fun fixing things.
When it comes to university, criticism is totally different in its focus, its delivery, and its effect. It can be so much harder to parse, and it can be emotional, so I understand the nerves. But I will say up top that criticism could well be the most fundamental, transformative, and valuable part of your art school experience. Art made in isolation usually plateaus and the artist runs out of steam. Art made in the pressure cooker of an art degree is constantly improving because of conversations had with tutors and peers that are dedicated to artistic development.
“Don’t take it personally. It’s about the art, not about you. Don’t ever define your self worth by the success of your artwork”
You say that you might be shy to show people your art, but in that setting, you have an audience invested in giving you feedback. When the course is over, access to both an audience and their reception is no longer guaranteed. I encourage you to embrace it because you might even miss it when it’s gone.
Maybe knowing what to expect and how to make the most of it will help you face the criticism head on. Typically there will be slow, one-to-one, cerebral chats with a tutor. And then there will be crits. Crits are like show and tell for art school. It could be with a handful of people, just your tutor group. But some universities do bigger groups, even cross-year crits.
People take turns presenting their work. Sometimes they might want to say something before people get going with their feedback, or they might prefer to say nothing at all and hear some straight reactions. I always preferred keeping quiet. That way I could test whether people understood what the work was about before I gave them any answers, and if they didn’t have a clue, I’d tweak the work until it was clear. I realised through crits that clarity was important to me.
“Criticism could well be the most fundamental, transformative, and valuable part of your art school experience”
It’s a good testing ground, as long as people participate, including you. I remember crits as lively, full days, with lots of questions and too much standing up, but I speak to others who remember quiet afternoons amongst students who had to be prompted by tutors to “Say anything, something, please, I’m begging you”. I hope you are with chatty people, it’s much more fun. And I say that even with the possibility that you might show everybody your latest sculpture and they absolutely hate it. That’s where shit gets interesting, though!
Listen to their comments and, more importantly, their reasoning. Opinions aren’t facts. You don’t have to suddenly agree and hate your work with them. Their feedback is still important though, because your opinions don’t define the work either. Crits teach artists that even though they’re in charge of the art they make, they’re not in charge of how their art is received or understood by others.
“If someone says the sculpture would be better blue and you strongly disagree, then the disagreement has been productive”
What you need to keep in mind is that a crit is a stress test. Listen to what is said and decide what matters. For example, if someone says the sculpture would be better blue and you strongly disagree, then the disagreement has been productive: it’s taught you something about how you think the work should be. I really believe in that, and that’s why I don’t think critique is as scary and negative as everyone makes it out to be.
That’s not to say you should reject everyone’s critical suggestions. Maybe try it blue, just to see. Try it bigger. Try it in new materials. Sometimes the quickest, most offhand comments can lead to the greatest developments, and you can go to the next crit and show people how they helped you get there.
“Listen to their comments and, more importantly, their reasoning. Opinions aren’t facts”
Some tips. If you don’t understand something, ask. Make notes. It can be helpful to record the crit as long as everyone else is okay with that. Don’t end the crit and immediately have a panic session in the studio. Let things settle. Give yourself time to understand the feedback you have received.
And don’t take it personally. It’s about the art, not about you. Don’t ever define your self worth by the success of your artwork, never ever but especially not when you are a student and you’re just figuring it out. Open your work to criticism, not yourself, and see what happens.
Culture Therapy: Let Art Solve Your Problems
Way back in 2019, we popped into a workshop led by Thomas Hirschhorn at the Kochi Biennale. This was part of a series of workshops run by Hirschhorn called Energy: Yes! Quality: No! in which participants were invited to bring along something they had made, and which they were willing to offer up as subject for discussion and judgement.
Quality, as they explained at the beginning of the workshop, is inherent to art displayed in museums because it has been given importance by people with authority and power: curators, critics, art historians, maybe the market and the canon too. Energy is more unstable and open. It’s a gut reaction that is entirely subjective. Something might have energy for me and might not have energy for you, and that’s fine.
“I’ve taken this vocabulary of ‘energy’ and ‘quality’ into literally every single interaction I’ve had with an artwork ever since”
We were both captivated by the framing and phrasing of the workshop. I’ve taken this vocabulary of “energy” and “quality” into literally every single interaction I’ve had with an artwork ever since. I can’t shake it. It has been a helpful mindset and a nice way to navigate the instinctive bodily reaction you can have to art. Maybe thinking about feedback in these terms will help you process it more easily. It could be interesting to see if it’s a gentler way of experiencing a crit and receiving feedback.
Illustration by Lucia Pham, an illustrator based in Hanoi