Nils Dougan dot com
::on the critique of art::

On the Critique of Art

One of the first things to recognize when attempting to critique a piece of art is that we are actually critiquing two things: the work itself as well as the artist that created it. This is critical to realize because there are two very different things to gain from the separate experiences. If the goal is simply to test ourselves, to see if we can identify the shortcomings and strengths of a particular work, then there is no harm, and in fact it is absolutely necessary, that we are ruthlessly critical in attempting to pick apart any form of weakness so that we can see where the artist had shortcomings in an attempt that we avoid them. Likewise, every success we find inspires us, teaches us how to approach a problem in the future. So in a very real way, when we are critiquing someone else's work what we are really doing is attempting to teach ourselves the rights and wrongs of a particular medium or art in general, to reinforce the notions of what constitutes good and what constitutes bad. It is, however, worth remembering that what we identify as the things to keep and the things to discard is wholly dependent on a combination of cultural upbringing and personal preference; what a 13th century monk saw as valuable in his manuscript illuminations is something quite different than Clement Greenberg's vision of Formalism, that the goal of an icaro is hardly the same as the goal of an opera, and so on. This means that unless you subscribe to an absolute notion of perfection in aesthetic, the critique of art is largely subjective and rarely objective.

Keeping this in mind, in the context of a discussion with the artist themselves, it becomes difficult to say things that don't implicitly mean "these are the things that appeal to my sense of aesthetic and these are the things that don't." This isn't necessarily a bad thing to be avoided at all costs. After all, so much of what we do is to seek validation from our peers. To hear what they see as working or not working, assuming we consider their perspective parallel to our own, acts to either reinforce our notions or to help catch our blind spots. The key, however, is to realize that often our perspectives are not in fact parallel, that the artist's intention or direction may be dramatically different than our own. When this occurs, it is frequently more helpful to engage in a conversation with the artist about what their attempted vision was. What were they trying to communicate? What ideas were they exploring? What mood were they attempting to create? Where are they trying to go with their work? This allows us to check our own biases, to ensure that we aren't just focusing on the aspects that teach to your own sense of style and content. Then a conversation can begin about how to align their current aesthetic with their vision. But perhaps most importantly of all, it gets the artist to really examine themselves, to recognize that the particular piece of work that started the conversation is actually just a step in the larger process of growth as an artist.