What Art School Taught Me About Critiquing

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

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When I first started art college, I thought I was the most talented, misunderstood artistic genius, like, ever.

I think every young artist feels that way, because we’re usually in the minority, overlooked in the masses, completely absorbed with our gift.

Well let me tell you, when I entered art college, I became part of the masses. I was the majority now.

And whether we’re shy or quiet or introverted, we still have that ego pulsing inside our heads telling us we’re special and unique. But I’ll never forget that first time we had a group critique in class. Like my peers, I was anxious to show others my talents. I even had silly fantasies that everyone would be amazed by my work, congratulate me, admire me, and I’d accept all their compliments with modesty and grace and secret delight.

Ha!

My first critique was not filled with praise. I got an A for effort, but was told maybe I should change this or do this part differently to achieve this particular effect. It felt like a paper cut! Unexpected, mildly painful. And because I wasn’t expecting it, I didn’t flinch. But I did take it personally. I looked at that “paper cut” and wondered at the stinging around the fresh wound.

As new writers, we don’t always expect editors or beta readers to find fault or weaknesses in our work.

However, if we’re looking for community and feedback, the good and bad of critiques won’t go away. And while I was an art student, I worked my butt off in the studio for days, sometimes weeks, only to face the anxiety of others’ feedback. But those paper cuts heal, and we don’t get cut as much in the critiques to come because we’re prepared and we now know that we aren’t perfect. We realize that everything we do will get critiqued by somebody.

And that’s a good thing!

One day, I was sitting in class preparing for another group critique. I had busted my butt once again on a giant sculpture. It was a white installation, a sculpture I built to create the illusion that something was trying to come out of the wall, and the farther it appeared to climb out, the more it changed color (yay, paint).

And nobody in class said anything.

With much coaxing from the teacher, eventually one or two students offered feeble comments. I was devastated! I had created this piece of art, and no one wanted to talk about it.

I realized I wanted that critique more than anything, even if it was someone telling me why part of it wasn’t working. Critiquing means our audience is engaged and interested in what we’re doing and how we’re connecting through art, writing, or any other medium to express our humanity.

As writers we should be thirsting for feedback on our work. We should listen to what others are saying, even if we don’t agree with them. We can’t fantasize that everyone will praise and admire our work (as delightful a thought it is) if we want a truthful experience. We have to be realistic about our talents and areas that need improvement. We’re all here to get better at what we do.

But I learned something else from these art critiques because I’ve been on the receiving end countless times: we must show empathy and support when we offer constructive feedback.

When writers hire me to do a manuscript critique, I approach it under this mindset. I give balanced feedback so the writer knows that while I have some suggestions, the things she accomplished well didn’t go unnoticed.

Do you welcome critiques to your work? Ever had an interesting or conflicting experience in a group discussion?