Thinking About Critique – Destroying Ideas or Creating Solutions?

Fountain by Marcel DuchampWhen performing a critique, we often focus on the negative aspects of being critical. A critical eye will discern not only what is not working but what is. It’s not just what we don’t like, not simply an opinion but an informed opinion, one that asks questions as much as it gives answers. Critique is about having a conversation that contributes to the creative process.

Critique, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary:
a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory

How can we be effective (constructive) critics? Some suggestions:

  • Understand the form. Have a good understanding of the form and structure as well as the basic elements involved in the form of expression. What is the form of a song? What are the elements of fiction, an essay, a film? What makes a good play in a game?
  • Know your history. What is the history of the form itself? Of the artist, actor, musician, writer, etc.? How has the form evolved over time? How have historical events affected the form?
  • Describe the work. If the work is a painting, you will include color, composition, media, technique, emphasis, repetition, etc. If you are describing a literary work, provide a summary of the work, a discussion about the characters and their relationships, setting, and genre. If the work is a film, you will include elements of both.
  • Understand your emotions. Extreme emotional reactions such as I hated that movie! or I love this painting! are normal, and it’s fine to start out that way. However, take the time to discover why you have such strong feelings.
  • Ask questions. Critique is as much about asking questions as it is about responding to something. What works about it? What doesn’t? Why? The photo above is an excellent example about understanding our emotions. Photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, Fountain (1917) is attributed to Marcel Duchamp.
    How do you feel about it as art? “It’s a friggin’ inverted urinal!” is the most common response. However, Duchamp, the ultimate anti-artist, had the intention of making a statement about art—art as a thought process and not simply an aesthetic one. Does Fountain, then, work as a statement about art?
  • Perform an analysis. An analysis will often consider the effectiveness of the work from a specified criteria. For example, George Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning realist novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) explores the experiences of a family of tenant farmers during the Great Depression. In order to compose an analysis, we can look at the novel from a historical, economic, or environmental perspective―or all of the above. We can also explore Steinbeck’s ability to portray the period in a realistic manner as the genre he utilizes is realism.
  • Make a sandwich. The sandwich method is recommended for just about any conversation—work, relationships, etc.: start off with a positive, address the negative, and end on a positive. It makes critique a little easier to swallow and our audience more receptive.
  • Formulate an informed opinion. Ready? It’s not about you. It’s about the work and your ability to present an effective argument about its faults and merits.

It’s easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It’s a lot more difficult to perform one. —Chuck Palahniuk

  • Be respectful. Recognize that whether you like something or not, someone probably put some work into it. A novelist friend of mine once told me: “It really gets under my skin when people say things like ‘I could write a better book than that,’ but they’ve never actually tried to write a novel. It’s painstaking, time-consuming work.” Think you could do it better? Could you write a better novel, direct a better film, sing that song better, play a better game, bake a tastier cake? So do it. Let’s see what you got.
  • Make Appointments with Your Inner Critic. It wouldn’t be fair of me to discuss critique without discussing how vicious we can be in critiquing ourselves. Our responses to any creative work are entirely subjective, regardless of our attempts to be objective. It’s especially difficult for us to be objective about our own work. There is perhaps no one as lacking in subjectivity as one’s inner critic. But that inner critic is useful—at the right moment. My technique: I don’t attempt to silence my inner critic—I make an appointment with her. “I’m writing on Monday and editing on Tuesday. I can really use your help tomorrow. How does ten work for you?” Respecting the strengths and talents of our inner critics can give us more productive results.

There it is again—critique is also about being productive, constructive, and other -ives. An effective critique moves us forward, makes the next book more engaging, the next cake more delicious, the next experience more satisfying. It can be used to destroy and kill ideas or to create and give birth to them. Which of those two actions seems the most logical choice?

Do you have some constructive critique you’d like to share? Leave a comment.

Image source: Wikipedia

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One thought on “Thinking About Critique – Destroying Ideas or Creating Solutions?

  1. I read your blog. I think I identify most with the sentence about someone saying…oh I could do that. I always want to say to them…then do it. I talk myself out of many things, like painting, writing, music, etc for fear of not being as good as someone else. Who knows, I might be pretty good if I’d try it

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