A Generous Approach to Critiques

Overview

Values

The critique method that will be covered in this article can be used to discuss the work of artists across many mediums including writing, filmmaking, fine art, installation, design, and more. It is appropriate for academic settings, as well as professional and casual groups.

This approach to critiquing is designed to make artists feel inspired and encouraged to return to their work and improve as a creator. It rejects the notion that feelings of inadequacy and pressure are effective motivators.

As a critique moderator, a cohesive, intentional structure and set of expectations is your most powerful tool. Following the structure laid out in this article will set you up for a successful critique that avoids arguments, and interactions that make people feel defensive. The role of the moderator in this approach is largely geared towards making sure feedback given is clear, and actionable to the artist – which helps prevent the artist from becoming overwhelmed or confused.

Required Roles

  1. Moderator
  2. Notetaker

If you are comfortable with moderating critiques you may act as both the moderator and the notetaker.

The Moderator

The Moderator’s job is to enforce the group rules and expectations, uphold the structure of the three phases, and keep track of the time if there is a constraint. Detailed descriptions of the moderator’s responsibilities during each phase can be found later in this document.

An ideal moderator is a natural leader, and a comfortable public speaker. Kindness, and a nurturing demeanor also will help the moderator enforce the rules without antagonizing members of the group. It is not only a moderator’s duty to uphold the critique structure, but they also must be keenly aware of emotions and dynamics throughout a critique session. Discussing creative work can feel sensitive and personal. It is up to the moderator to do their best to ensure that the conversation remains positive, and productive.

The Notetaker

The notetaker’s job is to take thorough and comprehensive notes throughout the process. If they are taking notes by hand it is important that their writing is legible. If the moderator is acting as the notetaker, they must be a skilled multitasker, as neither role should be compromised in order to prioritize the other.

Structure

This critique process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3+ hours. Below is a timed breakdown of the three phases of the critique based on a 30 minute time box. Detailed descriptions of the individual phases can be found in the following section.

  • Phase 1: Artist is a Fly on the Wall (15 minutes)
  • Phase 2: Artist Answers Questions (10 minutes)
  • Phase 3: Artist Holds the Floor (5 minutes)

If you are working with a larger timeslot, scale up the time dedicated to each section accordingly. 

Note: Phase 3: Artist Holds the Floor should never need more than 15 minutes allocated to it. If you are working with a large time window, allocate extra minutes to Phase 1 and Phase.

If there is no time constraint, and group members have agreed to be flexible with their time it is up to you as the moderator to use your instincts to decide when to move on from one phase into another.

Phase 1: Artist is a Fly on the Wall

During the fly on the wall phase, critique participants are asked to share their reactions and interpretations of the artist’s work(s). The artist is asked not to speak during this phase of the critique. Critique moderator’s have different sets of expectations about what phrasing and/terminology participants should avoid, and what kinds of comments are encouraged. Use this downloadable table to list out your expectations as a moderator. There is one example in each column, you may keep or remove the examples when writing out your moderator expectations. Make sure the table is filled out, and you are familiar with the contents before you lead your first critique session. 

My personal list of rules and expectations is outlined in detail in a separate post. You can also download a PDF of the overall structure summarized with my expectations here.   

During the Artist is a Fly on the Wall phase, the moderator duties are to:

  1. Make your expectations clear to the group prior to/at the start of the critique.
  2. Make sure your expectations are maintained throughout the phrase, by asking for elaboration or rephrasing when appropriate.
  3. Make sure the artist does not respond to comments made during this phase.

Phase 2: Artist Answers Questions

During the Artist Answers Question phase, critique participants pose questions for the artist to respond to. The questions do not need to be guided by a specific set of rules and expectations. However, questions should be based on interpretations and observations. The questions phase is not about asking an artist how or why they made a specific piece of art. If the artist chooses to discuss their process or inspiration, they may do so during phase 3.

During the Artist Answers Questions phase, the moderator duties are to:

  1. Make sure questions are respectful, and not accusatory.
  2. Confirm that questions and response make sense to all.
  3. Support the artist if they choose to decline answering a question.

Phase 3: Artist Holds the Floor

This is the Artist’s opportunity to speak about their work in whatever way they see suitable. They may respond to points that came up during phase 1 if they choose, they can bring up topics that have yet to be addressed, if they would like to discuss their inspiration or work process that is also acceptable during this phase.

During the Artist Holds the Floor Phase, the moderator duties are to:

  1. Make sure the artist is not interrupted.
  2. Prompt the artist with a suggested topic if they ask for a place to start.
  3. Wrap the critique promptly after the artist has spoken if there is a strict time limit, or if you are concerned about negative, unproductive follow-up conversation in the group.

Final Thoughts

This critique process is designed to make artists feel inspired and encouraged to work again. It also challenges all participants to be careful and intentional with their commentary.

This process is not about arbitrary compliments, or participation trophies. There is true value to any creative production, regardless of time spent on it, the artist’s level of experience, or the perceived quality of the work. Critiques should never be about deciding whether or not someone has what it takes to make it in their chosen field. “If you can’t handle, get out of the kitchen” is an attitude that should never be used to justify cruelty, or disrespect. 

If a creative work is shared with you, and you cannot think of anything generous to say about it, then it is up to you to dig deeper. The artist’s job is already done by the time the critique begins. They have produced a creative work, and they have opened themselves up for scrutiny. They have offered vulnerability. Treat that vulnerability with care and respect.

The Featured image contains Jim Henson’s character’s Statler and Waldorf. I am aware of the irony here, as these fellas are the antithesis of this critique methodology