Talking about Critiques

We slid into home plate last week at California College of the Arts: the last week of the semester. My Bookworks class began its final critique Tuesday and continued on Thursday. I asked my class if they ever thought about why they had critiques. Silence. It's hard to talk about art because we don't really want to be talking about it, we want to be doing it. Well, I hadn't thought about it in a long time myself. Here is a version of my answer.

Critiques are kind of like the stereotype about vegetables: you don't always like them but they are good for you. Why? Three reasons (because we like things in threes). 

Language and analysis. As we talk about other people's work we develop a language, a vocabulary that we can share. Books have specific elements that other works may not have: sequence, pacing, rhythm, for example. Once we agree on that language, we can begin to analyze the works. We learn how to look for them. How are we seeing these elements in the works?

Learning and comparing. When you look at and talk about someone else's work you may find things, learn things you didn't know, or hadn't thought about. "I wouldn't have thought to…" is a phrase that comes up fairly often. That's exciting! Talking about someone else's work gives you the opportunity to look from a distance, to think objectively. After you do this, you can compare it to your own work. Did I do that? Why or why not? Would I do that? Would I like to try that in the future? So talking about someone else's work can teach you about your own.

Clarity. By engaging with the works and talking about them, you let the instructor know if s/he has been clear, has made the important points obvious. It's not that I want to hear my words echo back to me, I want to see how the student is thinking about the works.

Critiques in my class begin with one student willing to introduce another student's work, beginning a discussion to which everyone is encouraged to add. The maker hears how the other students have experienced the work, what it does, how the materials work together. Then the maker talks about his/her process, any problems that arose and how they were solved, how s/he got to what we are looking at now. Lastly, the maker asks the group any questions, such as: how did you experience this part; was it confusing when you had to untie the string; did you get that those two things went together, etc. Generally, by this time, the maker has found that the class has already answered the questions.

Our final critique includes a written component that helps when students haven't been talking much in class. I give them a grid with the elements about books we've been discussing and they look for them in each student's work. They turn in the sheets, I read them, cut them into strips, and hand each student a packet of critiques just about their work. They give. They get. And I learn, too.

Letters to Grandma, final Bookworks project by Tu Vo
CCA, Spring 2015

Another blog post about writing workshops and art critiques from 2011 is here.