questions, portfolio reviews, and critiques—oh, my!

Do any of y’all have trouble talking to other people about art (your own or other people’s)?

‘Cause, I have a confession to make:  I have trouble talking about my own art with other people.

I know, seems weird, right?  Here I am blabbering on and on at y’all about art this and art that—and I totally run with a bunch of artists—but I still have trouble.

I’m not really shy about my art (actually, I probably have an exhibitionist streak the width of the Mississippi with all the talking and showing I do), but—the problem is—I don’t want to bother people with discussing my art:  to be critiqued, to just chat about my art, to not be worried that they’re saying nice things because they don’t want to hurt my feelings or because they’re my friends.

Funny, right?

What made me want to talk about this issue is that I was looking at Pikaland‘s online classes, and one of them is a portfolio review.  Now, in addition to not having $180 to have someone essentially tell me everything I’m doing wrong (or right, I guess…I can be optimistic), the entire proposal seemed problematic to me:  how is that single person going to be qualified to tell you how to fix your portfolio when the art world (annoying though it is) is a diversified space with diversified aesthetics?  Isn’t that kinda the point of the art world?  That there is room for more than one kind of art or one kind of aesthetic?

Some of this is also coming up because Friend H and I were talking about this artist-critic relations with bunnies piece.

Y'all will really just need to click on it to read it; it's really large.

Friend H, who is a new friend, mentioned that she has never had a single good critique. <–Now, I don’t know what she means by “good,” but I do know that the very act of judgement, whether good or bad, can make artists nutty.

Another friend of mine, Friend L, has had this problem, and I was there for the total beat-down she received.  Not pretty, and largely not justified.  Instead of just asking her to conceptualize her pieces for them (really, one person in particular was the culprit), it was like a verbal assault.  I’m the first to admit that Friend L doesn’t really think about her concepts, but they are there.  If you speak with her, they are completely apparent; she’s just not a very verbal person.

Maybe I’m just left-field-nutty here, but a portfolio review really shouldn’t be about the critic’s aesthetics; portfolio review should be about encouragement and trouble-shooting—helping the artist to verbalize and conceptualize and, then, enact those things together.

Maybe that’s what Pikaland’s portfolio review is doing; I kinda don’t think it sounds that way, but maybe they simply aren’t that effective at articulating their class goals.  *shrugs*

But, in art school (yes, the dreaded art school), critiques were never just one person operations; they were, minimally, four people—and that was usually end-of-the-semester critiques and they were usually professors that you hadn’t ever had.

That was completely nerve-wracking.

We actually had to take an entire Critique Class where all we did was make art and critique each other’s art.  Talk about freaking uncomfortable. <–And, this was with a complete mixed-bag of talent, concept, questionable intelligence, and obnoxious personalities.

So, yeah, the point (Heeeeeeeeeeere, point!  Nice, point!  Come back to me, and I’ll give you a cookie, point!) is that—I don’t know—there should always be local critique groups for artists, and ya know, easily found groups both online and locally.  Groups that are not stuck behind the walls of art schools or relegated to face-less (literally or metaphorically) portfolio reviews from a distance.

‘Cause, ya know, it’s difficult being an artist that moves to a new area where they don’t really know that many people—even if they do know a bunch of artists in the area. <–It’s not like we sit around critiquing each other in our ‘jammies or something, but it’s also hard when you’re not really friends, per se, with the other local artists (though some are friends).  You don’t want to offend anyone, but you want there to be honesty in their opinions, and you want to be honest when you vocalize your own.

Not easy.

And, I’m not even certain that this all is making sense anymore, so enough of my whinging.  For now, I leave y’all with this one question:  To critique, and to be critiqued, honestly and fairly or to live in ignorance?



  1. This post raises an additional discussion about the relationship between critic and artist. It seems like a delicate balance for the artist to be a critic as well, especially when trying to assess work made in a different aesthetic that one may not care for. Then again, if a critic is not an artist at all, but an outsider with varying degrees of knowledge of the creative process, does that lack of understanding make the critic’s judgements suspect?


    1. I don’t think that a lack of understanding makes a critic’s judgements suspect, just different. It’s all that reader-response theory again: the act of creation and the act of viewing doesn’t mean that one person of another has the monopoly on correct interpretations; the audience and the artist negotiate a meaning that is mutually beneficial. *fa de la, rum tiddle tee*

      I do think that it’s more likely for a trained critic or and artist-critic will be more willing to interact with a piece of art at a deeper level, but then again, I know plenty of artists that don’t interact with art further than the surface and plenty of non-artist that get right down to the ideas. I think we’ve built a paradigm that we need to rip back down ’cause it’s not really helping us out here, don’t ya think? It’s always so much more complicated and grey.

      Really, the best critics I’ve know could care tuppence for a specific aesthetic; they always looked past those differences and made you ask the hard questions about your own work and figure out the next steps for yourself. They’d be there if you felt you were stuck and needed a nudge, but otherwise, they were your sounding board—like Ed, he never told us what to do. He asked what we were thinking and executing the idea and tell us what was working for him. The rest was us, but this was also a man that encourage crit-on-the-fly with anyone and everyone in the studio—in the class or not—so that we could get the best base-line reading of a piece. *<3s Ed from afar*


      1. Good points. I think I just have a very jaundiced view of critics from my own readings in music, especially since the most significant genre of music for me (70s prog) was pretty much always on the critical shit list. Then again, those critics seemed to have no knowledge of the cultural context of that music or of what the musicians who created the music were trying to accomplish. Anyway, I agree that the best critic can transcend their biases and get to the heart of what the artist is working towards.


      2. It’s very easy to have a jaundiced view from the art world too. You’ve heard Miss C, Friend L, and I all talk about that one person that exists in every art school that has ever existed that all the professors think is brilliant, but their peer-artist are going “o.O What crack are they on?” about.

        Cultural context is always important; it enrichens the meaning of a piece—not absolutely necessary to the enjoyment or understanding, but it’s another level to consider and think about. The Material and Visual Culture are important too, especially for musicians and artists whose visual, tactile, and auditory worlds are mixed up with each other. *waves*

        I totally feel like I should go dig out my Cultural Studies readings again. Damn you, Aesthetic Theory!


  2. Hi ‘Trie,

    You raised up a few good points there – and I’d love to expand on them.

    I’ve worked with a few artists on their portfolio and they all have varied aesthetics and dabble in different medias – from sculpture artists to those who want to bust through to the children’s market. The point of a good critique is not to say what’s wrong with an artist’s work in mere aesthetics (which is so very subjective), but to see patterns and strengths in their work that might not have been apparent to the artists themselves.

    I zone in on their unique point(s) of view and give them encouragement and ideas on how to take their work to another level. And it’s never just about aesthetics because there’s so many different styles out there – I concentrate on ideas and concepts, giving out ideas and help them brainstorm on the best way for them to articulate and idea that they already have (and how to market themselves). No one is ever going to be qualified enough to tell another about what they think of another’s work, but relationships aren’t built on qualifications. They’re built on trust and a willingness to accept constructive criticism (which I welcome everyday!)

    What I offer is none of that hoity toity-ness that accompanies some of the art critiques I’ve seen – most artists think of me as a friend (and many of them are long-time readers and online friends) who trust that I am objective when it comes to reviewing a person’s work. Like you, perhaps they are uncomfortable with other artists reviewing their work (friends or not) and would prefer someone who has no hidden agenda other than wanting to see them succeed.

    Thank you for letting me know about how the portfolio review came across to you – I’ll look into rewriting it to better articulate what it is I do!

    p/s– And I do talk to the artists on Skype face-to-face, lest they think that the person running Pikaland is a 10-year old kid with a whole lot of imagination. ;)


    1. Good. I was hoping that I was just having a writerly issue with the portfolio review description, but ya know how intended information can be different that received information. Some of the problem may be that, while I am a long-time reader, I don’t associate Pikaland with “friend” or even “friendly.” <–That's not to say that you're not friendly, but that my brain doesn't have you slotted into that position. I did see the Skype face-to-face, and for me, it didn't seem like enough interaction to build a trustworthy artist-critic relationship; I'm also long in warming up to people too.

      Meh. I'm sure that it's just me.

      Honestly, I'm actually very comfortable with critique (in that I have never feared a critique—I'm one of those sick people that enjoyed end-of-the-semester critiques because I was hearing from professors that didn't generally see my work or know me well), though I could see how it might come off as I'm not comfortable; what I’m uncomfortable with is bothering other people to critique and the quality of honesty within a critique. In small, close-knit—dare I say, incestuous?—artist communities, there is an incredible amount of politics to tread-lightly through; I know that there’s tons of politics in large groups too, but it always seemed easier to not step on people’s egos toes when I was in Chicago.

      I’ve always had very good experiences in critique. Maybe not always “comfortable” in a “they love everything” sorta way (trust me, there’s been plenty en flat-out hated), but good experiences nevertheless.

      We just critiqued each other! We were meta together! \o/

      Thank you for taking the time to expand and elaborate for everyone; it was very kind of you.


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