Critique or Collaborate? by Eileen D.

Pouring In Ideas

Pouring In Ideas

The previous post in the Cafe, by Clairan about working in series, actually touched on another subject that I think needs some discussion.  In her first paragraph, Clairan describes how another student in a workshop approached her about how to proceed on a piece she was working on.  That student hadn’t thought it through herself, but instead apparently wanted someone else to tell her what to do.

This seems to be happening more and more frequently in critique groups:  bringing in unfinished work, and asking how to finish it.  Does this make the piece into a collaboration, instead of a work by a single artist?  Does the artist truly “own” that piece?

As Clairan points out, working in series IS work.  Hard work.  Thoughtful work.  Maybe even painfully thoughtful work.  But such creative work is highly worthwhile.   It forces the artist to think through  problems, to experiment and discover, to examine what it is she wants to say and how to say it.  If she asks someone else how to complete it, who then is speaking through the artwork? What discovery is made? Is a work designed by committee less powerful, less meaningful than a work designed with one voice?

“We learn by our mistakes” is something drilled into most of us since childhood.  Perhaps we were skeptical of that platitude in elementary school and retained that skepticism.  Perhaps we’re just too busy and don’t want to waste our time by screwing up (and quilt art is often a big commitment of time and materials).  We want results now, not later after we’ve mulled it over some more.  And the quickest way to get it done is ask a bunch of people what to do.  Perhaps doing what a bunch of people say to do makes it automatically “right”.

Now, I am not against critique groups.  I am a member of two in-person kind of groups, and a co-moderator of two online groups.  I am in favor of critiquing finished work.  The artist can then hear the reaction to what she herself did, and learn from that.  (She doesn’t have to agree with it, necessarily, but she should listen to what others have to say!)

What is your opinion on getting unfinished work critiqued, versus finished work?  If you’ve had both done, which seemed more successful and why?  Does it matter whether the artist is a novice, or well-established, or somewhere in-between?

10 Responses to “Critique or Collaborate? by Eileen D.”

  1. 1 eileen d August 14, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful replies. Interesting that several people have just one trusted artist/friend with whom they can deeply discuss their work.

    Perhaps the key is being careful in “guidance” – the artist in guiding the group in what exactly she needs from them, and the group in guiding the artist back to her goals in making the piece in the first place. It should be a conversation between all involved.

  2. 2 kate August 11, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    I agree that asking “how do I finish this?” is not really asking for a true critique of work. However, I do think there is a benefit to showing unfinished work to others to get their feedback.
    The difference is the artist’s intent when asking for the viewer’s thoughts. It can be very helpful, when you are attempting to illustrate an idea or concept, to ascertain if that message is coming across.
    I like to start the conversation with “What do you feel when you look at this?” I don’t give them my idea until they are finished talking (if I tell them at all).
    I’ll give you an example from my experience:
    I was working on a piece, trying to express my feelings about a close friend who was dying. When I had it about 3/4 finished, I showed the work in progress to a couple people. Two different viewers said they felt inspired, hopeful and energized by the piece.
    I don’t ask people what I should do with a design or how to finish it in order to make them feel what I want them to feel… in fact I get annoyed when someone gives me their free advice on that topic. (“You should add more black – that would be dramatic!”)
    Rather, I’ll ask them what contributed to their reaction. For example, “Can you describe what about the design made you feel inspired?” This can be very helpful because it causes me to focus on an area I might have glossed over before, such as the level of contrast; “The figure here is a light color against a really dark background. It looks like she’s glowing. That made me feel hopeful.”
    At that point, I had to wonder what to do next. Clearly, this piece was not representing my feelings. But it did resonate with some people for whatever thier reasons. So I took it as a success on one level, but a design that did not accomplish my original goal. “Back to the Drawing Board” as they say. I kept working out my feelings with other pieces, and the “hopeful” one ended up on display in a hospital lobby. You never know what people will read into your work.

  3. 3 Brandy August 10, 2008 at 6:21 am

    I am not on the level of any of you in what I do.

    However, I would like to point out that many a famous artist has had assistants that work on the artist’s work. Mixing paint or working on parts. Does this mean the work is collaborative no. Often times designers have other designers who actually work on the collection the designer simply gives directions. The creative process is often collaborative.

  4. 4 kiteastman August 9, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    Hello everyone,

    I’ve found the posts and comments on this blog thought-provoking.

    On the topic of critique, here are a few of my thoughts. I think that an artist can bring both finished and unfinished work to a critique, but should have a fairly clear idea of what kind of feedback she or he wants at the outset.

    I have experienced a very helpful form of critique through my participation in the Mentor Program of WARM (Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota). We were all trained in choreographer Liz Lerman’s Critical Response technique, which is designed to give the artist the power to direct the critique process. This process can be applied to visual art as well as any other art.

    The format is a 4-step process. This works equally well with emerging and experienced artists. One should appoint a time keeper and a note-taker, so the artist can focus her full attention on the experience.

    1) Silent viewing of work followed by affirmation (these are not to be stated as likes and dislikes, but rather as specific responses, i.e. “the work evokes a sense of ____ in its use of ____.”

    2) The artist asks SPECIFIC questions to the participants. These are usually prepared ahead of time, requiring the artist to think deeply about what type of input/feedback she/he wants. These can range from content, aesthetics, technical questions or a combination.

    3) the Responders ask questions — the rule is to formulate these into a neutral question. i.e. “What is was thought process in choosing your color palette?” rather than, “Why did you choose such a dark color palette?”

    4) Opinions. The responders then have the opportunity to offer opinions. We use the form, “I have a opinion about your use of the repeated bird motif in this series, would you like to hear it?” The artist then can say yes or no.

    I have found this format of critique enormously nourishing and energizing. There is a book available that goes into quite a bit of detail on the process, but I don’t know where you can get it. Liz did a piece of writing on the web that explains this fairly thoroughly — just Google her. I wasn’t sure of your policy re: adding a link in a response.


  5. 5 June August 8, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Hi all,

    Oddly enough, I seldom take finished work to any of my critique groups, although with a couple I sometimes will show a series of 4–8 pieces in order to give context; in that case, some of the pieces within the series will be totally finished.

    For me, the purpose of the critique — perhaps the sole purpose — is to hear what others see and comprehend when looking at my visual artifacts. I want to know what is in the art — and what is not there. So my full attention is given to listening to the comments, without saying anything, comments which I’m hoping will be mostly description. With one exception, all the critique groups I belong to forbid the artist to say anything until after the group has completed its work of description, analysis, and (generally gentle) judgment.

    Once I have heard what others see in the work, no matter what stage it’s in, then I know if what I intended is actually visibly available and/or what other intentions I might want to explore. I have asked people for suggestions, but I’m pretty particular about what suggestions I act on. I only accept those that further my aims. Even if I am in early stages with a piece, I can articulate some general notion of what I want to achieve, what my intent is, so that makes me choosy about what suggestions I actually take up.

    Asking for suggestions gets me into trouble sometimes, when I can’t resist saying something like “why would I want to do that?” or “Oh no, I’d never put pink in that spot.” Luckily, my fellows have come to accept my contrary nature. But I don’t think that having someone say, for example, “a line right down the center would really add to the rhythm” — makes her a true collaborator in the piece — only, perhaps, a collaborator in our collective pursuit of ideas. And I likewise, freely give suggestions to the others in my groups, and they, likewise, accept or reject, depending on their own visions.

    Along with the initial silence of the artist, so she can’t control the direction of the discussion, I think there may be two important attributes that allow this kind of proceding to work. The first is that in my groups we seldom work with anything that isn’t far enough along that the artist hasn’t already got a pretty good idea of her intention. If she doesn’t, that usually turns the discussion to questions about meaning rather than a discussion how to finish a work. The second attribute is that I don’t belong to groups in which there is a wide variety of skill levels and experience. That kind of diversity can really throw a group into chaos and/or dismay.

    When one is leading a diverse group, then the role that you play is not of a critiquer, but of a facilitator. I think that’s a very different role. In a evenly matched critique group, the participants should be about equal in various attributes of skill and experience and maturity; no facilitator is needed. But in a mixed group, the facilitator really has the job of even-ing out the discrepancies among the participants and stopping the would-be artist who desperately wants someone to tell her how to make a brilliant bit of art. As has been suggested, the best way to do that is to ask questions that bring her to her own recognition of a good way to proceed.

    The job of facilitator, I’ve found, is really a job of instructing and guiding. It’s pretty wonderful that another artist would take on this thankless role for the rest of us; I think we should be grateful to those who help others out in this way. For myself, I want my fellow critiquers to look closely and tell me what they see and feel when they look. It’s up to me to take their descriptions and decide what to do with them.

  6. 6 alison schwabe August 8, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I find myself agreeing with all of you ‘in the main’… to me there is a difference between a good critique (Sandy) and a technical tutorial session as in the case of someone who asks a fellow quilter or a teacher how should something be finished. Carrying out the information/guidance received in reply does make this a collaboration, imho, and such “undeclared collaborations” have no place in solo exhibitions, or other venues purporting to show original work. And so, I never produce an unfinished work for critique.

    Not that there is anything wrong with a collaboration – Eileen asked was such a work inherently more or less powerful than one designed by committee. I think the answer is that a collaboration implies agreement from the individuals to act collectively as one, to search to find what they want to say together … and in a way this is no different from the individual going through the same process. It will be successful or not, depending on how clearly the aim is identified and how much skill is used putting the ideas together. I feel a successful collaboration would need the big egos to be left at the door, but at the same time a firm guiding hand, from somewhere within the group….

    There is only one person, another textile artist, with whom I will discuss anything about an unfinished work. We both have high technical skill levels in the very different ways we work. I value her carefully considered comments which are more often probing questions, and I am sure she would say something like that about my feedback to her. We have both found that talking to someone else about what we are working on can clarify everything at that point we all sometimes reach where the way ahead can look less clear than it did earlier in the project.

  7. 7 Sandy Donabed August 8, 2008 at 4:29 am

    I think that a critique is being run incorrectly when one person tells another what to do- in a case like that it IS a collaboration. But, ideally, it’s the function of a group to discuss possible solutions or to brainstorm ideas for a completion to someone’s project when she has ‘hit the wall’. It really helps focus the work in question for the artist to articulate exactly what the problem may be and to ask specific questions rather than general. I respectfully disagree with Olga’s comment that one can only critique finished work because I have been a part of a crit group for years where we also discuss intent and focus and alternate ways of bringing a project to a successful solution.

    A good critique should leave the artist with new ides clanging around in her head, whether as a direction to proceed or as a new path for the next piece in the pipeline.

    Unfortunately there will always be needy students as well as authoratative teachers- it is the duty of the teacher to open up a student to many ideas and possibilities, not to tell her what to do next. Ideally when someone requests direct guidance it is a good opportunity to open up the question to the class and show the student with the problem that there are as many solutions as there are clouds: invent your own! This is not algebra, afterall. And THAT is the hard work of good teaching!

  8. 8 Olga August 8, 2008 at 1:35 am

    Like Clairan I too agree with you in the main, and again like Clairan I have one person alone with whom I discuss work in progress. She and I are both textile artists with much in common, but with very different styles and aims. Talking over our work helps us to articulate our thoughts to ourselves probably more than wanting actual advice from each other. In fact we rarely give each other concrete advice. We tend to talk round ideas and issues. The very rare times when suggestions come in are to do with technique rather than content. I tend not to discuss my individual pieces much at all after I have clarified the outline of what I want to do – until I have an almost finished manifestation.

    I agree that asking others regularly to supply ideas as to how to finish work seems to indicate that the maker is more concerned with making an acceptable piece rather than an expression of themselves. This is a valid ambition – i.e. to make a piece of work which is admired by others. But it should soon become obvious in looking at that maker’s body of work that there is a lack of consistent voice actually saying something particular. But, if that’s what they want, ….

    On the other hand, it is I believe legitimate for an artist with a developing voice to take partly developed work to a critique situation where what is expected is help towards self-examination. If the critique group asks questions of the makers they can learn to progress by asking those and more questions of themselves. I also think that this in turn helps makers to become ever more confident during broader critiques of their finished work.

    The whole critique business is a thorny one when concerned with art. In my experience the best critiques are by individuals who can suspend their own agendas, who are observant, knowledgeable, objective, and who ask questions as least as often as they make statements. Context, also, is vital. The critique group presumably decides at the outset what they are hoping to achieve – whether the measures are to be technical, aesthetic, or whatever, and those aims and measures themselves should be re-examined regularly. Then the trick is for individual makers to join the appropriate group, and to move on if the aims do not keep up with their progress. Equally, of course, the group should encourage makers who do not fit in to move out. This last can often be more difficult than giving a critique of work!

  9. 9 Janet Cook August 8, 2008 at 1:13 am

    Critique or collaborate?
    I’m a very new visitor to this excellent site, but already I feel able to add to the discussion. I have been teaching quilting for many years, to all levels of students, and have come across the “how do I finish this?” approach to critiqueing. I do not consider that to be either teaching or critiqueing. It is finishing the project instead of showing the student the path forward. One should only critique what has been done, even if it not finished. It’s infuriating for some students at first, because they are at an impasse and don’t know what to do next, but the teacher has to encourage the student to return to her original idea, re-assess how she has realised that idea so far, and then she will be able to write or sketch her own next steps. Anything more than that is collaboration in my book.

    I know of teachers who like to “put their stamp” on their students’ work, but I disagree heartily with that approach.
    The only time I will actively take a part in a project is when the student is still learning techniques, and she needs to learn the next technique in the process. That’s nothing to do with critiqueing.
    Janet Cook

  10. 10 Clairan Ferrono August 8, 2008 at 12:29 am

    I agree with you in the main Eileen. we need to work from our own ideas. But I work well in conversation. I have a good friend who is a painter and I value her opinions. I talk over unfinished work with her because I find I can define my ideas better in talking things over with her. Sometimes what she says really souds a responsive chord in me, and I respond we get a dialogue going that really sets me in the right direction. Sometimes not. I don’t discuss unfinished work with anyone else. For me discussion with this one person is like writing about my work for myself. I need to articulate what I am doing to understand where I want it to go. I talk to myself the whole time I’m quilting!

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