Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the value and futility of what I now term ‘social critique,’ in which I argued that the value of critique is not absolute and depends on the context in which it is given, as well as the maturity of the artist. In the years since, I’ve had a chance to observe both artists and critics in other settings, such as workshops, galleries, and photography events, and to serve in both roles myself. One thing that has struck me about so many such interactions between artists and critics is how little each knows about the other. Feedback seems entirely focused on the simple aesthetics and technicalities of the images presented and rarely ventures into such areas as the artist’s intent, their creative choices or future aspirations. In my mind, such omissions amount to missed opportunities, as well as some troubling indications.
Of primary concern is the fact that so many critics either do not consider important aspects of the work beyond simple aesthetics and technical considerations, or do not possess sufficient knowledge to address them – both suggesting that they likely have no business serving in this role in the first place. The opposite is also troubling to me – why would artists accept a review by someone whose qualifications, sensibilities and experience they know little or nothing about?
In most arts, the critic’s role is twofold: to provide useful feedback to the artist and to explain the artist’s work to the public. Certainly, simple matters of technical deficiencies can easily be judged by anyone with a rudimentary grasp of photographic processes, and likewise they may be of value to budding artists who are yet to accomplish sufficient technical proficiency; but these only accomplish the critic’s educational role, and only in a very limited context. They do nothing for the greater understanding of the artist’s work nor provide any value to artists who are past the rudimentary stages of mastering their craft.
One piece of advice I offer to artists who wish to reap the most benefit from critical review is to specifically seek out critics who can provide them with such feedback. Before soliciting a critic’s opinion, learn something about them and their approach, what their qualifications and levels of experience are, their reputation and areas of expertise, and, if they are artists themselves, whether their own work suggests they are fit to judge that of others.
Just as importantly, make sure that the critic knows enough about you before seeing your work. Tell them about your experience, what you hope to accomplish, and why you made specific choices regarding the composition, processing and presentation of your work.
If you know nothing about your critic and/or they know nothing about you, you have no context by which to determine the value of their opinion. In the words of Robert Brault, “It is a shame to see in the work of an artist the limitations of his critics.” Choose your critics wisely.
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 44 of Landscape Photography Magazine.