Art 110 students discussing artwork, Fall 2017


What makes an artist an artist?
What makes an art practice an art practice?

Is it picking up a paintbrush?
Or a camera?

150 years ago, taking a single picture was a monumental, day-long project. Today, here in the Global North, we all have cell phones and we all take pictures every day.

At a place like Long Beach State University’s School of Art, what makes an artist an artist is less about what media they choose: painting, or photography, or performance art, or bubble gum installation, and more about the process by which their work and their art practice unfolds: critique.

Defining Words

Critique is one of those words that has a slightly different meaning in art than it does in popular usage. Argument is another. If you have an argument with your significant other, that’s usually not good. But if you were ever on the debate team, or if you’ve watched TV lawyers, you know that a great argument is one where persuasive speech is backed up by compelling evidence to prove your point. BTW, that kind of argument makes a great essay in Art110, or I think, any class. Obvious things like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, don’t really tell anyone anything new. And crazy statements, like the art looks that way because the artist is from Mars, are a little too crazy. But the most, original, fresh, interesting thing you can say about a body of art, and back it up with “evidence,” now that’s a great essay! By evidence, I mean things that you find in the work itself, other writing, your own life experience, and so on.

If your boss at Starbucks gives you a half-hour critique of your work, that might not be so fun. But if you’ve worked on an art project for a while, and now fellow students, or faculty, or visiting artists, are willing to slow down, look carefully at your work, and give you some thoughtful feedback on what you’ve created and where you might want to go from here, that feedback, that critique, can be great.

Looking Carefully

Just as with our SOA Artist conversations, and OC Artist research, words like “love it,” or “hate it” are not that helpful. What is more helpful is to look at what’s created and try to think about it.

Formal Analysis

As with our Artist Essays, you can always start with a formal analysis. For photographic works like Landscapes with a Corpse, or Environmental Portraits you can look at where the camera is: is it very close? Or very far? What does that say to you about this picture? About this subject? Is the camera level with the subject? Or higher? Or lower? What does that say? The level of a camera can often represent power: looking down can put the subject in an inferior position. When we say things like,

My big sister, who I always looked up to

there is a double meaning. She was older and taller than me, so I literally, physically, looked up to her. But that statement also suggests that she’d learned something about how to get along in this world and that she helped me find my way. A low camera looking up to a big sister with an outstretched hand suggest power, but also love and connection. A low camera looking up at a judge banging a gavel suggests a different kind of power relationship.

When you look at an artwork, think about many formal elements. Is it color? Or Black-and-white? Is the color highly saturated? Or muted? Loud primary colors? Or deep earth tones? What do any of these choices say to you?

When you look at work in a gallery or museum, it might be huge, or tiny. Scale, is a powerful statement. Unfortunately, we often lose the sense of scale on a laptop, and even more so on a phone.

There are many aspects to the form of a work of art that you can think about: line, shape, texture, color, rhythm, cadence, and more. A picture of a young person walking away from bountiful crops is different from a picture of a young person walking away from barren dirt and stone.

In-Class Activity

In class, we’ll break up into groups of 3-4 to discuss each other’s projects from last week.

Bring Your Work to Class!

Please print 4 copies of your work from last week. These are for your discussion group to look carefully at as they consider your work. Our mission today is to look at each other’s work and critique it – to give each other useful feedback.

Your group should have at least 10-15 minutes to devote to each person’s work. Take the time to look carefully.

  1. Look at the work
  2. Describe what you see, how you perceive the work, how you “read” it
  3. Ask the artist any questions about the work
  4. Only after the above, then the artist can describe what they were trying to say with this work
  5. Discuss how successful the artist’s work was in communicating their ideas
  6. What’s working in this artwork? What communicates well? What is aesthetically satisfying?
  7. What can be better? What suggestions do you have for more clearly communicating the artist’s idea? For a more aesthetically engaging piece of art?

Outside Class Activity

Your Art Activity this week is critique, and you should write up 2 artworks: a critique of your own work, and of one classmate. In your group, decide who will write about whom. You don’t necessarily have to write about the person who writes about you, but each person should be written about by someone. You can turn a single paper in on BeachBoard Dropbox, but be sure to have 2 separate sections, one about your classmate’s work and a second section critiquing your own work from last week.

Your written critique can follow the same points as above.

Next Week

After you critique your own work from last week, and get feedback from classmates, next week your Art Activity will be to do the project again. Try to take what you’ve learned to:

  1. Refine your ideas
  2. Communicate more effectively (I use the word “effective” because sometimes this will mean “communicate more clearly,” but other times it could mean to add a degree of uncertainty that invites your viewers to wonder about the work and think through ideas)
  3. Make your work more aesthetically compelling
Art 110 students discussing artwork, Fall 2017
Art 110 students discussing artwork, Fall 2017