Monday, May 28, 2018

Critique: Yea or Nay?

I'm on the record as believing that no artist should ever pay the slightest attention to any commentary on their work.

I am also on the record as believing that an artist should definitely listen to what people say about the work.

So. Yeah. People have even noticed this.

In what follows I'm going to talk about what is commonly called "critique" as, instead, "review" because I want to avoid confusion with criticism, which is to my mind something quite different. So, the model goes: you show someone some work, and they offer you "review" in reply, addressed specifically to you, regarding specifically the work they have just seen.

It seems to be that there are really two distinct axes to what you might observe in these reviews. The first is a personal response:

"Great shot!"
"That model is super hot!"
"What a beautiful castle!"
"That is an insightful critique of Nationalism!"

Buried in here is, as often as not, a purely social function. Here is where we see the brisk trade in ego strokes, we see expressions of friendship -- or enmity, we see admiration -- or detestation -- of the subject matter, and we even see something of what I might consider criticism.

Nowhere on this axis do we find suggestions, or attempts to teach.

That's the other axis. That's where we find suggestions, things the photographer might have, or might yet, do differently. This is where we find the admonitions to lower the light a few inches, to clone out the leaf, to shoot at a different time of day.

On this axis there is inevitably an element of a power play. A question inevitably present in the reviewer's mind is "will they do it?" and the corresponding question "ought I do it?" will occur to the reviewee.

The most dangerous, and most common, suggestions will concern post-processing. "Clone out the seam" is many things, among them a direct challenge: Go do it now, and show me the result. There's a good chance the reviewee will have Lightroom of Photoshop or whatever up right now, and can do it immediately. If they do, they will likely be rewarded with ego strokes, and will be given more instructions to follow.

This is natural. We are all of us delighted when someone takes our suggestion. It's evidence that we are respected, that we are to be obeyed. It's evidence of our power. The very next thing we are likely to do is test the limits of that power, that respect, that obedience. That looks great! I think maybe crop a little off the left to balance the frame? is going to be the very next thing we try out.

The reviewee is developing a habit of obedience, of pleasing the viewer by complying.

This is terrible.

It is a process vastly enhanced by the modern digital workflow. Vast arrays of changes are a few clicks away. It's easy to comply and to get your attaboy reward. It is the most natural thing in the world to fall into a loop of review, feedback, and compliance. Once they've got you cloning stuff out and adjusting color balance on command, you're a short step away from putting the lights where they tell you to and shooting the subjects they like.

To be fair, this has always been with us. Back in the Dayes of Yore, though, review was offered on wet prints, proofs if not final results, and the reviewee naturally had a certain amount of resistance. Compliance was simply more difficult and time consuming. There was time for contemplation, time to digest and internalize the suggestions. Time to synthesize several suggestions into a coherent whole, rather than simply knocking them off obediently, one by one.

This, really, is the crux of the matter. Specific suggestions for what the photographer could have, or yet could, do, need to be digested and internalized. Ultimately the reviewee needs to please themselves first, and the reviewer, well, perhaps never. The reviewee needs time, emotional distance, to do this work, time and distance that are often simply not available in the hurly-burly world of digital/online/media.

The first axis of review I mentioned, the personal response, is less problematic. It contains no particular actionable advice, and so won't necessarily lead to a cycle of obedience. It can contain rewards and punishments, which drive the cycle, though.

I have no particular problem with Art made exclusively for the Artist, that can be a fine thing. If, as many of us do, you harbor at least some vague notion of touching other people with your Art, you do need some kind of connection, communication, contact, with the people of the world. And yet, you cannot obey them, you cannot seek particularly to please the people of the world without losing your own way. The challenge is to balance the opposing needs: to make contact, and to retain self-reliance.

What does this all mean? I think it means that we should take care in how we offer review, in how we seek it out, and how we accept it.

Show, as far as possible, finished work.

Offer, as far as possible, generalities rather than specific actions to be taken.

As far as possible, take time to digest. Commit to not placing hand to mouse for, say, 24 hours, and then do so with the intent to serve your own impulse, your own impression, your own idea, first.

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