January 05, 2011

Full Gran Torino

The original settings were fairly open with regards to comments, and I must admit this was foolish. I refer you to comments made in my last post. I was tempted to delete some of these comments, but I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity.

Quite a while ago certain mean and bullying comments on belly dance posts led me to write an essay on critique. While not Feri specific, it occurred to me that this essay might be of some use to Feri. With a little creativity, I hope that some of these concepts might be applied in some form for peer review.

I openly encourage all Feri to comment freely on my posts, provided they are written in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Agreement is not necessary, but respect is. So I’m afraid I have to change my comment settings so that I can screen comments from people who have gone “Full Gran Torino.”

What I hope is that people can come to my blog for healthy discourse and passionate discussions. But I will not have this become a playground for marooned children. So say what you will, just say it well.

Here’s the essay:

Safe and Sane Critique 

My Critique Experience As a young girl I spent a great deal of time alone drawing trees. Much of my earliest drawings were informed by the art around me, namely Manga both contemporary and historical. Due to the cartoon nature of Manga, I was often told that I could not draw. As a young fine art student in a traditional academic school I suffered many heartless critiques. Again I was told that I could not draw, perhaps I should consider fashion. In a macho hierarchical art world this was an obvious insult. In fact, a graduate student informed me that it was considered the instructor’s job to “get rid of us” before our first year. Even into my last year in college, I found the critique to be no less cruel and no more useful. I felt dismissed and these comments only brought up old childhood memories of being inadequate.

There was one exception. One of my teachers consistently gave useful critique to all students. I never walked away feeling demolished, rather I was given something to work on, some improvement to make, a new avenue to explore. Moreover, this instructor always seemed careful to give me validation of the good work that I had achieved up to that point.

Over the years, I began to analyze her approach. I found that she consistently used a number of methods to both encourage as well as improve her students' work. Her approach was so consistent and useful that I began to apply these methods to the study of the masters. I began to question what I found intriguing and useful in their work. This worked so well in my understanding of art that I began to apply her method of critique to my own work.

Though I initially began this process for my drawings, I have since adapted it to my dance. Initially I developed this method strictly for my own use, but over the years I have taught this to others. I think it works equally well for seasoned teachers, troupe directors, as well as artists in other fields.

The Importance of Sane Critique First let me state that it is imperative for artists to receive good, thoughtful critique. It helps guide our hand. Critique allows the artist to understand both their strengths and their weaknesses. It can point us in new directions. It can also show us our dead-ends. A well-meaning critic is one who respects the art; the best critics work in the service of the artist.

Artists must cultivate a working and respectful relationship with others who have the knowledge and skill to offer useful critique. The community must nurture an environment where critique is viewed as an expression of deep respect. It is imperative to the art of dance itself that we develop a solid critical community.

Unfortunately, despite the crucial and much needed service, many critics never acquire the skills necessary to serve this community. Unsophisticated and immature critique creates a dangerous intellectual vacuum.

In a recent notorious belly dance dvd review in the Gilded Serpent the author states “ One seemed a joke.… She was the only one over 30, and I honestly don't know if that was intended as a joke, too.” Also, “I don't think Tempest is that freaky, or that beautiful. She only has one visible tattoo, and no obvious piercings. What's so freaky about that?” Comments that focus on age and appearances relating to personality offer no useful information for either artist or consumer. It does not address the issues that are relevant to the art.

It is doubly dangerous for the artist to rely on the critique of friends and family. Friends and family simply remark “I love it!” or “Oh, that’s nice.” In the latter case, we are simply being polite. But in the former case, we may not have the vocabulary to state why we like a certain piece of art. Either way, it is the intellectual equivalent of saying "Good girl!” and offers nothing substantial to the work.

Critique is best when it focuses on the work, not the personality driving the work. Personal attacks do no service and one must be careful in making comparisons with other artists. Such comparisons offer nothing of substance; instead it distracts the artist from their work. It is best to simply focus on the merits of the art, not the artist.

Giving Sane Critique. First and foremost try to understand the artist. What is the form the artist is working in? What is the artist saying in their work? One must realize that understanding art is the key to enjoying art. This requires a dialogue with the artist. Once you dialogue with the artist, your appreciation of their work will often grow.

If you truly cannot relate to a particular piece, then it is a service to the artist to point out why. However, as stated, we want to be polite. Understand that an artist will spend a great deal of time on a single piece, and simply stating that you don’t like it is hurtful. A sincere and well thought out critique is not painful to an artist, but much appreciated.

The first few statements one makes should be generally positive. Point out what elements are working in the piece. Does the music match the movement of the dancer? Or perhaps you are drawn to the emotional content, or the dancer’s use of the stage. Take a few moments to really understand how the piece works and why it works well before offering your opinion.

When encountering elements that simply don’t work for you, start your statements with a question such as “What if...”, followed by a suggestion for improvement. For example, “What if your arm postures were stronger? The music is very powerful, I would like to see the arms match that strength.” This approach is non-threatening to the artist and offers alternatives. It empowers the artist with knowledge and a chance to make her own choices about her work. Avoid personal attacks and strive to create a dialogue.

Finally, do offer encouragement and restate the elements that work. If possible, involve the artist in your critique. Be open to changing your mind once the artist has stated their position. If a change of mind does occur, tell them.

Critiquing Your Own Work. Try this experiment. Video tape yourself dancing for three minutes. Apply these tools and see where it leads you. Once you are comfortable with yourself, begin to apply this practice while you observe other dancers. As you practice these skills you will become increasingly sophisticated not only in your own work, but in your assessment of your fellow artists. Finally, after much practice, you may find you are ready to write a review.

I’m not sure why I continued working in the arts despite many discouragements along the way. Perhaps I am stubborn, or perhaps I was convinced that I could do anything I wanted, but I just had to work harder. One thing I do know. That practicing this form of critique on your self is very empowering. I no longer have to be a victim to a critical tongue, but I do have the strength and courage to accept informed advice. Critique is a skill. It needs to be practiced as seriously as the art that is being reviewed.


  1. Anaar,thanks very much for your sharing. I heard so much critique in life that most days I have a hard time even seeing myself as an artist. One remark made by a art school teacher to another student helped me a lot.
    "I'm not interested in the truth, I want to see a great story." That was very useful in the proces of putting pieces of my story, my soul in a work and taking comments not as critique on that part of me. But pure on the story I show in my work.

    Love your quote from Claes Qldenburg, I became an admirer from his work at age 13. He made me see the world in a new light.

    Off with internet for today, make Kala first and listen to my muse today. She revield her name to me; Molly Morpheus. Do I love her!

    Love and blessings, Elisa

  2. Glad you're doing this blog!

  3. Thank you Anaar, this is really helpful!
    I forget sometimes that critique can open a Dialoge instead of just judging over someone or giving a Statement of Agreement or Disagreement.
    It demands connection and engagement.
    Last Year i gave someone Feedback in a very hurtfull way and i am working on my skills since that day - one piece i`ve learnt is that it is also helpful to wait some time (hours or days) before critiszising something - just to give myself the chance to become kala and to think over it.

  4. I write a fair amount of fun, pulpy, schlocky stuff for an audience that doesn't really "get" how to give critique or feedback. So I get a lot of "I love it!" sorts of responses. After something like a year and a half of that, it feels worse than no feedback, to me. It feels like people aren't actually reading what I write, or can't discriminate whatsoever between, for instance, a decent thing I wrote and a slightly better thing I wrote. I would rather know why they love it, or--at the very least--have some gradations of "love". ("This was decent and fun" is very different from "this is the absolute best thing you've ever done!")

    Unfortunately, my experience says that teaching people this skill is tricky, when they don't have an investment in your work. I hope that training blog commenters is easier, and that the open exchange of ideas will create that investment.

    On the end of giving critique, I've had to train myself into learning the art of gentle critique because I have a history of being so damned sensitive. Historically speaking, when I used to receive nasty critique I would either shut down and stop doing whatever art/craft/skill elicited the critique entirely--or I would lash out in hate and fear and do it all the more, and usually badly. Keeping kala and working with pride helps me with this, but I still have my moments.

    Neither reaction should be one we want to elicit as critics; if we want the person/organization to listen to us rather than to crumble or do the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears, we need tact.

  5. Critiquing is an art in itself. Most people don’t know how to do it constructively. Criticism is a necessity throughout life for self improvement…and, self-confidence. In my experience, criticism has been more destructive than constructive. People tend to be more reactive to things, instead of thinking before they speak. I find this especially in my cooking! ;-)

    I love to cook. I am not professionally trained, as such it's more of a hobby and necessity at times (my Shari doesn’t cook). Is my cooking good? I tend to think so. Many have expressed a lot of satisfaction in my cooking. However, many people tend to be less verbal about their criticism of food, and say things like, “yuck” or “no thanks, I hate that stuff”, or “I don’t eat that type of food”. Constructive criticisms in the non-professional culinary arts are few and far between.

    I value constructive criticism. I’m a sensitive sort of person, so it does hurt when people get reactionary in a negative way…Or, even in a placating way. I don’t want phony compliments, and I try not to be too overly placating myself. I know the irritation it gives.

    As I said, Critiquing is an art, and it is a difficult one for many to refine.

  6. Why I continue to work on art is because I have to, in a sense. For me it feels worse not to do art than it does to do art.

    One of the problems with critiquing is that a lot of the General Public has very bad taste. I don't want to sound like a snob, but looking at popular music and popular art shows that an awful lot of people buy Justin Bieber CD's and paintings by Thomas Kinkade, and that's where they stay artistically. So any kind of perceived difference from that "norm" presents a challenge to their perceptions. That being the case, anything that doesn't look or sound or feel exactly like what they've heard or seen or felt before is rejected out of hand. This is something Blue was referring to in the culinary arts and it applies to all arts.

    This is why it's terribly important to have peer critique as well. A supportive but truthful group of peers is hard to find and hard to build, but having even one or two is well worth the work.

  7. Hey...Justin's a cutie! He could live in a Thomas Kincade painting! Singing to all the pixies that admire him so much! ;-)

    In contrast to critique, is hateful gossipping criticism. I've seen people comment on the quality of something or someone (especially lately) in a vile way. By talking about a subject matter that the person or artist, or what have you, cannot comment on until it's so "out there" in the public, they are already vilified and sentenced. Gossipping criticism is cowardly and bullying, and not constructive at all...especially amongst your peers (as we've seen in Feri)

  8. I have often thought that it would be instructive some time to offer a "critique the critc" workshop. To put people's vehemence up for scrutiny and talk about what works and what doesn't work using actual live commentary erupting at a critique session. I myself have had some tremendously hurtful comments from people whose agendas are unspoken and hostile. I remember reading in "The Artist's Way" that the most hurtful comments are vague and dismissive. I've had my share of those. Still, I take it to heart too that if I'm doing something right as an artist, I'm probably making someone mad. It was either Tallulah Bankhead or Bette Davis who said, "you're no one unless you have detractors."

    One of the most powerful actions as a writer I ever took, was to take a particularly galling rejection letter, which gave me commentary I didn't ask for along with a heap of useless judgments, that was on a tiny scrap of paper IN 6 POINT TYPEFACE (!!), and I got out my red pen and actually marked it up with my own commentary, and inked a little note at the bottom as if I was teacher. Sent it back, SWAK (of death).

    On the other hand, I recently had a reading of a script in front of 2 tough peers who I respect, and they were withering in their commentary. But it came from a sterling place, and they really only care that they see a play that is worth their time. They pointed to 2-3 elements in my 60 page piece taht worked as far as they were concerned, and told me in no uncertain terms "back to the drawing board" for the rest. And you know what? I figured something out about the script from that, and I've decided to change it into a screenplay. Also I had originally made it about the relationship between these 2 characters; now I've decided one of them is the protagonist. These are GOOD developments, and I am grateful to these thoughtful comrades in arms.

    Just wanted to say as well, that sometimes I do want to hear about other artists whose work I might benefit from, if for no other reason to discern whose forms I might groove to. I have a Beckett knock-off and a John Patrick Shanley homage, and I've attempted a play in the spirit of Fassbinder. I might want to hear about other artists at certain times, for like Picasso said, "young artists create, mature artists steal."

    As regards spiritual practices, the same things go. What are the practices for, and what are the intentions in practicing them? I am a rather young seeker on the Feri path, and I have a yearning for more awareness. That being said, I seek to hear from those who have a bit of wisdom, and it's probably a hard-earned wisdom at that. And I like to hear the honesty of people near to my level who struggle with practice, etc. So I hear the warriors at work in the trenches as well.

  9. Anaar, great post. And beautiful follow-up to the reception of your Kala writing.


  10. Oh happydog, are you still sad you gave away your NKOTB cassettes? ;)

    While reading I was reminded of a story I heard yesterday. One of my teachers was relating how her friend reacts joyfully to a gift she does not like/want/etc. She smiles and in a genuinely happy voice says, "I love presents!"