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.