In the current issue of LensWork (no. 69 Mar-Apr 2007) Brooks Jensen writes rather extensively on the problems with print critiques. Two excerpts, to give you a flavor of what he says:
I like it or I don’t like it doesn’t tell us anything about the artwork, although it does tell us quite a bit about the person who makes the statment. Frankly speaking, why would you care if I like a piece of work or, for that matter, if I don’t like a piece of work. It doesn’t make any difference whether or not you like it. Futhermore, such personal preferences don’t add anything to the discussion about the work. As the basis for the critique, this is a perfectly valueless statement.
Related to person preference is the often heard comment in a critique “If it were my image I would do this to it…” followed by some advice about cropping it here, straightening there, dodging, burning, etc. The point is, it’s not my work. How I would approach a photograph, how I would change it, or how I would print it is essentially totally irrelevant. It doesn’t tell us anything about the work as it is. It clearly doesn’t tell us anyting about the photographer’s intent or success. It doesn’t help us understand the context, meaning, background, intenion, or historic importance of the work.
You get the idea. Jensen then goes on to propose that rather than be critics (and offer critiques of work) we should instead be docents, and offer commentary on the work.
On the one hand, I agree with Jensen that often (nearly always) print critiques are nearly worthless. I know photographers who have taken portfolios to the big photo revue events, where there are 100 gallery owners, curators, and famous photographers there, and you can get your work critiqued by half a dozen of them. So you take a week, and you get a one half hour critique from six different (presumed) experts on photographic art, and you come away with 9 different opinions, none of which is particularly helpful. I watched several friends go through the stress filled agony of preparing portfolios of their work, take them to events like this, and come back with feedback that seemed at best not very helpful and at worst positively destructive.
On the other hand, I have seen critiques work. The caveat, here, is that when I say critique, and Jensen says critique, we’re talking about two different things which are only tangentially related.
Yesterday, I got a chance to meet with a good friend of mine, Alex Brikoff. Alex is a member of the Monday Night Group, a new work review group I founded in 1996 and which I was a part of until this past September. Since I left the group, I’ve met with Alex several times, both to review Alex’s recent work, and to have Alex review mine. Now, it turns out that in the Monday Night Group, and in my further meetings with Alex, quite a few of the comments that get made are along the lines of Jensen’s two no-no’s: “I like/don’t like it” and “if it were mine, I’d…” So the interesting question is why do I find answers along those lines helpful, when Jensen insists that they’re not even relevant.
The difference lies in this – Jensen is looking at the critique from the point of view that says the print is a finished work of art, and the only thing useful to do at that point is to explore it more deeply – as Jensen puts it, to “repress one’s personal like and disklikes; then look for connections, similarities, and parallels; explore symbols, metaphors, similes, and the unsaid, unconscious; provide context, or background; offer a point of view that will expand the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of a photograph.” (side note: this seems to me to be suspiciously like a very wordy version of “I like it/I don’t like it” with academic art-history values replacing personal preference, and it isn’t clear to me that that substitution is necessarily a good thing.)
In contrast, I look at it from the point of view of process. I took my box of prints over to Alex’s house, and to be honest, I was feeling pretty bummed about them. I made them last week; they’re the result of my stubborn attempt to break out of a dry spell following putting together my last show. I didn’t think much of the prints, I didn’t think much of the photos. That’s ok. Alex has been looking at my work in progress (the good images and the crappy ones, the good ideas and the bad ones) for more than a decade. He’s seen it all. So we sat down, and I laid out my prints, and Alex looked at them for a bit, and shuffled them around a bit, and then he uttered the words that would make Brooks Jensen stamp his feet in fury – “I like them.” But here’s the catch – in the language of a decade long relationship based on reviewing each other’s work in progress, “I like them” means something rather different from what it means when you hand a single print to a stranger and the stranger looks at it and says “I like it.”
In the process context, “I like it” is shorthand for something more like this: “I can tell that you are disappointed by these prints. I know you’re trying to break out of a dry spell. I’m looking at these prints, and they are not utter garbage. There are aspects of these that are not so good, but there are aspects of them that are good, too. I see things that reflect what you’ve done in the past, and I see new things you haven’t done before. This stuff is going in an interesting direction. Keep going, I want to see more.”
And, in the process context and with such a long history, “If I were printing this, I would…” really is shorthand for “I think I see where you’re trying to go with this latest stuff. Have you considered how things would change if you…”
So I went over to Alex’s house, and we reviewed my prints (and his). Both of us uttered the phrases guaranteed to make Brooks Jensen cringe and call them ‘the most deadly form of comment one can make about an image’. But what I came away with from that review session was quite a bit different from what Jensen envisions. I came away with the message “Yes. You were in a dry spell, and now you’re getting unstuck. Good.” and “This work is connected to what you were doing before, but you’re not just retreading last years photos. Keep going.” Trust me, in a world where the biggest problem facing artists is how to not stop, messages like that are like a life preserver thrown to a drowning man.
The difference between Jensen’s view and mine is this: Jensen sees critiques as something you do to finished work, and I see them as something best done with unfinished work. Jensen sees the prints as the final product, and I see them as checkpoints in an ongoing process. Given his focus on the prints as finished objects, he’s exclusively interested in answering the question “Are there more insightful things we might say about these finished artworks?” And given my focus on ‘Art is a Verb’, I’m almost entirely interested in answers to questions along the lines of “Given that I made these photos last week, what interesting photographs might I try to make tomorrow?”