My crit system for art clubs is to ask everyone to bring two or three paintings. We set them around the room and one by one I pick them up and put them on a well-lit easel. It’s purposely random — I choose both the weaker and the stronger because people learn from all levels of work. Anyone may comment. Often a discussion and valuable input happens before I’ve had a chance to put in my two bits worth. When we’ve finished I ask, “Who painted this?” A hand goes up and I thank the artist. Often I’m able to sum up with a compliment and some general recommendations, then we move on to the next.
At such a recent event, up came a painting of a cat. The group went to work on it — mostly anatomical stuff — the cat’s legs were too long, it had no neck, its tail came out of the wrong place on its bottom. Someone said it looked like it was floating in the air, or falling, and would be better with a cast shadow coming from its paws. “Is this a Magnificat, or a very bad cat?” I asked. Somebody said the person who painted it didn’t know much about cats. Tough group. When I asked who painted it and no hand went up, I let the cat out of the bag. I had painted it myself and snuck it into the lineup. It was a fairly accurate copy of one done by Pierre Bonnard in 1894.
I told the group that Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was an admirer of Gauguin and one of the leading lights of the Nabis. I explained the Symbolist’s ideas on art and their desire to blow the wind out of the establishment. My room of painters laughed a bit and became silent. Then someone said that the cat was “a sort of eternal cat–the essence of cat.” Someone else said, “It’s a symbol of the mystery of the feline species, caught between aggression and laziness. It didn’t need to look like a proper cat to be an important painting.” I kept them going with, “You gotta know this pussy has presence.” A beaming, joyful woman in the front row said, “I think it’s a wondercat!”
Messing with the perceived greats is like telling the followers of Billy Graham that John the Baptist was a fraud. That’s why I’ve always been interested in looking at stuff without benefit of provenance. There’s an education just bumping into things in a lineup at your typical Monday night art club.
PS: “I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint.” (Pierre Bonnard, 1937)
Esoterica: Young Bonnard took a degree in law and had a position working for a public prosecutor. One day he made the break. A statement, oft quoted, didn’t please his folks: “What appealed to me most at the time was not so much art as the artist’s life, with all the spontaneity and personal freedom that I imagined it to have. I was attracted to painting, but it was not an irresistible passion. What I wanted above all was to avoid having a monotonous life.” Living as a Bohemian, moving from hotel to hotel, year in, year out, he nevertheless achieved considerable success. His legend goes on. An oil about the size of that cat (20″ x 13″) recently sold for two million dollars.
by Carol Lois Haywood, Mountain View, CA, USA
Many artists have trouble looking beyond technical questions to recognize the emotional power of a painting. It’s sad when that tendency is used to rank others’ work ineptly. Even sadder when we use it against our own! Every good, even great, painting has its flaws. Overemphasizing the detecting of flaws leads to under-emphasis on the spirit or genius in the creation. I believe a real critique must include several pieces and look for the intent behind the creative process. Yours was a clever way to bring out the better approach.
by Alice Phalen, Boston, MA, USA
Crits will continue to be used–students love them–but teachers benefit students by insisting that they spend time looking at paintings, a lot of paintings, of all periods, countries, and styles. Assign a gallery in a local museum and have the students note down what they see. The goal is the art of observation. Record colors, composition, subjects, techniques. Use your own words. This is not test; it is an exercise, one which strengthens powers of observation and expands range of response. I grew up in New York City with parents who were interested in art. I wandered through galleries, and looked. Of course I had opinions. I was a child. Eventually, with enough looking, I began to see–and I abandoned opinions about good or bad. I am the better painter for that.
Critiquing ‘Great Masters’
by Susan Wiley, Ballston Spa, NY, USA
When I was in college as a writing major, we read essays by some of the ‘Great Masters’ in literature and we spent all of the class time critiquing each essay. I didn’t see much point in it at the time, but when I had my first job as an editor, I was very confident of what I was doing and for what purpose. Now, as an artist, although I do not hold critiques in my art classes in that way, I am glad that you reminded me of my own previous experience. I will have to dust off that old method, so to speak, of critiquing a master because it will further give my students confidence in their own work and force them to crystallize their opinion of a painting with some valid support.
Finding genius widely
by Teri Wright, San Antonio, TX, USA
It is so funny that even artists’ opinions of a piece of work are changed when they discover that the piece was done by a well known painter. Why does a piece deserve such elementary attention when the painting is anonymous and then receive such eloquent comments after the master is revealed? Every piece of art should be taken as seriously and be given as much respect as far as commentary goes, as the next, love it or hate it. If we learn to see the magic and genius in our peer’s works, maybe we can elevate artists and this art world today to a place it deserves to be. I love that cat.
by Colin Bell, Calgary, AB, Canada
That a Bonnard may have sold for 2 million dollars does not impress me greatly. How did that sale improve his life, or that of his family? The art market seems to be less impressed by images than by signatures. Once an artist becomes “established,” his/her work is pursued eagerly. Because insiders promote his work, it is in turn sought after by collectors. Currently I am able to turn out 80-odd works a year, of which 30-40 may sell. Am I successful? Occasionally I’m delighted with my results, often I’m pleased, and also often disappointed. The act of painting always gives me undiluted pleasure. I worked most of my life as an architect, supported a family and was able to send my kids to university.
Instructor on critiques
by Julie Ford Oliver, Las Cruces, NM, USA
Regarding group critiques, I have found that allowing too many people to put in their own critiques on other artists’ paintings, does more harm than good. Art is so subjective to taste and also to the level of knowledge the viewer owns. Confusing messages are received by the poor owner of the piece in the spotlight – usually resulting in changes made that take the piece far away from the original concept and more importantly, emotional quality. To learn from others artists’ weaker areas, I have found what I consider a good compromise. I go through old art magazines and find paintings with errors in areas relating to the class focus of the month and cut the images out. The artists are then encouraged to each give critiques. For paint “quality” errors, I will produce some of my own past pieces.
by Lori Simons, Merrimack, NH, USA
My peer artists seem to delight in finding every last detail of a painting gone wrong. It’s discouraging to say the least, and lately doesn’t help me to put my best forward. However, when I show my paintings to the public, I find that the result is ultimately positive and I come home refreshed and with sales and money. People who don’t connect to my art – just pass by. The ones who do… stop for a longer look. It is all so subjective, and we should get as good as we can in the style and subject matter that touches our heart. After all, if we love the result, someone else will too. While I chuckled how those art students thought it was brilliant after they realized it was a worthy artwork, I’ve sometimes seen the opposite effect: when a mentor or instructor takes a painting that everyone in the group just loves and then explains why it’s not all that great. Everyone soon starts to believe it’s not worthy. It can go both ways.
by John Ebel, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I particularly enjoyed your story about Pierre Bonnard’s cat. I studied painting under British watercolorist and muralist Harold Hilton. He told the story of a University of Florida art professor who had invited a renowned National Academy artist to critique his students’ work. He lined up the works, names covered, and while no one was looking slipped in one of his own. The renowned artist went down the line providing critique and when he got to the professor’s painting, he looked long and hard and finally said, “Well, I’m sure this student is trying hard, but exhibits no imagination or really any basic technical skills – I’d advise this person to perhaps take up something else – he’d have a tough time indeed as an artist.”
Only the perception changes
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
In the art world, salon networking with artists and especially hobnobbing with gallery people gets artists more shows, with hype of promotion, commerce and notoriety usually following. If the work is marketable and collected (the art gains financial value beyond aesthetic value) you will sell more and on it goes. Unfortunately this process does not determine what it is to make ‘good art’ — how can it, when the biggest qualifying factor seems to be in the telling? Your art group proved it when they completely reversed their comments (either they were trying to fluff you by agreeing with you, or sheep being lead, or both!). The painting didn’t change, only the perception of it.
What is Art?
by Judy Goral, Lemont, IL, USA
Who decides what is art and what is not? What makes it good art? Who tells the buying public that this is “good art” and worth a lot of money? You just proved it with your copy of that Bonnard cat. It was severely critiqued by a lot of people who are artists but maybe not the “perfectly educated” whose job it is to decide what is good art. Then when they were told it is a copy of a very famous painting that is worth a lot of money, they started to see it in a different light. What changed? What changed their minds?
(RG note) Thanks, Judy. Perhaps it was just another mild breakout of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
by Marni California, Abergele, UK
Your letter on critiquing that cat reminds me how thrilled I am that I don’t go to an art club. It also reminds me of a scene from the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous: Eddy, the PR whiz, has bought a sculpture made of coat hangers. Eddy’s alcoholic, ex-supermodel mate Patsy tells her that the sculpture is awful. Eddy protests that it cost her thousands. And Patsy cries, “In that case, darling, it’s absolutely fabulous!” In the Americas, and more and more Great Britain (which seems determined to insert its nose as far as possible up America’s arse), opinions are dominated by provenance.
The Inner Critic
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
When I looked at Pierre Bonnard’s cat I could only think that he stylized it on purpose, and that it has a lot of Cattitude. Therefore it is an accurate portrayal of a cat, for I have seen my cats display just that kind of graceful arrogance. So if your copy of the painting was a fairly accurate one, then I’m sure it would have had the same kind of feline veracity (in fact I wish I’d seen Bonnard’s painting before I’d read your letter, but still consider my own reaction to his painting a genuine one). For the ultimate in catty crits, there’s nothing like the good old Inner Critic.
‘Art chats’ useful
by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA
Critques by “committee” are not constructive. My works that have been acquired by museums and collectors were not appreciated or understood by any groups or clubs. What have been of great use to me are the art chats I have had with certain successful artists who understand my art and what I am trying to do. Through the years I have been lucky to have had contact with such people — insightful teachers, curators and artists whose feedback has validated my approach and motivated me onto a higher level.
Beginners are fragile
by Deborah McLaren, Mystic, CT, USA
The one thing I always stress in any critique is to celebrate what the person has done right, because there is always something they’ve done right, and learn from the areas that need improvement. I try never to say they’ve done anything wrong, beginners are too fragile, hell, we’re all rather fragile, but to learn from the areas that need improvement and build on the successes. I try to maintain a very positive and encouraging atmosphere in my classes. I only too well remember the horrible instructors that apparently had personal issues and needed to rip others apart. I try to keep my own issues out of the picture and try to encourage my students to keep going. I’ve always seen improvement in every student I’ve ever had, and that’s very gratifying.
Bill’s career change
by Jeff Altemus, Oakland, CA, USA
If you’re still sending feedback to Bill, I have a recommendation that’s based more on compassion than judgment: There’s an organization called New Warriors, which leads men through modern-day initiation practices. Most men in contemporary society don’t get the chance to go through this centuries-old rite and we’re suffering for it. Not everything works for everyone, but I think that Bill would gain greatly from it. If nothing else, it’d likely help him deal more gracefully with that inner 16-year-old that’s bridling at his current life. Regardless of what avenue he chooses, he should know that there is a middle way (probably several) between staying stuck in drudgery and chasing a fantasy based on someone else’s life. That Gauguin/ Miller/ Morrison model of pursuing art/ writing/ music is so tired anyway — it’s beyond cheesy.
(RG note) Thanks, Jeff. Yes, we are still receiving input and forwarding every one of them. Bill is seeing a counsellor.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Donna Elio of Glen Burnie, MD, USA who wrote: “I love that cat! She is aloof and possesses all the dignity of cat even though she has now grown old and has lost her beauty. She reminds me of the song from Cats, the musical. Memories: ‘I remember a time when I knew what happiness was, let the memories come again.’ ”
And also B. J. Adams of Washington, DC, USA who wrote: “I’d enjoy hearing comments of a similar group if one of the paintings done by elephants was put in with a selection of lesser known works by ’50s and ’60s abstract artists. I too have found myself being critical of a poorly composed painting and then noticed the name.”
And also Laurie DeMatteo of PA, USA who wrote: “I think to say maybe ‘my cat is a mystery’ is universal and I would enjoy that conversation because I understand not the method of how it is painted, but the exchange of that shared thought.”
And also John Ferrie of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote: “The opinion of another artist can be far more important to an artist’s development than a critique from an art critic.”
And also Mary Lapos of Danville, PA, USA who wrote: “Maybe everybody at that club secretly liked that cat but thought they should be saying critical things to demonstrate their acuity and knowledge.”
And also Josefina Aguirre Liaño of Mexico who wrote, “While maybe no one understood ‘The cat,’ if the artist is honest, and has something to say, he or she is a real artist.”