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The many faces of critique.

If there is such a thing as a typical art critique, it probably would be recognized as an event in which student artworks from a specific class assignment or time frame are on view while the students who produced the work and the instructor talk about what they see, the intentions and whether or not the work is successful regarding various compositional aspects.

The critique provides an opportunity to extend art production learning exercises into experiences that connect the student with expanded visual and aesthetic awareness, and reinforce that which has just been learned. There are many uses for the critique. If appropriately structured, it can fit particular learning goals and teaching objectives. There are many different ways to structure the critique to accomplish a chosen goal. The student critique has only one set characteristic--the presence of student work.

Building a Descriptive Vocabulary

With the goal of building a descriptive vocabulary in mind, the teacher structures the critique session to relate words to visual works or to elicit words descriptive of specific compositions. Printed word cards (each card having a word such as line, contrast or delicate) are given to the students to place next to the work that best exemplifies the word. The students justify why this is the best choice.

An approach for eliciting descriptive words from the students is to show an art reproduction such as Hokusai's The Great Wave at Kanagawa and to ask students to suggest words that describe the relationship between two aspects of the work, in this case, the huge wave and the boat or mountain. These words are written down and then related to the compositions.

In critiques such as these, it is not always necessary to have all student work from the same assignment. Although sessions are structured to a specific goal, they can be as open-ended or flexible as the teacher chooses.

Learning about Professional Roles

Critiques can be structured for learning about the artist, art critic, art historian and aesthetician. The teacher can design a session focusing on a particular inquiry method. For example, the students look at a mask from a particular culture and describe what they see and suggest its meaning or use. Then, the teacher gives some cultural-historical information so the students become more aware of the mask's symbolism and the value of knowing information that the art historian provides. The group talks about the art critic's role and the art historian's interests, and how each can help the viewer's appreciation of an artwork. Then, the same process of describing and speculating about the symbolic meaning can be applied to the students' own works.

Practice in Receiving and Using Criticism

The critique can build confidence in the students' talk about their own and others' work as well as give the students practice in receiving constructive criticism. Planning for this type of session involves ways to lower the threatening nature of negative criticism. One of the easiest ways to do this is by critiquing unfinished work. The group makes suggestions on how it might handle a particular problem or give approaches for achieving a certain visual effect. Each student then decides how to respond to the suggestions. Students might be instructed to offer at least one constructive suggestion on how to make the composition more effective as well as to offer comments about its successful aspects.

Learning to Make Effective Analyses and Interpretations

Try including the process of grouping in the critique. Students can move works into groups depending on particular concepts or ideas that have been provided by the teacher or suggested by the work. Concepts, meanings, technical properties, etc., can then be discussed with regard to the range that has been created by the works that were put in one area. Questions about similarities and differences among the works encourage closer inspection of the visual representation. When the categorization has to do with meaning and mood, the discussion will help bring out what aspects of a work support the interpretations given.

Learning to Make Good Judgments

Through the grouping and ranking of work depending on specified criteria, students can begin to see that a composition is successful or not because of particular standards. Sessions can be designed to make students aware that good judgments are often those that come attached to given reasons and criteria. For example, two reproductions--one representing a subject done realistically, such as Janet Fish's work and one representing the subject done more abstractly, such as a painting by Derain --can be chosen as the two bench marks on a continuum, and the students' work can be ranked between the two extremes. The discussion can include reasons for the placement of the students' work between the artists.

The teacher can present two scenarios for extending the involvement with making judgments. The first scenario defines successful work as meaning the work must look like what it is intended to be. In this case, the students' paintings at the one end of the continuum would be considered the good works. The second scenario defines successful work as capturing the essence of the subject through the simplification of the components. Now, the paintings at the other end of the continuum become the good works. Students could come up with a third bench mark that would suggest that the student paintings ranked in the middle are actually the most successful. The teacher may want to include some information on aesthetic theories and how judgments are often related to the theory the critic has accepted. This goal also includes the more typical critique in which the present lesson's criteria are being used to discuss the work for that lesson.

Structuring a critique does not mean the session is rigid or that the teacher does not allow for student contributions that are not directly related. The learning event must have flexibility. Structuring a critique means the teacher has a set goal, has prepared for the session, has informed the students about the objectives, has helped the session relate to the goal and has encouraged the students to reflect on what occurred during the critique.


Ask yourself:

1. How could this critique expand on the learning that has already occurred in this lesson? How can it be used to fulfill other learning goals?

2. How should this critique be conducted.

a. What lesson(s) will provide the student work for the session? How will it be displayed.

b. What should I as the teacher say and do? What type of statements and questions will be made? Will they be addressed to individuals, small or large groups? What other materials are needed besided the students work?

c. What do I want to elicit from the students?

d. How can I accomplish a successful closure so the students are aware of what happened during the critique?

Elisabeth S. Hartung is an Associate Professor of Art at the California State University in Long Beach, California.
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Title Annotation:in art classes
Author:Hartung, Elisabeth S.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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