It has recently come to my attention that many artists are scared of critical conversations about their work. I have thoughts on how I believe critique should be framed so as not to incite feelings of fear and disappointment.

First off:
Critique is a time for appreciating others’ investment of their energy in thoughtfully engaging with your work and participating in open discourse of their experience. Critical discourse is the forum for understanding others thoughts and perceptions about your work and intentions in a way that no other type of review or conversation will typically provide. For this reason, it can be considered an important aspect of building an artistic practice, especially in the visual arts.

Unfortunately, unless people are similarly sharing of this mindset, it can be difficult to find fruitful critical discussions.

Here are some tips to creating better critical conversations for yourself and others:

I believe it is best to never engage subjective appreciatives such as ‘I like’, ‘its cool’, ‘its ugly’ in a critical discourse unless they are to end the entire interaction. The response of others to an ‘I like it’ is either ‘me, too.’ or ‘I don’t’. And the discussion of what causes any of those reactions is left to chance dependent on the presence of an interrogator. To avoid this, speakers should be more introspective about their feelings, avoiding superficial barrier statements.

For instance, instead of ‘I like it’ seek to express what you feel is causing a positive attraction to the work. What does ‘liking it’ mean to you? What is communicating this feeling of affection? Is it a color that has sentimental value due to a specific memory or iconography signifiers that appeal to you due to a specific cultural or identity familiarity? 

Instead of ‘its ugly’ look for ways to express what you are feeling repelled by or finding problematic in your experience that would lead you to that phrase. Perhaps there is meaning in the experience of seeing ‘ugly’ that can be accessed once you begin analyzing why that thought was formed. Ugly connotes different things to different people so it is imperative that you are more specific. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ as is ugly. So dive into that! Who is the beholder to this conversation? What is the framework by which the work is fitting into a definition of that beholder’s definition of ugly?

Similarly, ‘its cool’ has no meaning unless you can burrow down into what that phrase is intended to express. Is it showcasing popular, strange, loud, quiet, interesting, surprising, or otherwise meaningful characteristics that create your interpretation of cool? If so, what are those exact characteristics? Are they embodied in singular aspects or in the relationship of the parts that compose the whole piece? Does cool intend to say ‘fitting into a popular dialogue’?…a novel idea that holds your interest?…a particularly relevant statement?

I say all of the above because I think that people have strayed even in academic settings from sharing their experiences with work, instead resorting to vague ideas of what thinking about art is and how artists can ‘improve’. I believe that my job as an artist is to strengthen my position and perspective; to have my voice as clearly identifiable as possible. That means understanding my shortcomings in translating my work to others and finding ever better ways of expressing exactly what I mean to say or exhibit. Specificity of language is subsequently important to honing and refining not only my work as an artist, but also to understanding my experience of others’ work and to my understanding others’ experiences of work.

Given the above framework, I particularly relish critical discussion (crit/critique). I hope this reframing of what it means to me to hold critique about works of art helps you in future opportunities. 

Happy Arting.

Additional Sharing:

Living as an artist means working to find artist calls and pitch projects. Too often most of those calls tally up to significant expenditures in application fees just to have your work seen by curators. In a small intervention for other artists frustrated by that system, such as myself, here is a running list of calls I’ve located that have no submission fees — get your work out there, artists! 

This page is dedicated to sharing ‘Zero Application Fee’ Artist Calls.
*If you run an artist call database, please consider having a way to filter based on submission fees.*

If you find zero fee artist calls, feel free to send them to me at jwester at and I will update this list accordingly. 

CaFE << Has a FEE FILTERand also provides entry services for many calls