Your Piece or Mine

by Carlene Harwick
This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in summer 2002

According to Webster: A ‘critique’ is a critical analysis or evaluation of a subject, situation, or literary work. To take that a step further, let’s look at ‘criticism.’ Webster defines this as “analysis of qualities and evaluation of comparative worth; esp. the critical consideration and judgment of literary or artistic work.” And one more. Let’s define ‘criticize:’ “the general term for finding fault with or disapproving of a thing.”

When this is translated to the field of art, is the emphasis on finding fault or is it on critical analysis? Most of us would agree it should be the latter. But, is it? Because we have an interest in art, but come from a different professional world, do we remember to look at pieces with an ‘analysis of art’ focus?

One of the problems that seems to plague us as judges of the needlearts is how to write an effective critique – with emphasis on analysis as opposed to fault-finding. Finding the balance between the positive and the negative is not an easy task.

In traveling around this past year, I have heard many comments about the critiques our exhibit entrants have received in recent exhibits. On the negative side, I’ve heard: It was so mean-spirited that I hesitate to enter any more pieces; I got nothing out of it except what I did ‘wrong’ but not suggestions for improvement. On the positive side, I’ve heard: It was so positive that it gave me the impression that the judge didn’t want to hurt my feelings. And, if it was that good, why didn’t I win a ribbon? I paid all that money and learned nothing about my piece.

The concern seems to be that the entrant is getting ‘nothing’ helpful from their critique. This indicates that as judges we have our job cut out for us. We need to improve our ability to write an effective critique or learn how to write a quality critique.

I’ve had several excellent judging mentors and Dolores Andrew was my first. She stressed how important knowledge of design and color is, as well as stitching techniques. She further stressed that to be a worthwhile judge, we needed to continuously study all aspects of the needlearts. With that knowledge under our belt, we should be able to handle most judging situations well.

When you receive a critique, what do you want it to say? And how do you want it said? Regardless of how many aspects of a piece may need improvement, there is always something good that can be said about it. On the other hand, regardless of how excellent a piece is, there is probably at least a minute area that could be improved upon. It then becomes a matter of how it is expressed by the critiquing judge. Focusing on negative aspects of a piece with negative comments isn’t educating the exhibitor or assisting in ideas for improvement for future stitching.

The best method of critiquing is to give general remarks about the positive qualities of the piece. Mention the specific areas that ‘need improvement’ and then make effective suggestions as to how the piece could be improved.

Close with positive remarks. This is known as the ‘sandwich method’, i.e., layer the comments with the bread, followed by the meat, and topped off with the bread. This will assist the entrant in future pieces so any weak areas can be improved.

Let’s continue to study all aspects of the field of needlework that we enjoy so much, and let’s work to write quality critiques. As beve handweger says: “Critiquing is teaching…being critiqued is learning.”