Job Maestro: How to Give and Receive Criticism

Illustration: Michelle Vaquilar, '15 BFA Graphic Design

Illustration: Michelle Vaquilar, ’15 BFA Graphic Design

Ah, criticism. What a bitter tonic: often nasty yet necessary for growth—especially in our professional lives. But critical feedback on your work doesn’t have to taste like a spoonful of cod liver oil to your soul.

Enter the art of constructive criticism. And who better to speak of art than Brian Taylor, professor and former chair of the Department of Art and Art History and maître de la critique? As an artist with 30-plus years’ experience teaching photography, Taylor knows a thing or two about delivering—and receiving—criticism. The Job Maestro caught up with him to find out how to dish it, how to take it and, most importantly, how to always make it constructive.

In fifth grade I recreated Duchamp’s “Fountain” out of papier-mâché for a school art project. My instructor shared a few choice words about my work before deeming it poor enough to actually use, instead of grade. Would you consider his feedback constructive criticism?

The difference between constructive criticism and reflexive criticism is the thought, consideration and concern that inform your comments. Constructive criticism is not simply blurting whatever is on your mind! You must be careful not to step on a person’s positive spirit or harm their passion for creativity.

My colleague recently built a website about raising fawns for a wildlife conservation client. But he got his fawn wrong: the site gave step-by-step instructions on how to bottle-feed a half human-half goat Roman forest god. So I wrote “FAUN FAIL” across his forehead with a marker. Constructive criticism is supposed to honest, right? 

While everyone asks for the truth, I have found that very few people can handle it. I always like to begin my feedback with some sort of positive comment about what went right in the work and then segue into more serious or intense feedback. The proper critic praises what has already been accomplished but, more importantly, pushes the artist to take his/her work to the next level, like the famous story of a musical maestro who told his violin students, “You are succeeding wonderfully at this level, but now I want you to fail at a higher level.”
I always like to begin my feedback with some sort of positive comment about what went right in the work and then segue into more serious or intense feedback.
But, Professor Taylor, this website really stank. As if a faun would need to be bottle-fed! Please. Everyone knows fauns eat solid food from birth. What else could I have done?

There is always something worthy of praise in anyone’s creative pursuits, even if only their valiant attempts to express themselves. In critiques, I try to practice the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take: “First, do thy patient no harm.”

That makes sense. I admit my colleague didn’t take my feedback well: Before redoing the website, he broke into my home and put a baby deer in my bathtub. How could he have responded?

It’s incredibly helpful to seek input on our work, but in doing so we’re putting our fragile ego on the line and making ourselves vulnerable. I tell my students to listen with one ear open and one ear closed: Be open-minded to what people say, but guard against destructive feedback.

The longer you work in a particular field, the more you will develop confidence and a thicker skin against unfounded criticism. I can honestly say that I can’t be hurt by anyone’s opinion about my art now. Always keep in mind that somebody somewhere doesn’t like Picasso’s work—if he can’t charm everyone, then the pressure is off the rest of us mere mortals!


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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