In discussing the difficulty in critiquing expressionistic painting, it occurred to me (and others too, I'm sure) that part of the problem may not be the style itself but the mode of communication we use today in trying to critique this type of art. It's an interesting side issue to critiques, our attempts to adapt this time-honored, academic interchange to an e-mail format. Maybe it might help if we tried to be more FORMAL in our exchange than e-mail usually entails. In teaching art appreciation, I've always presented and demonstrated to classes a formal format for critiquing.
1.) Observe and study the work. This sounds like a "duh" but all too often, comments made during a critique are based upon first impressions, not allowing time for the painting to "sink in" to an intellectual level from whence good criticism originates. Visceral is fine, but it's ONLY the beginning in making contact with a work of art. And while the Internet gives the critic time to think, the images up for consideration are only "fair," at best, in allowing the close study of artwork that a good critique demands.
2.) Listen to the artist. With an e-mail format, here the artist all to often simply puts up then SHUTS up, waiting for the magic to happen. This is what makes critiquing of abstract work so shaky. If the artist presents no basis for the critique UP FRONT, then the reviewer has to establish one in his or her own mind and doing so is a risky proposition at best.
3.) Question the artist. The questions MUST come before the opinions because here is where the artist gets "nailed down" (so to speak) to a criteria upon which the rest of the critiquing process proceeds. With e-mail, this stop very often gets passed over altogether or comes only later after critical comments begin to emerge; and thus often causes the critic to have to backtrack to this point and regroup his or her thoughts. All to often, when this happens, the critique itself "shorts out." It's simply not worth the effort to start over from a new criteria.
4.) Present the positive elements. Almost NEVER is there a work of art without MANY very positive things happening. E-mail is ideal here. This is a "feel good" exercise for all concerned. Most often, this is the "easy" part of the critique.
5.) Present the negative elements. Boy, do we dance around with this one. The problem is often not what we think is "bad" about the painting but how to say so tactfully. The word "yuck" may come to mind but it's not very tactful, and "Your colors, while certainly interactive, seem to lack harmony and cohesion," may take more thought in phrasing HOW to say than in deciding WHAT to say. And with an oral critique, the critic has little further contact with the artist outside of class; so has little at stake in not mincing words. In an e-mail format, though we may never physically MEET the artist, e-mail friendships ARE often strong and lasting. So, out of fear of offending, we often slight this most valuable and SERIOUS point in the critique. But if tact causes negative comments to be meaningless, ambiguous, or "watered down" then maybe less tact might be called for.
6.) The artist responds. This is seldom a problem in the Internet so long as there is something to respond to. Positive comment seldom require more than a polite "thank you, that's what I thought too." Negative comments demand the same tact in response as the comments themselves. Of course, a defensive position is always much easier to man that an offensive (critical) position, but the artist must be careful not to stifle criticism, even if it is harsh and tactless (or seems that way) because to do so effectively DESTROYS future constructive criticism in the e-mail forum.
7.) Suggest improvements. This is the "constructive" in constructive criticism. It may range from "Try a little more red in that corner" to "Why don't you just scrap the whole damn thing and see if you can't improve the compositon next time." The internet excells here, but this and the previous element MUST go hand-in-hand. "That part looks bad but I don't know what you might do to FIX it," just doesnt' cut it
8.) The general discussion ensues. Here the e-mail format allows words to be carefully considered but has the disadvantage of PROLONGING the interchange a great deal. It may also inhibit the linear thought processes and the lively, instantaneous qualities that makes the group critique so much fun and informative.
Perhaps it might be best to FORGET the good old college freeforall experience and consider the e-mail critique as a separate encounter, conducted at a snail's pace, lacking much of the spontaneity, but far more considered and precise an intellectual exercise. And perhaps we'd get more out of it if we more strictly adhered to the formal procedural elements designed to put first things first and save the best till last. Informal may be simpler and more in keeping with the Internet e-mail phenomena, but it also saps the effectiveness of the process, making it prone to breaking down under the constraints of time and tact.