Cellulite and Asymmetry: the Delicate Nature of Critique
No one is quite so attune to the sensitive nature of the critique as I am. I make this claim without vanity. It is a fact – a distinction that I can wear like a Girl Scout badge.
Attending university in my thirties put me in a delicate position in the day when it was not quite common for a woman over the age of twenty one, to take day classes at a four year institution.
In my Life Drawing class I had to fake knowledge of the art of “beer pong” with the lovely young woman who sat on my right. I learned a thing or two about body piercings and tattoos from the twenty-one year old gentleman to my left who had no less than seven visual aids to go along with the discussion, two of which were attached by a chain that ran from his lip to his nose. But the one thing we all had in common was our mutual love of art – a passion that supersedes all differences in age or background.
Critique Rule #1: Identify your genre and establish with your critique partners the sort of critique you want.
It wasn’t until the final exam rolled around that the difference in our ages became an issue. The assignment: execute a life-size self-portrait, in pencil… nude.
Being the most senior member of the class, I was discreet in my gasp of horror. (I don’t think anyone heard that grunt, the sort that comes a second after receiving a sucker punch to the solar plexis.) While my classmates shrieked and moaned, I just put one hand to my mouth and another to my stomach as the bile churned. (I would later learn that was morning sickness, but that’s another story.)
Closing the bedroom door at this point, suffice it to say, I completed the assignment and the next and final class, I was determined to “grin and bear it” like an adult, a mature lover of art in all its forms. I wouldn’t be childish.
What was I thinking? I had forgotten the most important element of our class – the final hour critique!
Critique Rule #2: Critiques require trust. Make sure your critique partners are people you trust.
To further complicate, this class was to be a two hour pot-luck mixer/critique session.
So there we were at the last class, all twenty students, all of us reluctant to put our “all” out there, me holding my drawing rolled up in a tube in one sweaty hand and a container of three dozen deviled eggs in the other. I put my plate of eggs on the buffet table and walked to the cork-covered wall. Mr. Body Piercings put his six-pack of beer on the buffet table and saddled up beside me.
“Psst. Did you do the assignment?” he whispered.
“Thirty percent of our grade? You bet I did the assignment.”
“Whew.” He pretended to wipe sweat from his brow. He was actually nervous about displaying his nude self-portrait? The man who had had to shuck clothes to have piercings and tattoos put in places where no one should be putting needles, was more nervous about this assignment than I was. I felt smug and a dram of confidence.
Beer Pong Girl came in, put her six pack of beer on the buffet table, grabbed a deviled egg, and saddled up to Piercings and myself.
“Did you two do the assignment?”
Piercings played it cool. “Of course. It’s thirty percent of our grade.”
Beer Pong looked him over from head to toe. “I guess we’ll see what else you got pierced.”
He lifted his shirt and pointed to six-pack abs. There was a silver loop in his belly button attached to a chain that disappeared inside his waist band. I turned away to grab a beer from the buffet table.
Critique Rule #3: Give concrete examples of likes and suggestions for improvement – no euphemisms – and sandwich those to soften the blow.
Students were slow to trickle in that day, but as they did, the buffet table filled with six-packs of beer and the lone dish of deviled eggs disappeared before class even began.
Until finally, the moment of truth arrived. I would not hold back like some wall-flower school girl at a dance. I unscrewed the cap from my portfolio tube, pulled out my drawing and started pinning it on the wall, all six feet of 100% rag cotton paper with push pins at the corners so it wouldn’t curl up.
Piercings stepped up beside me and unfurled his own drawing. I averted my eyes, fearful that that much, that close, might be more than I could take. Beer Pong stepped up to my other side and unfurled her drawing. I averted my eyes. I would not compare my own self-portrait to the nubile, ninty-nine pound, post-teen beer pong champion. I took interest in my shoes as I turned and walked away from the wall of nudity.
Critique Rule #4: A useful critique is not performed in a vacuum. Know your market and know what you’re being compared against.
I was pleasantly pleased with the initial responses from my classmates as I walked away from the cork board. I heard “oohs” and “ahhs” and one “you go, girl,” and with less reluctance, the other members of our class, with beer for fortitude, posted their own work next to ours.
It wasn’t until I was across the room that I felt like I had the strength to look at my body hanging on the wall between the girl who looked like a cover model and the boy who used his body as a tapestry for artistic expression.
I took a swig of beer. (All the eggs were gone.) I looked up and…
I got an A+ on that final exam and all of the critiques were positive – not a single suggestion for possible changes. No one said anything about cellulite or commented on the obvious asymmetry in the upper torso area. They were kind and everyone was EXTREMELY complimentary of the “bold execution.”
Mr. Piercings probably received half credit, for the half of his body he did actually draw – from the waist up. Ms. Beer Pong employed the artful use of a ladder back chair to function as censor bars, and EVERY other blinkin’ drawing up there was fully clothed.
Critique Rule #5: Understand what you risk in putting your work up for inspection and don’t ask for it if you can’t take it. “That which does not kill you… etc,” blah, blah, blah, bull shit.
So, when you give a critique, remember what the person is sharing with you. It’s a bit of their soul, a slice of something that they’ve kept private for a very long time. It helps no one if you don’t give constructive advice when it’s requested. I still have the asymmetry and the cellulite, but I “boldly execute” wherever I go.
Sofie Couch has matured since her days at the University of Virginia. She writes southern, mostly young adult fiction, with fully clothed characters, some of whom struggle with cellulite and asymmetry. Permission to reprint with attribution.