Kandinsky abstract art

Empathy & Ego: What I Learned During Six-Hour Art School Critique Classes

All sophomore photography majors at the School of Visual Arts are required to take a six-hour critique class. From 9am to 3pm every Thursday, with brief breaks for snacks and smokes, a steady stream of aspiring Avedons tack their work to the wall one by one and defend it against the jaded questioning of the thirty or so others in the class.

The six-hour critique format was brutal and by design.

If you were lucky enough to present during the first hour, before the coffee had kicked in, you could expect to get through the proceedings without too much trouble. Hour two would bring raised voices and lots of, “But whyyy did you choose to do that?”

Yelling was to be expected by the pre-lunch hour, when people were fully caffeinated and starving for calories and cigarettes. By hour four, the gloves were off and tears weren’t uncommon.

Ego is an Impediment and an Imperative

Great artists figure out their best work is an extension, a reflection, of themselves. It is quite a trick to both be and create that mirror (a mirror, not a movie, big difference).

This is why it is so hard to hear thirty caffeine-fueled, nicotine-starved self-proclaimed artists rip apart, sometimes literally, the work you put on the wall. It is not a piece of paper up there, it is literally you on that pockmarked wall, crucified by thumbtacks.

Eventually, we learn we must put all of ourselves into the work and then separate ourselves from it.

We learn our ideas aren’t sacred.

We learn we are a work-in-progress.

We learn others can help us improve.

We learn ego is an imperative and an impediment.

This is as true for the artist as it is for the entrepreneur or the designer, the intern or the CEO, the husband or the wife, the student or the teacher.

Empathy is a Superpower

Empathy, the word, is adapted from “einfühlung,” a German word coined by an art critic, imagine that, looking for a better way to talk about and understand art. In order to do so you must project your yourself into the art. Einfühlung translates as “into feeling.”

Empathy then is not simply sharing or understanding the feelings of another. The Oxford English Dictionary contains this early, fantastic definition:

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation

You catch that? Empathy is not an emotion, it’s a power. It requires you to not only understand the object, but crucially, empathy requires that you understand yourself.

Two Key Lessons

I didn’t become a professional artist, but the lessons from this marathon class arise almost daily in my professional life as a marketing / product development executive, team leader, and mentor.

  1. Put your best work out there, but understand that no idea is sacred. You must accept the fact that your idea can be, will be, improved by revealing it to others.
  2. When giving feedback, fully understand both what the creator is trying to achieve as well as what you are bringing to the discussion.

None of these things were in the syllabus. Wisdom only comes with time.


Thanks to Fawn Potash, the professor of my sophomore critique class. 

Thanks to Jon Budington, for originally exposing me to the word einfühlung and the true meaning of empathy.