Art attracts unsolicited opinions from virtually everybody. While nobody is likely to analyze, let alone critique the handiwork of a plumber, doctor, postal worker, or store clerk to their face, artwork gets judged openly and freely all of the time — especially now it gets posted on social media.
Everybody has an opinion about art. There’s an immediate and instinctive reaction to visual arts which typically says more about the person’s taste and state of mind than about the artwork. Factors that impact our opinion are color scheme, subject matter, style, technique, competence, and genre of an artwork. And sometimes our valuation or impression of the artist as a person and, yes, even our passing mood can influence our view. We are all highly subjective creatures, ruled by primitive reactions.
Artists continue to create despite the relentless torrent of well-intentioned opinions, unsolicited advice, quirky one-liners, and callous criticism. Less than constructive comments can be painful and occasionally quite devastating to artists who don’t have a thick skin, haven’t developed useful coping mechanisms, and/or cannot separate triviality from substance. For sanity’s sake and to be able to continue to create, it’s vital for artists — regardless of career level — to distinguish valid evaluation from thoughtless remark. Likewise, it’s just as crucial to avoid allowing praise to lure us into complacency that makes us overly satisfied with our efforts and may stifle artistic progress.
“A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world.”
Edmond de Goncourt, French writer, 1822–1896
This is a topic that I have been pondering for many years in an ongoing effort to develop good coping mechanisms to deal with irritating, annoying, insulting, or sometimes downright baffling commentary about my artwork. While I consider myself quite a sensitive soul, I decided long ago to not allow outsiders’ reactions to influence my artistic path, no matter how positive or negative the feedback may be. A nasty comment — especially made by individuals close to me — may well go around and around in my mind for a while, but with a bit of effort I always manage to look at it rationally and see it for what it is.
Talking to fellow artists I have come to realize I’m thicker-skinned than I previously thought. Some artists are so affected by disapproval, snubs, rejection, or even the fear of negative response, that entire days or even weeks are wasted suffering, agonizing, and feeling depressed and/or angry. I know artists who simply stop functioning altogether and have a very hard time getting back into the saddle — or should I say, ‘back in front of the easel’?
This emotional disruption is a terrible waste, not only of time but of creative productivity and emotional energy. Meanwhile, the person who provoked this terrible upheaval most likely doesn’t have a clue — and probably couldn’t care less about it either. The artist tries to understand the reasons for rejection, brushoffs, careless remarks, or gratuitous insults, but guess what, they almost never find a satisfactory, helpful answer. The resolution lies within ourselves. It is to be found in the solid framework of rational thought that we can use to classify outside reactions, and give feedback a limited range of importance so we can continue with our work.
The following enumerates some elements of my thought process; they are guidelines for my own behavior towards others, as well as recipes on how I deal with my own response towards the reactions I get regarding my artwork pummeling in from the outside world. While these musings are very much a work in progress, I do hope that sharing them will stimulate awareness and mindfulness. Let’s try to avoid wasting time on matters beyond our control and concentrate on our creative paths. Correspondingly, let’s try to treat others with more empathy and thought, for we never know how careless words might affect them.
The differences between various forms of feedback
All artists need feedback so it is up to us to place others’ comments into the right context — this is essential for our emotional wellbeing as well as our creative growth.
· Criticism is an expression of disapproval on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes. Criticism is negative, destructive, and mostly futile.
· A critique is a detailed evaluation of artwork in regards to aesthetics, composition, and technique. Critique is positive, constructive, and often useful.
· Opinion is a subjective judgement or belief, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Opinion can be positive or negative, depending on its delivery and its consequences.
· Compliments are polite expressions of praise or admiration. Compliments are typically gratifying and uplifting, unless they seduce the artist into complacency.
It is just as hard to give as to receive a critique. Consider the following strategies:
Receiving a critique
· Only request a critique from a knowledgeable person whose opinion you trust and respect — the most valuable critique comes from fellow artists or art educators who understand your methods, intentions, and techniques.
· Only request a critique to improve your artwork — never as a substitute for attention.
· Do not request a critique accompanied by self-defeating reasoning. In other words, do not complain about your ineptness, your doubts about attaining certain skills, or lack of sales. Better to discuss these feelings with a good friend.
· Do not request a critique from a curator, a gallerist, a jury member, or someone you do not know.
· Seriously consider the critique — it can prove highly enlightening.
· It is your choice whether or not to implement the given advice.
· Never take a critique personally — it is exclusively about the artwork.
Giving a critique
· A critique should only be given upon request, in a safe environment, preferably in private.
· A critique never involves cruelty or ridicule — it is based on support and understanding.
· Inquire about intention regarding subject matter and style, about method and medium. Understand what you are asked to critique.
· A request for your critique is a privilege and a sign of esteem — do not misuse your position.
· Emphasize both the strengths and weaknesses of the artwork, and clarify them.
· Avoid speaking in absolutes — say “I think it is …” instead of “It is …”
· Limit your advice to three or four concrete points for improvement.
· Give practical, specific suggestions that will result in improvement of the artwork.
· Your advice need not be taken and that’s alright.
Dealing with criticism
“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
Bob Dylan, American singer-songwriter, b. 1941
Most comments are not based on an understanding of the creative process or technique but are given from a subjective viewpoint that reflects more on the commentator than the artwork. Although words can wound and dishearten, you should strive to avoid feeling offended or personally attacked. While the creative act feels akin to giving birth, artists need to separate the self from the artwork to distinguish a personal attack from art criticism.
To relativize criticism, pose the following questions:
· Does this person have the authority and expertise to evaluate my artwork?
· Is this constructive criticism intended to help? If so, can I learn something from it?
· Is this hollow criticism? Is it intended to upset me, or are flawed communication or poor language skills at play?
· Does the remark offer any useful insights? Note that one can extrapolate information from critical words about non-art-related matters as well, such as the critic as a person, as communicator, their level of emotional intelligence, or their social intentions.
Dealing with non-compliments
Between criticism and compliments lies a vast universe of reactions that are unintelligible, inarticulate, or just plain confusing. Often one does not know what the other person meant to convey exactly, or even whether it was meant positively or negatively.
A few examples of non-compliments are:
· The dismissal: “It’s easy for you to do what you do.”
· Sarcasm: the use of irony to mock or convey contempt, often veiled and hard to catch.
· Ambiguous feedback: “Interesting.”
· The artwork gets completely ignored. This may well be unintentional due to a lack of social graces or interest, but it may sometimes be done intentionally to make a point about its insignificance.
· Patronizing remarks speak volumes about the need for status, mostly made by the kind of people who lift themselves up by putting others down.
· The comparison compliment, which is not so flattering when you think about it: “This one is so much better than your last one.”
· The backhanded compliment: similar to the comparison, a person compliments one aspect and insults another in the same sentence.
· Jokes, the ha-ha kind, are usually completely unrelated to the artwork.
Recognition from our peers, family, and friends are welcome moments that break the loneliness of the studio, shine a spotlight on our efforts, and give us the energy to continue on our path. Praise given by those higher up — such as renowned artists, collectors, curators, gallerists, museum directors, and anybody we admire and respect — can increase our confidence and give us a welcome energy boost.
Yet note that positive feedback can, on occasion, freeze us into being reticent to change our direction, style, or subject matter when we are ready to do so. Advice, whether solicited or not, can also chain us or send us in the wrong direction. It’s very hard to diverge from a chosen path that seems successful because of all the positive feedback and acclaim it receives, because changing course implies spending precious time and energy on experimentation without the assurance of the positive responses we received before.
All one can do, as an artist, is to try to place all feedback into a rational context — starting with ranking the importance one attributes to the source. Try to be pragmatic about dissecting what certain words or attitudes mean to you, how they might influence you, and why they affect you. Placing things into the appropriate context is often an entertaining exercise as well as highly enlightening. Moreover, it will help you to know yourself better — your handicaps, hang-ups, and fears, as well as your strengths, determination, and fortitude — which leads to inner growth.
“To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
Elbert Hubbard, American writer, artist, and philosopher, 1856–1915
Likewise, it is important to reverse roles in some situations too — in other words, have empathy by putting some effort and thought into what words you use and how you react towards fellow artists. Make sure your feedback has the intended effect and causes no harm. If you don’t know what to say, the best option is to say nothing.
Along the same lines, it’s necessary to grant others some slack. Some people may lack social or verbal skills, others may seem insensitive because they are communicating in a foreign language, and others may have emotional issues or may perhaps be going through a rough time and feel a need to lash out. And then there are the self-proclaimed influencers and project leaders who push a theme and unthinkingly coax artists into swerving off their path to achieve the venture du jour. There’s a whole range of ineptitudes that can explain certain actions. While these aren’t excuses for bad behavior, these possibilities can add context. Sometimes it’s best to just ignore certain feedback, seeing it for what it is: it’s not about you, it’s about them.
Most important for every artist is to develop an internal feedback process — to know where you are in your creative process, what your personal goals are, what you feel you need to improve and build on. In other words, every artist needs to develop a form of honest self-evaluation derived from internal parameters that only the artist him or herself can set. Developing and understanding our internal feedback isn’t always easy, but it is valuable to realize that without it most comments from the outside will be irrelevant even if they are well-intentioned.
Last but not least, let’s all make a sincere effort to exercise tactfulness and improve our social graces. It’s valuable to pay more attention towards recognizing the efforts of artists as a show of understanding, respect, and support. Kindhearted validation may provoke a smile, motivate, or even encourage the creation of a masterpiece.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer — Antwerp, Belgium, December 2019
“Build up your self-esteem to the level that might seem unwarranted. This will help you to ignore both positive and negative responses to your paintings. Both are usually misguided, since they come from the outside. Be your most severe and devastating critic, while never doubting that you are the best thing since sliced bread.”
Alex Kanevsky, Russian artist, b. 1963