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What to Do When People Criticize Your Art
For artists, one inescapable truth of the art world is that throughout your career all kinds of people will say all kinds of things about your art whether they tell you to your face, write about it, make videos about it, blog about it, post about it or gossip behind your back. Not only do you have to learn how to handle this continuous onslaught of thoughts, feelings, feedback, comments, criticisms, opinions, observations and impressions, but also figure out how to evaluate and respond to them, and most importantly, how to not take them personally.
But first, a word to all you artists who have a habit of spontaneously asking people what they think of your art. The real question should be the one you ask yourself-- what do YOU think of your art?-- but let's save the answer to that one for later. For now, know that anytime you ask someone what they think of your art, you instantly put them in an awkward position, especially if they don't really know you (why an artist would even ask someone who doesn't really know them, or their art, hardly makes any sense in the first place, but they go ahead and do it anyway).
Most people who find themselves in tricky situations like this generally try to end the conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible, and you can bet that in almost all cases what they'll tell you will not be what they think of your art, but rather what they think you'll want to hear-- which is usually that they like it. In other words, asking the question is basically pointless because you'll have no idea whether the answers you get will be honest or not, and no real way of finding that out. Unless you already have an established relationship with whomever you're asking, or you're in a setting where people are critiquing art, there's rarely any upside to putting someone on the spot. If people feel like commenting, let them do it on their own; don't force the issue.
The good news is you never really have to ask because over time, plenty of people will volunteer every conceivable response to your art-- sometimes fantastic, other times not so good. No matter what they say, these are always excellent opportunities to learn how your work impacts others, but at the same time, you can't take absolutely everything you hear at face value. Way too many artists have a tendency to get overly sensitive or defensive the instant anyone gets the least bit critical, and often without even thinking about who the criticizer is. These sorts of overreactions are rarely called for because most of the feedback you get comes from people who are not buyers, collectors, critics, gallery owners or anyone else who has the ability to either impact or influence the course of your career, but rather from friends, family, acquaintances or casual art fans simply out for a good time and a little small talk. And making a big deal out of small talk does not do you one iota of good.
In order to figure out how seriously to take any conversation where your art suddenly becomes the center of attention, start by assessing the source. Who is this person? Do they know you? Are they familiar with the type of art you make? Do they know what it's about? Do they know how you work? How much do they know about art? Are they qualified to judge art? If so, what are their qualifications? Are they potential buyers? Are they respected members of the art community? Are they simply trying to make art conversation? Do they have their own interests or agendas in mind rather than yours (hint: sometimes they do)? Or do they just love to hear themselves blab? You'll meet them all... believe it. Once you figure out whom you're talking to and are able to get a little perspective on the matter, then you'll be in a far better position to relax and get the most out of every encounter.
This doesn't mean that if someone fails to "qualify," in your opinion, to weigh in on your art, you blow them off or ignore everything they say. If one of your goals as an artist is to expand your fan base and broaden your audience-- to expose your work to as many people as possible in as many different circumstances as possible-- good procedure is to consider and reflect on what everyone tells you, and not just a select few. Even the most uninformed viewers can at times provide brilliant bits of wisdom and insight into your art, not only in terms of the work itself, but also how it affects them, what they get out of it, what it communicates, what they understand, what they need help understanding, and so on. And that's the good stuff, not pretentious art babble someone might lay on you just to stroke their own ego. Input from a broad cross-section of people helps you become a better artist by better understanding the overall significance of your art. It's just that simple.
Another important determination you have to make about responses to your art is whether a particular comment is based on the individual's personal tastes or is instead based more on their overall knowledge and understanding of art-- your type of art in particular-- and their familiarity or experience with the art world as a whole. Usually it's the former-- someone either likes or dislikes your art only in terms of what they find personally appealing, and has little or nothing to do with the quality, meaning or significance of the work itself. Personal-taste types of criticisms are still worth listening to, especially if you hear similar versions or particular reactions over and over again, but at the same time, you can't take it all that seriously because it's not really about you or your art, it's about other people and their tastes. In other words, don't get all bent out of shape when someone speaks about your art in less than glowing terms, based solely on his or her individual preferences for what they like or don't like in art.
If however, a person's comments are more informed, objective, made within a broader art world context, and are based more on facts relating to art in general rather than one particular piece of your art, then you should perhaps consider them more seriously. For example, I see accomplished works of art all the time that I do not find the least bit appealing personally, but it's still good art and I still have plenty of good things to say about it. And the opposite goes for not-so-good art; even though it's not quite ready for primetime, I still love it. The important part is when I do decide to dialogue with an artist, I remain objective, leave my tastes out of it and consider the art purely on its own merits or lack thereof. These types of objective dispassionate agenda-less criticisms are the ones worth paying the most attention to.
Regardless of who's telling you what, you always have to keep the bigger picture in mind rather than flip out every single time anybody says anything the least bit contrary about your work (many artists fall victim to this, and it's almost always way more energy draining than productive to fixate on isolated incidents). Think more in the aggregate, in terms of cumulative feedback over time. That's what really educates you about the impact of your work, and about how and what it communicates to others-- not any one person's remarks, no matter who that one person may be. Compile information more like a census taker and over time, accumulate, catalogue and categorize data. As you progress in your career, general response patterns to your art will emerge and become increasingly clear. You'll begin to see similarities in how people react to and experience your work, and you'll be able to make progressively more informed decisions about how to present yourself and your art to everyone's advantage, and to ultimately advance in your career.
Taking any one person too seriously is never good-- regardless of whether that person happens to have a profile in the art community or has the ability to influence your career. The art world is so huge, especially in the Online Age where pretty much everything is accessible to everyone all the time (including you), you'll come to realize that there's plenty of room for all points of view and for all art to coexist, and plenty of potential interest in your art as well-- assuming you're willing to put the effort into nurturing that interest. The influence or authority of any single individual only extends as far as their audience and furthermore, that influence is becoming progressively more marginalized when compared to the ever-expanding number of available platforms and ways not only for artists to call attention to their art, but also for getting it out there in front of the public.
In the end though, while comments and critiques from others are certainly worth thinking about and at times even acting on, at some point you have to set them all aside. Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I said the real question you should be asking is what YOU think of your art rather than what other people think? If you happen to be one of those many artists who are guilty of looking to others for acknowledgement or approval rather than looking to yourself, then perhaps change up your agenda a tad, get introspective and occasionally reflect on why you find this quest for outside acceptance so necessary. Your art is ultimately all about you and your belief in what you're doing regardless of what anyone else has to say. You can't ignore the importance of other people's observations and input in terms of understanding the overall effect and appeal of your work, but after everyone's had their say, your dedication, desire, commitment and relentless determination to act on your inspirations are all that really count.
(art by Anthony Michael Sneed)