Loft Door, Long Island City, NY, detail
Charcoal on paper, 19 x 24 in.
Private Collection, New York
They're out there, ready to pounce.
Lurking at the gallery openings, casing the open studio events.
Undermining your confidence at every turn.
Testing your faith in human decency.
Spiking your blood pressure to dangerous levels.
They're the critics. And their sole purpose is to annoy the living hell out of you.
No, I'm not talking about professional art critics – who seldom mince words, but who are devoted nonetheless to furthering the understanding of art.
I'm talking about folks with little or no grasp of what goes into creating a work of art, who insist on telling you how to do it anyway.
Oh where, you ask, do these fiends come from, but more to the point, how can you avoid them?
Tragically, you can't.
Because they're unavoidable. They're drawn to your art like mosquitoes to a porch light.
You can't silence them and it's pointless to argue with them.
You can't board them on a cruise ship bound for a distant land.
There's no "off" button anywhere in sight. I've looked.
And while I realize this all sounds cynical and cruel, it helps sometimes to see the humor in it.
Most Memorable Comments
So let me start by sharing some of the more notable pearls of wisdom I've received over the years:
• I like your crisp paintings better than your blurry ones.
• Why don't you do Asian or African art?
• You misspelled your name in the signature.
• Who would want to buy THAT?
• How could you have painted this in 1959? (Answer—that's my birth year, not the completion date).
• Why don't you paint the kinds of things that people like?
• You forgot to put eggs in that nest.
Oil on panel, 10 1/8 x 12 3/8 in.
Yes, these are actual comments from visitors at gallery receptions, and each comment came as a surprise.
Because as emphatic as these blog posts sound (which people can read or ignore, voluntarily) I can't imagine approaching a professional in any field and telling them how to do their work.
Why then do artists get so much unsolicited advice from people who've never picked up a brush and who rarely step foot in a museum? And how do you handle that advice without being an ass yourself?
Seriously—take a deep in-breath...then slowly exhale. This will calm you, and the pause will prevent a knee-jerk response.
When you're calm, you appear more rational and more professional.
Realize that any strong reaction, positive or negative, means your work made an impact.
Or stirred an emotion. Something powerful or unfamiliar that the viewer can't process. Many people are out of touch with their emotions and become uncomfortable (or unbearable) when they feel them.
If your critic has an ego – and most of them do - your art may have reminded them that they're not the smartest kid in class anymore. So now they need to play the authority for their world to make sense again.
None of this is malicious or even conscious, and if you look deeply enough, you can almost find flattery in the harshest criticism. If you can't find the flattery, then continue breathing. Be the adult in the room.
Besides, you just might be talking to a prickly collector.Careful though; the more aggressive collectors like to put you down—right before making a lowball offer.
Let Them Blather On
Silence can be incredibly powerful.
One of the most potent responses to a tactless remark is to let the speaker hear their own voice.
If you do this right, the ignorance in their words will echo right back to them. Maintain eye contact and try to remain still (note, this isn't easy). Imagine yourself as an empty space or a big mirror.
When they're done, repeat their words, without emotion, and then add:
"That's very helpful. Thank you." You'll almost hear the beeping sound of a truck in reverse.
...the most important thing when listening to critiques of your art is to make the effort to separate yourself from the art.
~ Clara Lieu
Adjunct Professor, RISDI
Detaching from your art is easier said than done. Like anything worthwhile, it takes practice.
And a simple, effective practice you can start right now?
Stop looking at your work so much. Stop thinking about it so much.
Too many painters search for solutions by staring holes in their canvases. The more we identify with our art, the more we become a target. Critics have this weird ability to zero in on the bigger targets.
Younger talents are particularly vulnerable. So if you're under 40 and getting lots of flack, then you know you're doing something right.
Use Your Best Weapon
Great art doesn't need a defense. Weak art doesn't need a defense either, it needs to be finished.
Your work is either great or it's unfinished. You're either a master or you're a student, although true masters never stop learning.
The strongest argument supporting your work is the work itself. Your ability always is what it is. It's not the sum of other people's opinions. The moment you stop internalizing those opinions is the moment you become free. And when you become free, no one will have the power to discourage you.
Get Tough if You Have to
It's not the recommendation of this post that you tolerate outright abuse. If someone crosses the line, and you know in your gut where that line is, then go ahead and let them have it.
No, don't punch.
Just state in a clear, firm voice that you're not there for a lesson. If you're annoyed, let it show. Then excuse yourself (mobile phone is a life-saver here). Don't worry, you won't be blacklisted by the powerful art world just for getting a little pissed off.
Because the bottom line is this...
Unsolicited critiques, made outside of the classroom, are inappropriate. Anyone giving you advice without your asking for it is out of line. It's perfectly OK to be firm on that.
With experience, you'll be able to see the critics coming at you from a mile away, and avoid them altogether.
Know You're in Stellar Company
Criticism goes with being an artist. There's no escaping it.
If you don't learn to manage criticism and master yourself when it comes, it could shatter your confidence and send you to the doldrums.
Your fellow artists deal with this stuff all the time. We all regret having overreacted in the past, or not reacting strongly enough. You can't deliver the perfect comeback every time, especially when blindsided in a public place.
So, the next time it happens...
• Listen (or at least pretend to).
• Know that your art can defend itself.
• Know that your art isn't your identity.
• Guard your boundaries, fiercely if necessary.
• Understand that critics aren't trying to hurt and they aren't trying to help. They're trying to impress.
Remember that some of the world's greatest talents withstood the worst abuse humanity could dish out. And it never stopped them from becoming great. It only made them more determined.
No one can stop you from becoming great. No one. Not if you want it enough.
Don't let a bunch of empty words derail you or spoil your peace of mind.
The world needs great artists, now more than ever.
Be tough, stay focused, buy a good pair of earphones, and do your best work.