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How to Handle Obnoxious Amateur Art Critics

Christopher Gallego: Loft Door, Long Island City NY, charcoal on paper, 24 x 19 in.

Loft Door, Long Island City, NY, detail

Charcoal on paper, 19 x 24 in.

Why should the way I feel
depend on the thoughts in someone else's head?

~ Emerson


Christopher Gallego  
December 12, 2018  | 17 Comments


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 nonetheless devoted 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.

And don't get me started on the plein-air "observers". They're a special breed, as Gregg Kreutz notes in this classic article.

Oh where, you ask, do such fiends come from and 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 possibly 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.

Contemporary Painter Christopher Gallego-Image Title-Nest

Nest, 2007

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 can be read or ignored 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?

 

First, Breathe

Cameron Schmitz
Untitled (in progress)
Oil on canvas, 32 x 36 in.

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 instantly 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 aren't good with emotions, and become uncomfortable (or unbearable) when they feel them.

If your critic has an ego, and most of them do, your work 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 just keep on 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.

Don't become the thing you're fighting against

~ Eckhart Tolle

Let Them Blather On

Silence is incredibly powerful.

One of the most potent responses to a tactless comment 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.


Detach


...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, RISD


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 closely we identify with our art, the more we become a target. Critics have this weird ability to locate the bigger targets before swooping in.

The young and supremely talented are particularly vulnerable. So if you're under 40 and getting lots of flack, then you know you're doing something right.

Eduardo Millan Sanudo
Vista parcial de Jerez, 2013
Oil on panel 39 x 59 in.

 

Use Your Best Weapon 

Great art doesn't need a defense. Weak art doesn't need a defense either; it just 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 point is that 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 feeling annoyed it, 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 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 all the time. We all regret having overreacted, or not reacting strongly enough in the past. Nobody can deliver the perfect comeback every time, especially when blindsided in a public place.

So, the next time it happens...

• Take a breath.
• 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.

So don't let a bunch of words get between you and your goals, or spoil your peace of mind.

The world needs great artists, now more than ever.

Just be tough, stay focused, buy a good pair of earphones, and do your best work.




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17 thoughts on “How to Handle Obnoxious Amateur Art Critics

  1. Another wonderful piece of insight Chris. Thank you. I had someone come up when I was painting a landscape outside once. He looked for a minute, not impressed by the painting or the motif, then he said “Do you do the one with the boats?” Rarely does a single sentence say everything you need to know about a viewer, LOL!

  2. Thanks Christopher. Your calm and thoughtful manner models what you say. And I’m sure it takes practice – lots of it. Love your drawing.

  3. I savor your posts, Christopher. They are the most insightful of any I read and I am always pleased to see a new one in my inbox. Thanks for your thoughts here– they are as valuable as the small nest is beautiful.

  4. Hi Lorena, I suppose we could take the opportunity to try to educate these people. But I don’t know how to do that without sounding indignant. Such people are not our collectors anyway. I try to ignore them as much as possible. And, really, they are only a few. Most people are really nice and appreciative, and want to know the why and how I paint.

  5. Hey Linda, so I’m one of those painters that people “compliment” by saying “Your work looks just like a photo!” and my stomach turns over and I feel pretty awful coz what is the point in that? My communication with them failed. It’s so unfortunate that so many people don’t see the actual value of a painting. Their loss.

  6. As always, another great post! I have had nearly all those things said (even the egg one). And your comment, “• Understand that critics aren’t trying to hurt and they aren’t trying to help. They’re trying to impress.” Is super insightful and totally true! Thanks for saying it. Now to remember it….

    1. Thank You, Lorena; greatly appreciated. Your work is far from photographic; this is something all realist painters have to hear (fingernails on a blackboard.)

      I suspect that great art can be threatening to a minority of artists and non-artists. And judging from responses such as yours, there may be some truth to it.

  7. I used to have a studiomate who gave constant unsolicited advice, and when I reacted, she said I just can’t take criticism. Never mind that she had only been painting for a couple years. Thanks for reaffirming my feelings on the subject, Chris. As usual, sooo helpful. By the way, I am no longer in that studio.

    1. Thanks, Mary Jo. Why a two-year painter would critique your work is beyond me…but not entirely, based on everything we’re discussing.

      Keep up the outstanding work, and congratulations on the studio change!

  8. My work is impressionist. The most annoying comments I get are from those who praise another artist’s work for being so good that it “looks just like a photograph”, inferring that if I just work a little harder, practice a little more, I can achieve such desired perfection. I just figure these people are so ignorant they’re not worth bothering with. I just turn away and direct my attention elsewhere. When you show your work you have to grow a thick skin. Your advice in this article is very helpful. Thank you.

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