How to (Graciously) Accept Praise for your Art

Speak only if it improves upon the silence.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I recently did something I’m not proud of.

The very thing I’ve urged my students to avoid.

It happened at the opening reception of my first group exhibition since COVID. 

A charming woman approached me with kind words about the artwork I was showing. I thanked her, then she shared another compliment. Then another.

I began to squirm.

I didn’t feel the art was worthy of the praise she was giving. And so began the self-critical diatribe:

Oh, it’s just an old piece…
Oh, I should have done such-and-such differently…
There are so many other great talents in this show…

Bla, bla, bla.

And the worst part?

I know how tactless such a response is. I’ve known it for decades.

Praise for your artwork is a beautiful gift someone is handing you. When you dismiss the praise you reject the gift, and the giver.

Why would any sane person do such a thing?

I see it as a form of arrogance cloaked in modesty. It’s the artist’s way of saying, I’m better than the piece you’re looking at. Or,  This would have been a masterpiece if not for this or that.

What crap.

It also translates into Look how modest I am, which is about as immodest as it gets.

It’s understandable to feel awkward at an exhibition, especially if you haven’t shown in a while or if you haven’t shown much at all. The work you created in private has suddenly gone public.

Any flaws in your art are on display for all to see and criticize, and you’re exposed. It’s tempting to highlight those flaws before anyone else does and get the humiliation over and done with.

I get it. I really do.

But this is old stuff. The saying We are our own worst critics may be true, but it’s totally boring. There’s nothing new or even mildly interesting about the self-deprecating rants of artists.

And the conversation shouldn’t end with our agreeing or disagreeing with the feedback we get. Feedback is an opening; it’s another way of saying, “I like your work, tell me more about it”.

But when you self-criticize, you shut down the conversation. Or worse, you pressure the other person to compliment you again, which is supremely annoying.

Sound familiar?

OK, so how do you avoid this blunder in the future?

1. Start With Two Words:

    “Thank You”

First, and like any behavior you’d like to change, practice.

Say the words, Thank You, a dozen or so times, ideally when you’re alone so nobody thinks you’re nuts.

Seriously, go ahead and do it. Better yet, practice in front of a mirror, as an actor would. Get comfortable saying Thank You, again and again, until the words feel completely natural. Smile internally as you say them.

Imagine the praise landing on you as you welcome the nice feeling that goes with it. If you find this hard to do when you’re alone it’ll be impossible in a crowded room.

2. Put a Sock in it

Then, and this is critical, shut up.  

I know that sounds harsh, but try to hear the words Shut Up, in your mind, to ensure you actually do. This is the part I find the hardest.

People who over-explain are trying to divert attention (ask any police officer what over-explaining means to them). It’s an attempt to throw the other person off the trail that leads to one’s missteps. 

But that little pause–five seconds worth is plenty–shows you’ve heard their words and are touched by them. Respond too quickly and it appears you weren’t really listening.

3. Keep Them Talking

As mentioned in the earlier post, XXX we learn more from our successes than our failures. We just need to know what those successes are.

Asking, “What do you like about my work” is too direct and you don’t want to put anyone on the spot.

But “What kind of art do you like”, or, “Do you go to many exhibitions?” are perfectly legitimate questions that can give more insight into how your work is received.

At the very least, you’ve shown interest in your newest fan.

4. Inform

OK, you’ve listened, thanked them, and begun a conversation. Now give them a little bonus.

What unusual details can you share about your work? Something only you know?

Maybe it changed dramatically over time.

Maybe your cat clawed off a section that you had to repaint later (yes, that happened to me). Or your drawing fell off a gallery wall and the glass frame smashed into a thousand pieces (that too).

When you share in this way you create a connection that goes beyond the visual.

5. Reverse Roles

Next chance you get, tell another artist how much you like their work (provided you actually do.)

Then study their reaction.

If they’re gracious, you have an example to follow. If they’re insecure, you know what to run from. Either way, you’ve given a gift yourself and learned something in the process.

This is a great confidence-builder because it reveals confidence. Talent can be daunting, but when you applaud someone’s talent–sincerely, you pick yourself up a notch.

6. Lastly, Give Yourself a Break

We’re artists, not stage performers.

Many of us are introverted, one of the traits that led us down this path. We prefer to work in solitude and communicate through our art rather than our words.

Discussing your own art can feel empty. Non-artists seem to understand this and will usually cut us some slack for any bloopers in social interactions. 

But these are precious learning opportunities. Blowing a few of them won’t damage your career forever, but they shouldn’t be squandered either.

So to repeat, practice, particularly before an event.

SUBHEAD

Receiving can be more powerful than responding. If you’re ever in doubt about what to say, just smile and let your work do the talking for you.

You can be humble and confident at the same time. You can be your worst critic or your best representative. It’s all in the energy you put out.