Though I’m sure many sweary virtuosos out there could come up with a laundry list of words unspeakable in polite society that begin with C (I’m pretty sure I know some of these people, quite well actually), the word I’m talking about in this case is criticism. Artists put so much emotional energy, so much of themselves into every piece, it is hard not to take “I don’t really like this” as “I don’t really like YOU, I don’t like your THOUGHTS, I don’t like your FEELINGS, YOU as a person are UNACCEPTABLE”. We have to develop a pretty thick skin.
My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet with a guest artist and have them review my work. I’d gotten kind of lucky up to this point, and most feedback I received went along the lines of “Whoa, this is so cool!” so I wasn’t too worried. I got there early for my scheduled appointment, and waited, and waited … and waited. I had carried my laptop bag and ultra-gigantic portfolio case packed full of stuff all the way from my apartment, through the woods, to the art building (I sound like Little Red Riding Hood). At that time I didn’t work out regularly, so I was feeling the strain on my non-existent biceps. I had also been wearing a winter coat, and seeing as I tend to sweat like a 45 year old obese man, by the time I had been standing in the heated building for more than 5 minutes I was embarrassingly drenched. I had to keep holding my stuff because I was just awkwardly standing outside a door in an incredibly narrow hallway where people were traversing, and there was no unobtrusive spot to set everything down. I thought my arms might break off. After waiting for an hour, it was my turn to meet with the visiting artist. I got 15 minutes before he dismissed me. In that 15 minutes, I was told that my art looked like it was done by mental patients or someone with no prior artistic knowledge whatsoever, but that it was “interesting and unique” (Seeing as I know many wonderful people who have needed mental health assistance at one point or another, I didn’t take the first half of his comment as an insult at all, though probably not the best choice of words.). I was also asked pointedly if I was trying to be an artist or an illustrator, the word illustrator spoken as if it was synonymous with “cocaine dealer”. I’m still not sure I understand this disdain. He also kept comparing me to the earlier student he had gone over by an hour with, to the tone of “He’s making art about important social issues and here you are drawing robots and silly cartoon animals”. The thing is, this kid and I were totally different people with totally different life experiences. To try to speak about what he was discussing with my art would be ignorant and a little offensive – I had never been close to any of those issues, why should I be spouting off about them as if I know? Even for my more whimsical pieces, I always have a message in mind that spurs me on to create the images that I do. There are different ways to speak, both in ways that are graphic, blunt, and in one’s face and also ways that are more symbolic and open to multiple interpretations. We need all types of art.
The next week, my drawing professor asked how it went. When I told him an abridged version, he simply scoffed and said, “Oh, well he has no idea what he’s talking about”. But, we should never entirely dismiss a critic despite their bedside manner. We simply have to sift out what is constructive from what is just a difference of taste or opinion (also knowing that some people just have that wonderful grouchy, never satisfied personality type). At the meeting I was also told that the figures’ proportions were off in some of the ink drawings of people that I brought. It was a movement-heavy piece including quite a few people on a busy street, but instead of getting references for each different position, I collected a few references to use for the main figures and for the rest simply filled in the blanks with guesswork. Now, even if I have to pose and take them myself I get references for every detail that is going to be included in a piece. It is time consuming, but worth every moment for the stress-free creation process from then on out as well as the end result. I was also told in some of my portrait drawings that the central figure looked disjointed from the background, as if cut and pasted on top of a flat stage-set. This is because I would always detail first not what part of the drawing made sense to begin with, but what part I found the most interesting (for me, always the person). Whenever you completely detail the foreground before the background whether in drawing or painting, it is much harder to try and color around that fully detailed, finished object and therefore you end up with the cut and paste on top of the background look. Background to foreground : this is something I tell my own students to this day.
In the years since then, I’ve done solo shows where the venue wants everything BUT the one or two pieces that I had considered amongst my favorites and had been really excited about exhibiting. I’ve had pieces of mine rejected from display due to a complete misinterpretation of the message, which then ended up upsetting someone. I’ve sold hand-sewn dolls at art fairs and had a begging child’s mother say right in front of me, “No, I’m not getting you one of those dolls they’re too ugly!” Art elicits strong reactions, that’s what makes it so powerful a force for communication and inspiring thought and change. We don’t know another person’s story, what causes certain images to trigger a negative reaction inside of them. Artists can’t take these things personally. Just because someone doesn’t like a piece that we’ve done doesn’t mean it should go in the garbage, but at the same time we need to recognize when negative feedback could be absorbed into our process to teach us how to do better next time.