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How to Survive an Art Critique

September 24, 2009

art-critiqueIn art school, the most stressful part of any class was always the critique. This was when you put the results of your hard work up in front of everyone, explained what you had done, and waited for the criticisms – ahem, feedback – to come rolling in. This was when you put it all on the line and found out whether anyone else thought what you were doing was valid or not.

You may not be in art school, but life is full of times when you need to put yourself out there for other people’s judgements. Whether it’s an informal critique through a gallery, an artist talk or exhibition, an open studio, or just your friends coming to your house, chances are you’ve been in a position where other people have seen your work and have had something to say about it.

Even if you are perfectly happy with what you’re doing and don’t really care what others think of it, it can be hurtful to hear negative comments. If you’re already unsure or a little insecure, it can be downright damaging. Heck, even the positive comments can be baffling , leaving you to wonder, “is that really how people see my work?”

As an artist, you’ll constantly be the recipient of comments, criticisms and general feedback about your art. You need to learn how to deal with these without letting it effect you too much. Here are some strategies to help you survive a critique.

 

Remember Where They’re Coming From

 No matter how objective a person tries to be, their own beliefs, likes and dislikes, and experiences will colour any comments they make about your art. Other artists especially can tend to give advice that encourages you to work like they do. This isn’t something they do on purpose, it’s just that they are coming from a place that’s familiar to them. I am more likely to critique the formal qualities of an artwork because that is what I work with myself.

 

Take it With a Grain (or a Shakerful) of Salt

 People can only give their opinion. There is no right or wrong. Even if the one giving advice is a respected artist, your professor, or a gallery curator, that doesn’t mean that they are the definitive voice on the subject. Their opinion may be slightly more educated than others’, but it’s still an opinion at the end of the day. Don’t take any critique as gospel. You need to weigh the advice and use what you can.

 

Ask Yourself, “Is it Relevant”

 You need to examine any advice you’re given and determine whether or not it relates to your art practice. If you’re getting critiques that seem to focus on completely different issues than what you’re interested in, it may mean that your “message” is somehow being diluted by something that you’ve overlooked.

I experienced this when I was at school and started painting tools on doors. I painted tools because of their relationship to construction, but I really only thought of them as shapes in a composition. In my critiques, I got all kinds of feedback about the connotations of the tools and what that might mean. If you think the feedback you get has nothing to do with your work, you need to figure out what to do to get more focused. I ended up doing away with the tools altogether and just painting rectangles!

 

Remember it for Later

Another strategy is to file away criticism for later. Often, it’s difficult to take it all in at once. It’s easier to mull it over when you get the chance and sift through to find what you can use. Often, the feedback you get isn’t relevant now, but it might be relevant later in your career. I still go over my critiques in my head, several years after the fact, to see if there’s anything new that I can take from them. Ideas that seemed completely off the wall at the time might suddenly be very intriguing!

 

Don’t Take it Personally

If you have a particularly bad critique, or lots of negative feedback, try not to take it personally. Most often, people are only trying to help you, in their own way (which isn’t always helpful, of course, but it’s the thought that counts!). Sometimes, it seems like people go out of their way to be mean and nasty. In those cases, you still need to remember that it’s not about you! It’s about those people and their insecurity and their issues. You’ll need to develop a hard shell, but just remember, it’s something that we all have to deal with!

I hate to say it, but this goes for positive feedback too! Enjoy it because you deserve it, but try not to let it go to your head! At the end of the day, it’s still just one person’s opinion, and it could make the negativity that much harder to take. I wish someone had told me this in high school! All throughout high school I got awesome grades in art; I was one of the top students. I went on to university and suddenly I was surrounded by all the other people who were top students in their schools. It was a hard adjustment, as was my first C+!

 

Is it True?

This is where you really need to be honest with yourself. Don’t brush off every negative comment and think that everyone else is just too blind to see your true talent. Take a good hard look at yourself and ask yourself, “is it true?” And if it is, suck it up! Don’t wallow in it! Figure out what you need to do to fix it and do it! It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary. If you continuously disregard criticism, you will never grow and reach your full potential!

 

As for the strange comments…

I’ve gotten a lot of strange comments on my work. Not bad ones, but ones that made me think “what the heck?” People also seem to like giving really weird suggestions. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that my abstract paintings should spin. To me, the idea is absolutely absurd; I couldn’t think of anything I’d want to do less than that! But that’s what they see, and at the end of the day I’m just grateful that something about my work moved them enough to think beyond what was in front of their eyes. My advice: laugh it off and don’t worry about it!

There you have it, my guide to surviving a critique! What strategies do you use?

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From → Art General

8 Comments
  1. may I congratulate you on highlighting this subject,it will be comforting to the young art students intending to make art a career.As a stonecarver/sculptor,I seldom recieve criticism for my work,and if I did,I would not bat an eyelid,I doubt the critic would have the required knowledge or experience of the natural stone working techniques to pass any viable comment,allthough we are open to honest comments,by people in the know.

    • Hi David! Stone carving is something I know absolutely nothing about. Well, that’s not true, I did carve a bit of soapstone once, but that’s about it! I’m amazed at how sculptors like you can envision a 3D form and create it out of a lump of rock. I wouldn’t even know where to begin! Thanks for stopping by and adding your voice to this discussion, I hope you come back soon!

  2. Miranda, first let me congratulate you on another wonderful post with a lot of valuable information. I think you have hit the nail directly on the head with great advice to those of us who are very sensitive. It is difficult to contend with super negative people and in some cases just those who know of no other way to try to elevate themselves. It is often said everyone is the critic and boy is that true!

    One bit I would like to add, if you do not mind, is how someone sees art often depends on their personal frame of mind. While professors and professional critics are suppose to be able to put that aside, it is not always (or maybe even often) the case. Art does something to people they/we don’t often understand and that something depends on each individual’s life experiences. I know many people see my work in a very different way than I view it, but I think that comes from it touching something deep inside them. In many cases, the negatives come from them not particularly wanting to go with their feelings, and that puts them in a defensive mind frame, sometimes.

    Now this observation just might be true for abstract work, but my guess it is also true for realistic work. At least I have had viseral responses to realism.

    Wonderful Topic! Thanks Miranda!

  3. Rob permalink

    Excellent article. I seem to have a problem with my work; during critiques no one seems to have much to say at all about my work, good or bad. Does this mean the work is horrible or that its so good that it leaves people speechless?

    • Hi Rob! Thanks for stopping by. I sent you an email, but as a quick answer to your question, some pieces can just be difficult to critique. Don’t take it personally, but try to figure out a way that you can get more of a response during your critiques.

  4. I really enjoyed your article. Over the years I have come to understand as you stated so eloquently, at the end of the day it is just someone’s opinion. You can’t take it too seriously.

    I have watched judges select winners and wondered why they chose the ones that they did. And then watched them struggle to justify their critique. It can be rather humorous.

  5. Steph permalink

    Well I am no artist but I certainly got a lot out of your article! I am now in my 5th year of architecture school and ‘crits’ don’t seem to get any easier as time goes by. I find though, when I’m presenting as long as I can justify the process I took, or explain how it fit in with the original concept most people don’t tend to say as many negative things about it and are more constructive about the work.

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