The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do Unto Others ...


In previous posts I’ve spent some time discussing how to handle criticism of our work. It’s important to know how to filter through criticism to keep only the useful stuff. That’s an acquired skill. Budding artists tend to either accept all criticism or reject it all out of frustration. Neither choice is beneficial for advancement. Since I’ve covered this ground many times, I’ll move on to a more difficult topic: criticizing the work of others.

There’s a time and place for criticism, and carelessness can do irreparable harm. Budding artists need a lot of encouragement, so expert criticism needs to be truthful but also carefully delivered to avoid discouragement. And, even “expert” opinions can be wrong, which means that all criticism needs to be qualified when it’s given.
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who claim to lack artistic ability altogether. When I ask them why they think that, the typical response is that a parent or teacher told them so when they were children. How tragic! Every human being has an aesthetic side that can be beautifully and effectively expressed in some way if recognized, nurtured, and given the chance.

So, I’m more worried about criticizing others than I am about receiving criticism. How will my words impact that person? I’m not implying that my opinion is important at all, but some people respond like it is. I try to limit my artistic opinions to those times when someone actually asks for them and let them know that my opinions are just that – only my opinions.

Back in the 1960’s I was an art major at a private school. My instructor delivered brutal critiques because she felt she had a duty to prepare me for the “real world.” I’ll give her credit for making me tough-skinned, but I never encountered that type of brutality anywhere since then. If my instructor had been less brutal I probably would have been more experimental and confident in my work. This held me back, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. You never know whose flame you might accidentally extinguish!
What are your thoughts today?

14 comments:

RH Carpenter said...

Since the negative tends to outweigh the positive when we're spoken to, I know to temper my words about another's art. So I say 2-3 positve remarks to every single negative remark. It's often not hard to see good things in a painting that isn't strong but could use some help. I would never, like another in a class I had, tell someone, "That is crap!" While said in jest, it could really hurt someone who remembers that remark later and forgets the humor.

L.W.Roth, said...

The word "criticism" has connotations. "Critique," a softer note suggesting not big, painful criticisms, but littler, less hurtful ones. I like "suggestions." I can take suggestions from others, but criticisms have put me in an offensive mode and the critic better be a damn good artist themselves.My backlash can be wicked. You need a lot of self confidence in this field. If you like to do it. Keep doing it. You'll soon see what you do best and not so good.

A few blogs ago, I showed my worst of 2010. Comments were kind. They were wrong. The stuff was crap.

Robin said...

It's true, being an artist that strives to present and share artwork publicly requires thick skin. There is a difference between receiving a critique in a class where students are there to learn and want to hear how to improve from their teacher vs. being at an opening or some other public art gathering and hearing peers critique (especially when it's unasked for!) I have to admit, I am still sensitive to what other people think of my paintings and battle my inner critic daily, my skin needs to toughen up even now. For me the key is hearing ... actually opening my mind ... to what a respected artist has to say and taking what makes sense and applying it to my work.

Casey Klahn said...

Someone else was talking about crits today, too.

This year, I was tagged to be a jurist for a national show. My first time at that. In fact, it was a few short years ago that I couldn't figure out a way to get into this show.

What struck me about my situation is that I'm very glad for the thinking and evaluation that I've put into critiquing my own work over the past couple of years.

Another thing that happened to me, at this show (which is Sausalito) was that after I got in, all of a sudden, the artists who were veterans there were offering crits of my work. At other shows, we always blew sunshine at one another. Now, it was as if I had passed behind the curtain where the adults are. I like that place, where professional artists offer kind and brief critiques as a sign of respect.

I realized that this was a group of professionals who know that each of us makes mistakes, learns, and is evolving. No one artist knows it all.

Now, if I could just shrink that percentage of fails in my studio, the cost of paper would be less...

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Kathy, You said something that I can relate to; I try not to give a criticism or opinion unless asked for.

I would like to have an honest, open critique of my work one-on-one with an instructor. Since I don't recall having one, I don't know how it would feel. I would imagine responding to a critique in a discussion format so I can ask questions about problems. The outcome would be learning, understanding,growth and things to work on.

Usually when my opinion is sought, I try to find something good in an effort to reinforce positive learning.

PAMO said...

The act of "critique" is like the act of "sex". Choose your partner carefully with mindfulness and caution. Ignore everyone else.
Most importantly is to become your own critic.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I've not had much experience with giving or receiving critiques.

Mark Sheeky said...

It's important to be truthful, but also polite and empathetic to the situation. It's one reason why online criticism is really difficult or impossible. Sometimes we can cope with harshness, sometimes not, and you can only really know that when you are there in person (aside from the fact that a computer image of a painting is not like the real thing). It's okay to side with praise if in doubt, providing it's honest. For the independent artist "things to do better next time" probably won't be helpful anyway. Our worst and best critic is ourselves.

Margaret Ryall said...

I too like critique better than criticism. I can take a fair bit of negative commentary about my work without wilting . I also seem to be able to separate out what I think actually relates to my intent for the work. Response from other artists have certainly helped me grow as an artist.

I never give response unless it is asked for by the artist. My many years as a primary teacher has taught me to temper all responses with kind words. I too begin with the positive. I've written about critique at length on my blog . Just check the sidebar for the compiled links to the posts.

Dan Kent said...

You always choose such interesting topics. I have three angles on this one: First, for constructive criticism in Toastmasters International, the public speaking group, we were taught to use the "oreo cookie method" - a positive statement first, positive suggestion for improvement second, a positive statement third. I think ta mix like this is the only valuable way to provide criticism that might be accepted.

Recently I came across the most interesting thread in Julia Kay's Portrait Party on flickr. I am not a member of the group - was checking it out, and saw the question "Do we want to include a bit more criticism in our comments?" a reaction to the whitewash comments mostly received. The responses were so well-thought out and insightful, that I recommend it if you all are interested. It is at http://www.flickr.com/groups/portraitparty/discuss/72157625693828352/

I can relate to the concern about giving criticism - Recently when asked for my opinion about a painting by a novice painter, I offered compliments on the piece but also felt compelled to say one part that I did not care for, explaining what I would do differently. For days after I was concerned that she would obsess on this one point and forget all my compliments. This didn't seem to happen, but I felt bad for days and I don't think I feel comfortable, especially at my current level, dispensing these remarks often.

-Don said...

I love a good critique. Challenge my choices and decisions. I did while I was creating. It's nice to hear someone else's voice besides just the ones in my head. (Yes, I added the 's' to ones intentionally. Did you smile?)

I was blessed to have two great professors who had Friday critiques every week of each semester. They both challenged us with grace and humor - but didn't whitewash anything. Even with what I considered to be a gentle approach, I saw members of my classes wilt at having their work challenged. I also saw some get their backs up and lash out at the slightest challenge. I never understood either reaction, but learned to accept them and try to find ways to work within them.

Mark makes a great point. Online critique is really difficult. When you cannot hear inflection or see expression the words you read will be assigned the inflection of your choice.

-Don

Susan Roux said...

Good point. As a teacher for beginners, I understand the power encouragement can have on my students. I also have times when I need to take back my words because I can clearly see I've offended someone...

Gretchen Bjornson ART said...

I offer small art "workshops" for kids and my sensitivity has heightened in regards to this subject. I firmly believe that children especially are super sensitive to any criticism and I try to stick with only positive comments. Even constructive criticism can wreak havoc. I certainly do not want to discourage any child from having pride in their work. All children need to develop their sense of self esteem with art....some have a greater sense than others. Some have a very low sense of self esteem and need to be "lifted up" and encouraged more than others. This was a great post to reiderate all these thoughts!

Kathy said...

Hi all - great discussion! Thanks so much for your contributions :-)