What to Do When

People Criticize Your Art

For artists, one inescapable truth of the art world is that throughout your career all kinds of people will say all kinds of things about your art, whether they tell you to your face, write about it, blog about it, comment or post about it on social media, make videos about it, or gossip behind your back. Not only do you have to learn how to handle this continuous onslaught of judgments, opinions, feedback, comments, criticisms, observations, and impressions, but you also have to figure out how to evaluate and respond to them, and most importantly, how to not take them personally.

But first, a word to all you artists who have a habit of spontaneously asking people what they think of your art. The real question you should be asking is, "What do I think of my art?" but let's save that discussion for later. For now, keep in mind that anytime you ask someone what they think of your art, you instantly put them in awkward positions, especially if they don't really know you. Why an artist would even ask a complete stranger questions like this hardly makes any sense in the first place, but they go ahead and ask anyway.

Most people who find themselves cornered by artists into these kinds of tricky situations generally try to end the conversations as quickly and painlessly as possible, and you can bet that in almost all cases they won't tell you what they think of your art, but rather what they think you want to hear-- which is usually that they like it. In other words, asking the question is basically pointless because you'll have no idea whether the answers you get will be honest or not, and no real way of finding that out. Unless you already have an established relationship with whomever you're asking, or you're in a setting where people are critiquing art, there's rarely any upside to putting someone on the spot. If people feel like commenting, they'll do it on their own; don't force the issue.

The good news is you never really have to ask because over time, plenty of people will volunteer every conceivable response to your art-- sometimes fantastic, other times not so great. No matter what they say, each and every one is an excellent opportunity to learn how your work impacts others. But at the same time, you can't take everything you hear at face value. Way too many artists have a tendency to be too sensitive or defensive about their art the instant anyone gets the least bit critical, and often without even thinking about who the criticizer is. These kinds of overreactions are rarely called for because most of the feedback you get comes from people who are not buyers, collectors, critics, gallery owners, or anyone else who has any influence on your career. Instead, they're from friends, family, acquaintances, total strangers, or casual art fans simply out for a good time and a bit of small talk. And making a big deal out of small talk does not do you one bit of good.

So how seriously should you take any conversation where your art suddenly becomes the center of attention? Your start by evaluating the source and figuring out who you're talking to. Questions like the following are always worth considering:

Who is this person?
Do they know you?
Are they familiar with your art?
Do they know what it's about?
How much do they know about art in general?
Are they qualified to judge art?
If so, what are their qualifications?
Are they respected members of the art community?
Are they potential buyers?
Can they help you in your career?
Are they simply trying to make small talk?
Are they trying to make themselves feel important at your expense?
Do they have their own interests or agendas in mind rather than yours (hint: sometimes they do)?
Do they just love to hear themselves blab?

You'll meet them all... believe it. The good part is that the longer you're around, the better you'll get at figuring out who you're talking to and how to take what they say. As you gain experience and perspective, you'll learn to relax and get the most out of every encounter.

This doesn't mean that if someone fails to "qualify," in your opinion, to weigh in on your art, you blow them off or ignore everything they say. If one of your goals as an artist is to expand your fan base and broaden your audience-- to expose your work to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible-- you'd be well advised to consider and reflect on what anyone tells you, and not just a select few.

Even the most uninformed viewers can at times provide brilliant bits of wisdom and insight into your art, not only in terms of the work itself, but also about how it affects them, what they get out of it, what it communicates, how it makes them feel, what they understand, what they need help understanding, and so on. Everyday impressions like that are often far more informative than pretentious art babble someone might lay on you just to stroke their own ego. Paying attention to input from a broad cross-section of people helps you become a better artist by better understanding the overall impact of your art, not just how it affects a select few. It's that simple and no more complicated.

You also have to figure out whether particular comments are based more on personal tastes or more on their knowledge and understanding of art-- your type of art in particular, and on how familiar and experienced they are with the art world as a whole. Usually it's the former-- someone either likes or dislikes your art only in terms of what they find personally appealing about it, and has little or nothing to do with the quality, meaning, technical accomplishment, or significance of the work itself. Personal-taste types of criticisms are still worth listening to, especially if you hear similar versions or reactions over and over again, but at the same time, you can't take it all that seriously because it's not really about you or your art, it's about what other people like or don't like. So don't get all bent out of shape when someone speaks about your art in less than glowing terms, based solely on what their favorite art is or looks like.

If however, a person's comments are more informed, objective, made within a broader art world context, and are based more on facts relating to art in general, then you should perhaps take them more seriously. For example, I see quality art all the time that I do not find the least bit appealing personally, but it's still good art and I still have plenty of good things to say about it. The same goes for not-so-good art; even though it may not quite be ready for primetime, I still respect it and see its potential. The important part is when I do decide to dialogue with an artist, I stay objective, leave my personal tastes out of it, and consider the art purely on its own merits or lack thereof. These types of objective dispassionate agenda-less criticisms are the ones worth paying the most attention to.

Regardless of who says what, always keep the bigger picture in mind rather than flip out every single time anybody says anything the least bit upsetting (many artists fall victim to this unfortunately, and it's almost always way more of an energy-drain than productive to fixate on isolated unpleasant incidents). Think more in the aggregate, in terms of cumulative feedback over time, in terms of the big picture. That's what really educates you. Sort and file comments more like a census taker. Accumulate, catalogue, and categorize the data. As you gain experience, general patterns will emerge and become increasingly clear. You'll begin to see similarities in how people react and experience your work, and you'll be able to make progressively more informed decisions about how to present yourself and your art to everyone's advantage, and to ultimately advance in your career.

To repeat, taking any one person too seriously is never good-- regardless of whether that person happens to have a profile in the art community or not. The art world is so huge, especially in the Online Age where pretty much everything is accessible to everyone all the time (including you), you'll come to realize that there's plenty of room for all points of view and for all art and art people to coexist. So many people have platforms these days that the influence or authority of any on person is becoming progressively more marginalized and diluted, while at the same time, you have more opportunities to get your art out in front of the public in more ways than ever.

Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I said the real question you should be asking is what YOU think of your art rather than what other people think? If you're guilty of looking to others for acknowledgement or approval rather than looking within yourself, then maybe pause for a moment and think about why you feel this need for outside acceptance. Your art is ultimately about you and your belief in yourself as an artist, regardless of what anyone else thinks. You can't ignore the importance of people's observations, but after everyone's had their say, your dedication, desire, commitment, and relentless determination to act on your inspirations and make art you are proud of and believe in are all that really count.

artist art

(art by Anthony Michael Sneed)

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