Recently there has been a discussion on Facebook about art critiques and it got me to thinking about so many things that were said in response to some feeling stung by juror comments. These critiques were provided as a part of a scholarship entrance for the ISGB Gathering. While I was not part of the jury process, I do believe that the intent of this more advanced artist type of scholarship was meant to help people grow in their design, presentation and skill to take it to the next level. The intent was not to judge the current work but to illuminate what might help an artist move beyond the current level of craft or artistry or to recognize what others might see when looking in. I would go out onto a limb and say that even the most accomplished, established artist who would have entered this process would have gotten constructive criticism to help them push themselves.
Therein lies the nature of the discussion though..”constructive criticism.” It is not easy to hear any criticism about our work, our hearts poured into our pieces. We over-identify with our pieces and we become them, they, us. Some of the critique comments didn’t have the finesse that we have come to enjoy when posting our work in front of our peers in a show and tell thread or on a Facebook sharing page. I would point out that those are not critique pages. Critiques are not fun. Period. Been there, done that…I PAID for four years of professors critiquing me. We yearn for that “job well done” from those teachers and peers and parents and friends and when we don’t get it we feel deflated.
In the late 80s I was an undergraduate textile design major in art school taking classes with the graduate students. One assignment was to make a 4′x6′ rug. Learning to formulate and dye lots of yarn, come up with designs and weave/hook it. I LOVED my rug, the colors, the pattern, etc. It was a very long but satisfying process. The quality of my piece was impeccable, right down to the finishing of the loose ends on the back. I poured my heart into that damn rug.
My professor’s critique? “It looks so 70s. Reminds me of the formica of that era.”
There was no pussy-footing around. At the time I thought it was crass and cruel and he should have had more tact. I don’t even remember if there was anything constructive said…all I heard and remembered was that comparison, and I related my experience to friends. How can he call himself a teacher? How do they think that helps new students in a program? We’re here to learn, so teach us, don’t criticize us! Basically, tell me I’m good enough, encourage me and point out my strong points but when it comes to any weaknesses, be gentle with me and don’t hurt my feelings.
In an ideal world (maybe?) that is how it would work. But then I wonder would that really “work”? Some people would push themselves based on praise but, what if that straightforward crass teacher was really saying what some other people might be thinking? While there may be a lot of people giving praise, what about those who thought like he did? What then was my goal? Was it to make work for those who saw the world as I did at that time, or was it to be an ‘arteest’ who had something bold, daring, moving to put out into the world that is uniquely me? There is a place for everyone and I needed to decide who I was, what I wanted to do.
For a while after that critique I decided that I liked the process of making art but the design side was not my thing. I decided I wanted to go into production of someone else’s designs and essentially be a skilled worker rather than an artist. That was safe. I couldn’t get my feelings hurt doing that. Right out of college I did just that. I worked in a weaving studio, weaving all day, making minimum wage, and putting out someone else’s designs that they sold to Bloomingdales and the like. I loved it…for about 6 months. Bo-ring. I actually quit to do temp clerical work.
I hate when people say that hearing something that feels hurtful is the real world and that you have to grow a thick skin. I have found though, that if I want to get better as an artist and seek the feedback of others that is exactly what I needed to do. That didn’t mean suck it up and become a hard ass and crass myself. That meant, learn to hear it and not internalize it. Learn to use it or leave it behind without being crushed. Learn to consider the source and glean from it what I could or run far away from a$$holes. I couldn’t control what others said and no matter how accomplished or esteemed someone might be in their field (my field) it doesn’t mean that they have a way with words or know how to teach. They can only share their opinion. In order to hear the constructive part (and sometimes dig deeper to pull it out from between the lines) I needed to be able to get past the maybe-not-so-tactful approach of those who have gone before me. Unfortunate maybe, but true. There is a lot we can miss out on if we dismiss the jaded artists of our circles. I’m one of them…I just don’t show it.
Over time I realized that that professor really was right; there was so much truth in his assessment. While I didn’t see the 70s comparison, the design was dull (vibrant colors can’t change that), the colors while rich, were uninteresting in relation to each other and the piece didn’t really say anything. That was before I realized that art should probably say something, not just put something well-made in front of you. I made many more pieces that were equally as boring in those four years and he probably wanted to pull his hair out. I just didn’t get it. Not one time did he talk to me and try to explain it…he left me to learn it on my own.
I have learned that if you have worked your hardest and put your best into something that a critique is never easy. I have learned to become my own ‘worst’ critic in an effort to explore all sides, point out to myself when something isn’t quite right, push to fix it, look for how I can do any little element in a different way and ask myself, how is this ME, uniquely ME? EVERY. Single. Little. Component. Color. Curve. Element. Expression. M-E.
I have learned that I have to be satisfied with my own work whether it has mass appeal or niche appeal (which I crave most, although mass appeal is pretty nice for the bank account). I have learned that everything builds on the thing before and while I don’t like to hear (or acknowledge) suggestions, sometimes there is a nugget of truth in them and that nugget can motivate and elevate me and my work. I have learned that I need to sit with things before I can integrate (or not) the comments I receive.
I have learned that people really do not mean to be mean or cruel. They do not realize the impact of their words and really, people do operate out of best intention. Yes, there are exceptions. I have learned better to separate the person from their words and behaviors.
I have also learned to be more careful with my own words outside of my circle of friends who know how to take me. I have also learned that a lot of what is in my head doesn’t need to come out of my mouth. I have also learned to better accept hard honesty and know that I have the choice to internalize it, use it or leave it behind.
I still don’t have a ‘thick skin’ and hate feeling ‘so sensitive’ like it’s a bad thing, but I have learned to prepare myself when I go seeking opinion and know that if I don’t want to hear it, I don’t ask or put myself in that position. It is not someone else’s fault for being honest and I cannot control how they say things. I can be straightforward and I would like to be accepted for that and I try to accept others for their unique personalities too.
Because of that one harsh critique early in my art education, the work I make and call art is very different than what I would be making if all I got was easy praise and pats on the back and gentle critique. I am sure of that. Does that mean that I like how it was said to me? No, not at the time but today I am grateful for it and I try to see it from that vantage point when someone comes up to my booth and tells me that my work looks like someone else’s or they insist that my mosaics are made from seed beads.
For me, that is what critiques, can lead to.
I thank anyone who not only takes the time to examine and explore the work of others when requested but also has the fortitude to say what is hard to hear. It is my responsibility of how to take it and use, not use, act or react to it.