Art & Criticism – Kind of Like Peanut Butter & Jelly
*an edited excerpt from “Your Inner Critic Is A Big Jerk” (On shelves October 2016)
Oh, criticism. It truly does go hand in hand with the incredibly subjective world of art. It’s not as delicious as peanut butter and jelly, but it seems as though you can’t have one without the other.
Now, before I really get rolling, and just to be totally clear, there is good criticism. When it’s constructive and comes from a trusted source, criticism (or feedback in this case) is one of the most valuable things you can be given as a creative person. Constructive criticism at the right moment can fuel someone to become better, stronger and hugely successful—however, negative criticism at just the wrong moment can have a lifelong effect on how that person sees themselves creatively. Unfortunately, I experienced the latter.
In the last few weeks of my BFA as a painting major, I found myself in the middle of a three-ring circus (ie., a group critique with a very untrustworthy professor). In front of my entire class he said, and I quote, “You should never paint again.” And I foolishly listened. For more than a decade. Yowch.
Whether negative criticism comes from teachers, parents, friends, co-workers, actual professional critics (OR that unsupportive little voice in your head), it can knock you down and stop you forever. But it doesn’t have to. You can get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going. If you don’t allow the take-your-breath-away, knock-you-on-your-ass criticism to stop you, you can actually use it to fuel you forward. You might even find yourself being able to say, “Thank you, harsh critic. If it weren’t for you and your jarring words, I never would have found this new path” — or something a little less polite than that.You can actually use criticism to fuel you forward. Click To Tweet
I’m (very) slowly getting better at taking mean-spirited criticism with a grain of salt, and have learned to embrace it when it’s actually helpful—after a quick little cry, a bit of swearing, and a bag of chips, of course. Take whatever you can from the criticism that makes sense to you, ignore the bits that have absolutely no value, and then truly move on. Easier said than done, I know, but here are a few of my best tips for dealing with such things:
Put the gloves down.
The moment you get feedback that you don’t want to hear, your defenses go up. It’s just human nature—but if you can put the gloves down long enough to truly listen, there might be some valuable gems for you to take away. Is there truth to the criticism? Even just a nagging little nugget that you might agree with, and perhaps that’s why you’re defending that choice so ferociously? Put your defenses down for just a minute. Listen carefully for the truths. If there are any, take them and move on—quickly!
Say it out loud.
So many people are ashamed of their criticism stories, and so they just tuck them away—allowing them to play on repeat inside their head. The thing is, negative criticism has power in there, but you can take that power away by sharing your “criticism sucks” story with someone you trust—a friend over coffee, your mom, a like-minded studio mate. As soon as you say it out loud, it’s not nearly as upsetting, and you might even find a bit of humor in it. Or not. But at least now you’ve got one more person in your corner, making sure you don’t quit.
Criticism of your work is NOT criticism of you.
Put that on your fridge so you don’t forget!
And finally, one of my most favorite bits of advice is from Canadian artist Amanda Happé. She says:
“No one can wrestle the pencil out of your hand. You get to keep going in absolute defiance.”
Brilliant. The first time I read this (it was one of her answers to my “Creative Block” interview), I cried. I immediately thought back to that very defining critique in my last year of University, and had a major aha moment. I’d always blamed my professor for the drastic halt to my artistic life, but he didn’t put my paintbrush down. I did. It was my responsibility to pick it back up. Don’t let anyone else put your pencil/pen/paintbrush down. Keep going in absolute defiance.
Did you like this post? Be sure to check out:
- Our Being Boss interview with Danielle Krysa. She was our first guest on the show!
- We also LOVE Brenda Mangalore’s views on criticism. Listen to this week’s Being Boss Episode #81: Business as an Artist with Brenda Mangalore