Marketing Mondays: Critical Feedback

From last week’s post on Ethical Dilemmas comes this anonymous comment: “Nearly everyone I know, including myself, refuses to give an honest assessment of an artist’s work, especially if it is a negative one.”
This commenter goes on to say that while s/he “craves” an honest assessment, it’s really a positive assessment s/he's yearning for.

Feedback is essential, and too many of us don't get enough of it after art school. Yet when we get it, it's easy to get pissed off or feel hurt. And when we give it, it's easy to wimp out. So Anon’s comments form the germ of today’s post, which comes as four questions:

1. What happens if a friend asks for your critical opinion of his work, and you don’t have a particularly positive opinion?
. Do you demur? (“I never discuss a friend's work,” or “Let’s talk about this when I return from Australia, which will be in, oh, three years.”)
. Do you hedge? (“It’s interesting,” or “Wow, what a change from your previous body of work.” )
. Do you equivocate? ("There are things I like about it and things I don't.")
. Do you lie? (“I like it. Really, I like it,” you say and then feel sick in the pit of your stomach because you have encouraged a direction you don’t think is good for your artist friend.)
. Do you give your honest assessment? ("I don't think this is your best work and here's why.") And if so, are you prepared for the disappointment or anger, and the possible weakening or loss of a friendship?

2. Does the conversation have to involve personal opinion? Are you wimping out if you opt to simply discuss what you see?
. Sometimes artists just want to have a fresh pair of eyes look at their work. Can the discussion be about the compositon, the color, the size, the technical issues?
. Can the discussion be about where this work might fit into the larger context of what's happening now?
. Ask questions. Let the artist tell you what the work is about. Maybe it can be less about your opinion and more about your interest in the artist and her work.
3. If you do deliver negative criticism, can you do it in a way that’s constructive and helpful without alienating the person who has sought your opinion?
. In my experience, there’s always something that interests me, something I like. Something that allows me to start with a positive thought before getting to the negative heart of the matter. And I always preface my comments with, “This is the opinion of one person to a particular group of paintings. It’s not the final word on your work.” Still, it's easy for the artist to focus only on the negative and feel devastated or, worse, feel personally attacked.
. Anyone—but art professors particularly, since you do crits regularly—how do you dish out your negative comments without slicing into the heart of the artist?

4. Is there a difference between the kind of negative criticism you deliver to a friend and that which is delivered by a critic who, presumably, is able to keep a professional distance even if s/he knows the artist?
. Is there something we can learn from the critic in the way of delivery--placing the work in a larger context, perhaps, or using emotionally neutral words to describe the work or your perception of/feelings toward it? For instance, that would mean leaving "love" and "hate" out of the conversation.
. I will share a story here: I consult occasionally with artists who ask for critical feedback on their work. Since I am being paid for my time and opinion, the understanding is that I will be fair and honest, and as emotionally detatched as possible. One time I had to tell someone, "Your work is beautiful and beautifully crafted, but the path you're taking has been carved out by another much more well-known artist. Your work will suffer by comparison. I think you'd be better off directing your your talent down a path of your own making." I held my breath, as this was someone I knew, someone who had a significant body of work that I perceived to be largely derivitave. There was a pause. "Finally, I'm getting the truth," said the artist, who admitted some apprehension about the direction but who had been getting only the classic "I love it" from friends. (Postscript: This artist is carving a parallel path with strong, original new work and has been showing regionally to good response.)

So my feeling is that if you are asked, and you are honest, and you are fair in your delivery, it's possible to say what you have to say without crushing the ego and psyche of the artist. But not always.

And that brings me over to you. How have you handled the issue of critical feedback--whether as the giver or receiver of critical feedback?


J. Nodine said...

Having an established career as an artist, artist educator, and director of a university gallery, my days are filled with requests to review and critique the work of students, colleagues, friends, and hopeful potential artists.

I think context is very important, so I try to gather information before I give my responses, and I usually start by asking questions. “What was the motivation, how did you get to this piece(s), or this body of work, what were the influences or inspirations, and did it develop from a previous series? …AND…What are your intended outcomes?” This is an important question because it can vary drastically from artist to artist, and can shed meaningful light on the direction of the critical response. I also ask the artist how they themselves feel/respond to the work in question. This can be revealing because the artist will often answer the question at hand, without realizing it. In that discussion the artist’s response opens doors and gives me an opportunity to be frank and point out strengths and weaknesses. I can give my professional opinion, based on previous experience, as to issues significant to the work.

I think all in all, artists want discussion and dialogue about their work and what they are doing, in order to help them clarify the process and make sense of their course of action. If they respect you enough to ask for your critical assessment, give them something they can work with. They will respect you for your candor and clarity when your constructive comments help give some meaning and guidance through the maze we all face.

beebe said...

One thing I learned in grad school: stop listening when someone starts feedback with the phrase "What I'd like to see . . . " Invariably, what follows is is a long list of what the artist/critic/whatever would do if they could overlay THEIR aesthetic on YOUR technique. And that approach, of course, is largely useless.

I agree with J. Nodine. The best critiques I've had--both positive and negative--have always started with questions, with an attempt to lay some groundwork and suss out where the work is coming from and how I've felt about the work. Taking criticism can be easier when it's delivered by someone who has made a sincere effort to connect with the artist and the work.

Mel. said...

Its not Personal
If you have a particularly bad critique, or lots of negative feedback, try not to take it personally. For the most part, people are only trying to be helpful. Sometimes, it can seem like people go out of their way to be mean and nasty. In those cases, you should still try to remember that it's not about you. More likely it is about those people and their insecurities.. Remember, it's something all artists' have to deal with. As an artist you need to develop a thick skin.

Sarah said...

Years ago I did work that a lot of people in my community seemed to love. It was very emotional and accessible, and I felt, deep down, like a fraud. But I kept making it, in part, I know, because of the positive feedback and because I sold enough to keep my head above water. After a break of a few years, I'm producing abstracts on paper that these same people find chilly and inpenetrable. I've had to fend off such helpful criticism as: "your old style was more engaging" and "do you ever do that fabric work any more?" Having to explain, defend, and pretend to be unaffected by sincerely-meant but devastating comments has made me a much, much better artist. It has also made me realize the difference between opinion and criticism. Everybody has an opinion. Thoughtful criticism is extremely rare.

George said...

You know, none of this matters very much. I think people should be sensitive to others but say what they think. If an artist can't handle the criticism, then maybe they should find a different profession. At the same time, the so called 'critic' may just end up exposing their own lack of knowledge.

If you are offering criticism, understand that you may have differences in taste which are irrelevant to a critical response. Smooth or brushy surfaces, one or the other is not "right" even if you prefer it. Inappropriate use of one or the other, in a particular context, might be worth commenting upon.

beebe's suggestion to 'stop listening' is exactly the wrong advice. Pay attention to the responses of others. The important information relates to a question, a reservation or a direction which you have already been subconsciously considering. Everything else is not really relevant, even if it may be pertinent in the future, it is irrelevant if you can't accommodate it now.

Finally, the context which one gives or asks for criticism is important. It's one thing to be outspoken with an artist in the studio where they have some recourse. I would be more tactful at a reception.

Marc said...

Years ago when I was an undergrad, visiting artist Elaine de Kooning prefaced a group critique by stating something like " an artist should seek out a variety of criticism about his/her work and pay the closest attention to the remarks that match up with what you plan to do."

Hylla Evans said...

Jane Nodine nails it, and her approach could guide anyone in the position of giving a critique.
Is it personal? YES. Just as all artwork is autobiographical (we can never create from experience other than our own), all critique has an underlying personal POV. So a critique that talks about context in both the larger art world and the particular artist's career will be constructive. Questions about what the artist is trying to say (if anything) are informative even if they don't get answered. A question doesn't have to be answered immediately to make an impression.
Just as a divorce lawyer too often plays the role of a therapist, so does a life coach or an art 'guide.' Take their comments for what is useful to you at that moment, and take notes on other comments so that later you can reflect and make sense of them.
If you want an honest opinion and ask for it, don't punish the teacher, friend, or critic who has tried her best to be helpful. If your feelings are hurt, don't attack the critic behind her back or on facebook or your blog.
It helps both the critic and the artist to agree between them that commentary will be kept private.

Philip Koch said...

If you're really lucky, you have a good friend, partner, or spouse who who:

!. you know is on your side.

2. has a good eye

3. loves your work but is willing to make specific suggestions about how to make it better.

I'm really lucky to have such a person.

I've taught for almost 4 decades at MICA. Art students usually know they have some real talent, but they also know they can be better still. I think it is extremely rare that you're presented with a piece of student art that doesn't have at least a few aspects you like or at least you see could have real potential. You don't need to fake it to find something genuine that is positive to say about the work. Students mostly know when you're being real.

After you've mentioned a couple of real positive features in the work, it sets up a tone of trust and possibility with the student. Then you can make a suggestion about what you think they could do to improve the piece. If they agree with you fine. If not, very often they'll feel challenged to find a different path to making the work stronger.

Philip Koch said...

Mel made the comment that all artists need to develop a thick skin. Couldn't agree more. But after years of looking I've yet to find anyone who, underneath it all, has been remotely successful at this.

Eva said...

A few friends in the past asked me: What do you think of the work? I am absolutely not comfortable with answering if indeed we are friends first, artists second.

There are plenty of artists in my life whom I am not tight with. With these people, we pass criticism around, talk about the work and all of that is helpful. It's professional, not personal.

But sometimes I just like having friends and don't want to discuss their work. Someone who let me off the hook about this years ago was a great writer friend of mine. She's very well known and I won't name her, but one day she said to me "I'm fine with my friends not liking my writing or not even talking about it. I need my friends. And besides, some of the people who really really like my work are crazy!" I LOVED that - because it was true that I was uncomfortable with some of her writing. As great as she is, she's not my favorite novelist at all. Criticism just has its place, that's all.

Jen Bradford said...

I'm a bit leery of the idea that a savvy person who looks at lots of art needs me to give them a preamble about my background or intentions. That can come later. The information I'm looking for is what is coming across, without any mediation from me. It's sometimes hard to know if what is magic to you is even visible to the viewer, so talking about that up-front is going to rob you of that info.

I'm always going to be my most ruthless critic. If anything, I find it harder to know when to accept praise, since I'm generally suspicious of it - but it can be valuable too.

Tina Mammoser said...

If a friend asks? A good friend - I'm honest. I have a few close artist friends and we are very comfortable with brutal honesty. Which works because these are the same people who I talk to about technique, goals, ideas... so they best know not only what they like (and we don't all like each other's work) and they know the context I'm working in. Their critiques are the most valuable. Nothing wrong with a bit of hurt either; they're critiquing the work, not me personally.

But forget artists or critics. Listen to Joe Public. Non-art-world people (you know, just visitors to fairs or exhbitions and average buyers) are the most honest and have the most useful comments! They don't hestitate to say they don't like it, and often why. Sometimes it's personal preference (if so I like to point them to a different artist that they might like) or sometimes they point out something that I didn't notice or didn't intend. Either way, their insight is useful.

Artist Leslie Pierce said...

I agree with J. Nodine and find her response extremely helpful. I do not enjoy explaining my own work and think that sometimes the rhetoric written about an artist having an exhibit (I am in Austin, Texas) can sound more like a political campaign with nothing based on the actual work at hand. That being said, asking questions that lets the artist focus on what motivates them to create their art can only help clarify artistic goals and intentions and allow for a positive, mutually respectful exchange that can be direct and beneficial.
I do not agree at all with counting on "Joe Public" to know what good art is, as someone suggested. Joe Public might prefer cute cat and bluebonnet paintings. I guess that depends on what type of venue you are referring to as well though, because different places attract different publics.
P.S. I really think the conversation you have going here is great.

rappel said...

there is a particular sting to criticism - and it's not all the same. ones in particular that resonate powerfully often reflect what I myself have been privately thinking but not ready to admit. for me, if someone just doesn't get the work, their criticism has no sting.

Kristine Campbell said...

In saying this I feel a little like the guy in the dentist chair in Little Shop of Horrors but I like to hear criticism of my work if it merits it. Of course 'like' is probably too strong but I do miss the attacks on work we had in art school. I felt like I grew in leaps and bounds from those.

I'm not involved very often now with critiquing someone's work but when I am I try and give an honest opinion and ask for one in return.

Anonymous said...

3 years ago I invited an artist who I respected immensely but didn't know well to visit my studio and critique my work. It had been many years since I had met anyone who I thought could give me constructive and useful feedback (as opposed to an uncritical but glowing and positive response) and the fact that I had no real personal relationship with this artist removed any risk to an established friendship.

He visited my studio and spent several hours asking questions and providing feedback and mostly pointing out weaknesses in my work and thought process. Most of what he said was very insightful and was an articulation of what I'd had a sense of but couldn't put into words. Even so, I felt exposed and uncomfortable and fell into a dark mood afterward, to the point that I completely stopped the body of work that he had critiqued. A few months later I began in a different vein and felt like I had struck gold.

Two years after the critique, this other artist died and I still am afraid to go back to the work that he came down so heavily on--BUT I am grateful because it opened me up to an ongoing series that I love and that I think is my strongest work to date.

A strange experience and something that I think I took some good and not so good lessons from.

Donna Dodson said...

I am cautious in the feedback I give to artists who are close to me or who are my friends and love me because I know what I say will carry weight but having said that, I think all artists have to believe their work is the best so you cant expect them to be 100% on your side and art is subjective, not definitive, it's philosophical & debatable, and the dialogue is valuable that it creates, which is part of its meaning and significance. I think most of us want someone to pronounce us the greatest of all time, esp if its someone authoritative but in reality, since as an artist, you are going towards to an unknown place with a unique vision, no one can lay out that path for you so what you are really looking for is the people who can guide you, give you what you need, to help you get where you are going. But that's just me. I need to make the kind of art I want to see and I am internally driven.

Mead McLean said...

My way around this issue is to have a core group of people, not necessarily artists, who have known me a long time and care about the same concepts and issues. I only trust them for real opinions. Everything else I take with a grain of salt.

I also find that if people don't like something about my work, that there is real power there. I just have to own it a little more.

I find it important to develop distance from my work once it's outside of me. But then, I don't make intensely personal work.

Everyone needs a cuddle.

Mery Lynn said...

I have the problem that it is difficult for me to be friends with someone whose work I don't respect. The feeling that I can't be honest without harming restricts my involvement with the person.

When I do offer an opinion (or ask), I try to separate content from formal concerns. Everyone is more more open to suggestions on a formal level. After that, I can tell what I see in a work and then ask if that's the intent of the artist. Art is a form of conversation and if the viewer is hearing a different conversation, that is not necessarily bad.

Anonymous said...

Negative Comments are always the most important ones. Any artist interested in challenging themselves and breaking new ground recognizes the need to be unsatisfied. It is certainly not necessary to agree with any given criticism, but it will always help to consider criticism that extends beyond mere preference.

Julie Caves said...

@J. Nodine I think your approach is perfect.

If I am asked for my opinion the first thing I do is figure out what the asker is looking for. Do they want a critique, are they a hobbiest who wants a compliment, or are they just making conversation and wouldn’t listen anyway. If they want an honest considered opinion then I have to ask them questions about the work and have a proper conversation about it.

So that works in reverse as well- as a painter I don’t ask for an opinion from just anyone, and I don’t give a lot of weight to casually offered opinions that weren’t considered. I have had two useful observances from unsolicited opinions, ever. It might take me a year to develop an idea and make a series of work and during that time I don’t show my work to many people anyway, I have things to figure out for myself first.

A real critique shouldn’t really be about personal taste of brushy or not brushy surfaces but rather if the artist is getting to what they are trying to do. If the artist says she is trying do or say x and I can’t see that then I say that as a viewer I am not getting what you are trying to say. That is a useful crit, not about preference. If you want a first impression response from your critic when they start asking questions tell them to give you their first impression of the work. Then do the conversation.

I don’t think developing a thick skin or finding a different profession are helpful ideas. If you are making honest work it will hurt if people are being hurtful, because your work is personal. But a good critique isn’t hurtful because it is a conversation about your intentions and your direction and is helpful. I agree with @rappel “if they don’t get the work their criticism has no sting”, because then they basically aren’t even talking about your work (usually because they haven’t even tried.)

@Sarah Well done for letting the criticism make you a better artist. And I agree completely: “Everybody has an opinion. Thoughtful criticism is extremely rare.”

@TinaM Another set of eyes seeing what you didn’t intend is indeed helpful. But most art fair comments seem to be either about their taste, the price, or their opinion of how hard or easy the work was to make. Kids like my colours.

@Donna Dodson I couldn’t agree more.

Anonymous said...

I was in my MFA program. A well known realist artist comes into my studio for a scheduled crit. She takes a brief look at the work I have hung on the walls, laughs out loud, then says, "You've got to be kidding!" Then just walks out.

I still am baffled at the total lack of professionalism she exhibited.

Michele Fraichard said...

I know I'm straggling in here late.

My policy is always honesty, handed down with love and care. ( I totally disagree with the person who said they don't befriend people whose work they don't personally like!) I once had a designer friend who, when critiquing another friend's wares, would begin with something like 'I think these are the most successful'. The omission of the others made her opinion apparent without the sting. One mistake is to say too much. Like someone else said, not everyone is looking for a full blown critique, one can always get more specific if asked.

I figured out back in art school that critiques are almost always based on personal esthetics. "Make this more ugly, Michele," etc. One will entirely miss what someone else 'gets,' so I don't know how useful they really are. Technical ability aside, it's all opinion, and for me, I don't like to get caught up in other people's opinions as this undermines my ability to push my own limits. Generally the only time I'll ask is if I am truly stuck, and it's almost always merely a vehicle to open up my mind and get my creative juices going again.

I think that most artists run the gamut between needing to be totally unique entities unto themselves and wanting to have that uniqueness recognized and accepted by others...just another conflict inherent to our nature. Yet another fantastic conversation Joanne.

cathsheard said...

The art tutor I look back on with the most respect was one who could lead me to what he was seeing, and get out of me what worked and what didn't. He could see it straight away, and he taught me to look more carefully. He was also very honest and would say "no, Cath, that's not working because...". I miss his insightful conversations, but hold his teaching inside my head.

Eva said...

Wanted to add that I am also friends with artists whose work I don't necessarily like (like Michele). I like them in many ways, including as people I can talk art with. I've even had them on the radio, which may perplex some, but no, I don't have to like their work. They don't know all of that either!....But I can learn a lot from those who have different systems, different methods, even different aesthetics. Having said that, I am definitely NOT the one to critique their work.

....I've heard from people "Well, my work isn't anything like yours..." - when we get into a discussion - as if in apology, or as if it should be. No, actually, I don't expect (or want) to hang with someone making paintings just like me.

Frank Wick said...

I think had Oscar Wilde listened to everyone who read his work he would have 1) never written another word 2) Written an unremarkable collection of poems and stories or 3) Written to placate his readers.

I think it is easy to ask the artist what kind of discussion they want to have. Maybe this is a great jumping off point.

It is so much easier to jump into the "I'm going to fix your work" mode than it is to talk about the artists intentions. I am guilty of fixing many pieces. Maybe so much so I prevented some really great work.