Marketing Mondays: The Negative Review

Don't Jump! Image from The Digerati Life

A while back Hrag Vartanian posted a short item and link, Art Critics Can Kill, about the Russian-French painter Nicholas deStael, who jumped out a window after receiving a negative review. OK, that's an extreme reaction (the artist suffered from depression) but if you've ever gotten a bad review, you understand the impulse.

The pain or disappointment caused by a less-than-positive response to your work can be great, especially after the effort in creating, delivering and installing a show. Especially after the press release and postcards you or your dealer may have sent to critics with high hopes and fingers crossed. Especially after the euphoria of the opening, when you're surrounded by enthusiasm and kind words.
So how do you deal with a negative review?

Ignore It
What negative review? Someone didn't respond favorably to your work. They didn't see it as you intended it, so they didn't get it or appreciate it. Their loss.

Focus on the Best Part
Sometimes you get so freaked by one negative element that you can't appreciate the positive response shown elsewhere in the review. Actually, a good review often mixes a little negative with the positive. It might be an editorial mandate for balance, or simply the way the critic approaches the subject. (One may start off negatively and then build to a positive denouement, while another may write all good things and then stick in a barb at the end. These are writing styles as much as critical opinions.) Besides, even you have favorite pieces in a show as well as the one you secretly consider a dog. So maybe the critic is just giving voice to something that you might actually agree with if you could be a bit more objective.

Spin It
This is what film companies do all the time in their PR. One critic's "What a monumental piece of crap!" becomes "Monumental!" in the ad. I'm not suggesting you do this, but it's a good lesson in resilience and damage control.

Get Over it
This is not the only show you'll ever have in your life. Savor the success of having created an exhibition you're proud of. You like it. Your dealer/gallery director/curator likes it. Your collectors like it. Now get over it and move on. Is there an image of your work in this negative review? Lucky you!

List it On the Resume
So what if it's not the kindest commentary on your work? You know the saying, Just spell the name right. On a resume only the critic and the publication are noted, not the qualitative particulars about your work. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Learn From It--Or Not
If you look at the work objectively--and that may not be possible for some time--maybe you'll find the critic saw something you didn't. If that's the case, learn from it. Otherwise, ignore it.

Is it ever worth writing to the editor to complain about a bad review? My instinct is to say that unless a critic attacks you personally, let it go. We've all read defensive letters by writers, architects and artists. They just sound whiny. A review is one person's opinion, after all.

Over to You
Have you had a negative review? How have you dealt with it emotionally? Do you feel it has affected your career? Did it affect the specific exhibition or sales? Did it affect the relationship with your dealer?


Philip Koch said...

Criticism hurts, and public criticism especially so. I've been waiting decades for a much needed thick skin to grow. It isn't happening soon. Remember, artist devote themselves to becoming sensitive and to being in touch with their emotions. This doesn't always take us to the most comfortable of places.

Joanne's advice to learn from it if you can is good, though if the criticism has merit, this may take years. I completely agree that a public attempt to refute the review is going to have the opposite effect of what you want. Better to lick your wounds in private and vent your anger and/or hurt feelings to a few very close friends. Let it out that way and it helps your bruised emotions to heal.

sharonA said...

Joanne, you and Ed Winkleman are giving me a lot to think about this morning!

I don't expect people to always like the work I do, and therefore I don't place a high priority on having the work liked. My interests and my focus are on the process, on clarity, on the truth of my work and expression. If someone still doesn't like it, but they come to an understanding of the process and the work involved in making it, then I am successful. If I can learn from a negative review, even better. (I've been told my work resembles wallpaper, and that's more interesting than insulting)

I appreciate what Koch has said about tuning in as an artist, but I'm not this type - my processes are more systematic and analytical, and work out of my head as much as I work on paper. That's not to say I'm not emotional, but I approach art from a more philosophical and process-based point of view. I'm always going to be trying to learn this but we artists need to find confidence in ourselves first, and the rest will follow!

So I think there's a fine balance between shrugging it off (ignoring) and putting a spin on it. You can get to the heart of any matter, unless someone is being outright cruel and irrational. The only thing a negative review affects is the artist, who must choose how to contend with the emotions it brings up. Sometimes, a negative review brings more people into the work, and those people don't always agree with what they've heard. That could mean more sales. This is a good thing :)

Edward_ said...

wow...something in the air, this morning, obviously. ;-)

Joanne Mattera said...

As Sharon notes, and as Ed himself does in the post just above this, something's in the air. I love when that happens. Take a look:

I also want to add a personal story. In 2007 I had a solo show at OK Harris, small paintings from my Silk Road series. It got two reviews. One was a favorable review in The New York Sun; the other was a mixed review on Joseph Walentini's Abstract Art on Line. Walentini, while not unkind, was unconvinced that the "splendor" of my color and medium worked with the formal rigor of the conceptand installation. Ultimately, he said, "I think the two aspects are too divergent for it to fully succeed."

Joe showed three images of my work and gave the show a generous 23-line review. Not only did I not ignore it, I linked the review on my resume: . I was pleased that out of all the shows he could have reviewd that month, he chose mine. But I know that if I had received that review earlier in my career I would have been crushed.

Shortly after the review was published, I sent Joe an e-mail to thank him for the review. And I meant it.

zipthwung said...

All this talk of critical dscrimination reminds me I saw a new one on the subway - dude gets on and holds up a laminated (or maybe just taped) sign made of photocopies with hand lettering.

The man yelled in a strident angry voice: "You see this girl? She was shot dead three days ago on the corner" he went on "I need 17 dollars for flowers for her funeral"

I mean really. You get on the subway and use a tragic accident as a means to get 17 dollars for some cheap carnations or whatever? Really?

I snickered. And I meant it.

Joanne Mattera said...

I have to see you on Ed's blog but I don't have to see you here.

Tracy Helgeson said...

I have always felt that if I am going to enjoy the positive reviews, I must also consider the negative ones.

That said, even though I do not love the negative ones, the positive remarks mess with my head much more. A negative review make me think much more about what I am doing and why. A positive one can inflate my ego and I tend to coast on how awesome I must be, which of course is a bad thing to do in the studio ;)

Anonymous said...

does anyone want to see Zip's comments, wherever they might be?

Joanne Mattera said...

Not me. They're blather.

Donna Dodson said...

I got a negative review online last april that was part of the 'artists review artists' on Thinking about art blog- and it stung a bit but i posted a response to the review and i got alot of support from my fans online and i sold the piece he reviewed last year- and picked up 2 new commissions and am preparing for a big show this fall. my sales this summer have been sluggish (although i've been very busy showing) and i hope it picks up this fall...

Joanne Mattera said...

I remember that review, Donna, and it seems to me that it was not so much criticism as a gut-reaction "I don't like it." While it seemed to be honest from that person's point of view, it was not informed by any understanding of your oeuvre. Professional critics--and even those of us with points of view who write and think critically but aren't critics--do their homework to understand something of the work before issuing a pronouncement. To me the best critical responses are informative.

Nancy Natale said...

One of the worst reviews I ever got said that my work was about motherhood. Motherhood was about the farthest thing from my mind (and my work) and I couldn't understand how this reviewer had gotten such a bad take on what I was trying to say. Then I decided that perhaps my work was too ironic for him to get it and remembered advice that you should never use irony or sarcasm when dealing with the press because they are all about being literal - at least this guy was.

These days getting any kind of review is more welcome than the great, vast nothing at all.

kalm james said...

A great bad review is better than a so-so okay review. Our beloved Phil Guston is probably remembered more for the brutal review Hilton Kramer wrote called “A Mandarin Masquerading as a Stumble Bum” than any of the dozens of positive reviews he received (bet you can’t name one off hand). If an artist can’t handle a negative review maybe they shouldn’t be exhibiting, they should just stay in the closet.

J Bills said...

Joanne, you are right that good art criticism is often the kind that's best informed. However, I do believe there is value in the uninformed review, even a negative one. Artists are prone to isolation, not getting out of their head, and often unable to look at their work objectively. They need strangers to look at their work and say what comes to mind, simply to evaluate if your message is coming across or not. I think that was the best thing about the Artists Review Artists project on JT's blog, and it was with that spirit in mind that I wrote my review of Donna’s piece. Some folks thought I was too harsh, some thought I was not. Thankfully, Donna, JT and everyone involved were gracious to allow the discussion (I embarrassingly missed the follow up commentary). Any discussion or criticism is better than none at all.

Joanne Mattera said...

J Bills says: "Any discussion or criticism is better than none at all."

Maybe. Sometimes. (Readers, we're talking here about JT Kirkland's review project on his Thinking About Art blog [see my sidebar for link]. The idea was for artists to review other artists, thus giving them feedback and possibly a usable review of their work.)

In the case of your review of Donna Dodson's work (, though the review seemed overly harsh to me, the format allowed others, including the artist herself, to comment on your comment. A discussion ensued, and Donna's work got a lot of attention. I personally wrote supportive comments about her work.

But in a situation where a negative review does not offer that kind of dialog--as in a magazine or newspaper review, for instance--a bitter pill is certainly harder to swallow.

I will say this: I'll bet everyone reading the comments to this point will either follow the links or Google "Donna Dodson," so negative review or not, Donna's work will be seen by a wider audience. People will make up their own minds about the work. So in this instance, what you say is absolutely true.

Anonymous said...

After reading the review from Bill I can see his point, although, he probably was taking as base for his review this piece alone.
After checking Donna's work I think that the piece fitted correctly on her body of work and I appreciated it even more.

This week an exhibition opened and I am participating on it. While I was checking the exhibition and taking pictures of this place, which is a public venue, I overheard somebody saying one of those typical comments as "... and this is called art, I can do a lot better..." and also, "this is not abstract art!". I have seen that guy before and I know he works on Technology. I smiled knowing better that he does not have an art background and he just showed his lack of knowledge about art or art appreciation. At the same time, I appreciated the candor and gut reaction of somebody looking at my work. It is fun to witness somebody adventuring a comment on your work that might not be the same face to face with you. I am proud of my work and the way that I have approched my series and the variations that I have taking exploring it, it has been a lot of fun. As I said before, I do love making art for me, it is a lot better if somebody else do appreciate it, even if it is only one person in the world.

Donna Dodson said...

Thanks J Bills and Joanne! I am impressed with the blog as a medium for critical dialogue and the connectivity of the readership involved who are reading/commenting. It is a different animal than print media and much more interactive/participatory. It is an interesting question, and parallel to Ed Winkleman's blog question, what is worth arguing about, in the new economy where your customers are also your clients, I think artists can become a more active voice in the dialogue, if they choose to do so.

Eva said...

When I was just an artist - only an artist, I should say - I didn't pay that much attention to reviews or their impact. But when I started running a gallery and became the one to write the press release, then I started paying attention. Because I could watch how the efforts amounted to something - or didn't.

I think if the critic is invested and knows their stuff, the review can be good or bad and it's still all good, it's all a part of the conversation and thank god the work is in it. But concentrate on the work! I have seen differences in how artists are written about - how they are profiled - and that kind of thing can have a negative effect on the whole perception of the artist. I've seen artists misquoted, out and out yarns spun. Some artists are decribed by how they look and what they wear...perhaps in the long run it can create this myth or persona, but the short run can be very uncomfortable for the person in the hot seat. And that's the kind of "review" that is difficult to just let lie - though it is probably for the best.

Stephanie Sachs said...

LOL You are right Joanne, yesterday after reading the discussion I went immediately to Donna's website and was very impressed.
Clearly show any news is better than no news.

Donna Dodson said...

Thanks Stephanie and Anonymous commenter. Re: Eva... it is amazing to me the number of fashion magazines who will profile artists (like they are some kind of celebrity maing brnad endorsements) for example Interview, W magazine, Vogue, Vanity Fair which can't hurt, can it, to get that kind of blue chip attention for your clothes along with a photo about your art? I know it seems inverted proportionally to what is important to the artist, and there's a danger in getting the wrong kind of attention, but if it brings exposure to an unknown artist's work- kudos!

Joanne Mattera said...

W, Vogue and VF profile only celebrity artists. It's the lifestyles of the rich and famous--Brice Marden's six homes, Cindy Sherman's loft, and so forth. Lesser known artists won't get that type of attention. Local and regional publications do sometimes feature local and regional artists. The stories may help--at least in terms of attracting collectors--and I don't think they can hurt.

This is an aside--and probably a topic for another MM post--but every artist should learn to give an interview.

Unknown said...

Probably one of the best examples of "Negative Reviews" I can think of, is Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party. This is a piece that has become a critical and historical pivot-point and landmark in art, art history, and the women's movement, yet if you go back and look at how it was reviewed in the initial exhibitions you will find unflattering, unfavorable and just plain negative comments on numerous levels. Any artist with less perseverance would not have endured.

Joanne Mattera said...

You are right that the exhibition got a lot of negative press, Jane.

The big difference with Chicago is that she had tons of support from the feminist community. Indeed, she had tons of free labor from the feminist community. So even if the rest of the world panned her project, she was supported all the way.

And now, BTW, Elizabeth Sackler has funded an antire feminist wing at the Brooklyn Museum, of which the Dinner Party is the centerpiece.

So maybe a corollary to the negative review is the supportive community. ;-)

phoning in the concrete said...

An informed negative review is worth its weight in gold. Kalm says.
An uninformed negative review is uninformed, thus worthless.

Eva said...

Well, you asked "Did it affect the relationship with your dealer?" Yes. The journalist completely misquoted me, said I hated the local museum, which was not true at all. My dealer has a big relationship with the museum. That's just one part of it. Many people do not remember that, but he does. And what was the point of it anyway? ...the writer had his own axe to grind with the museum....

Joanne Mattera said...

What a dreadful experience, Eva. If ever there was a reason to write a letter to the editor, that would be it. It's one thing to be pissed off if a critic says negative things about yourt work, but when you are misquoted--especially when it can have political reverberations--defintely do it.

You could also have pressed the editor for a correction. (The editor would check with the fact checker--if it's a magazine--or ask the reporter to produce the notes or tape with the quote. If you were misquoted, a retraction and correction is in order.)

Anonymous said...

And then there are those who might like to have any mention of their work in hard or soft print and are tired of counting anonymous rejection letters. The art business is a hard game and the love of making the work has to prevail.