Thursday, December 17, 2015

Criticism and Praise

Someone I know asked me, "How does an artist avoid working to please an audience?" She knows someone who submits artwork to a group of people in a classroom, and the opinions of the group have had an unexpected effect on the artist---who now brings the distracting attitude of "Will they like it or not?" back to the drawing board. 

My friend  asked me, "How can I tell her to turn off that voice in her head, and go back to the way she was before, just working for herself, with confidence?"

Without dwelling on it, my answer to her was that this is something all artists go through----a  creative person has to find their way out of it, and get back to doing their own work---and learning to ignore others  probably turns out to be a bit different for everyone. It's a glorious skill though. Priceless. 

Later, as I thought about it, I don't think my answer was wrong. I was glad I said it. The dillemma is nothing new, I've thought about it and experienced it plenty. 

It is easy to be overly guided by praise or criticism. Children and old people, who are naturally more self-guided, and who come by their self centeredness in opposite ways, are the experts at doing their own thing regardless of others. For the rest of us who are past childhood but before the age of retirement, other opinions seem to matter more, somehow. 

Experience definitely helps in learning to ignore the opinions of others, or preferably to pick and choose, cafeteria-style, the opinionated remarks that come your way, keeping the useful ones and letting go of the comments that don't help. 

Putting your work in front of others initiates a chain reaction of judgement that is unreliable. The sooner a creative person accepts that it is unreliable, the better off he or she is, and the more willing to trust the inner impulse that has been guiding their creativity all along. Most viewers judge creative work based on what they like or dislike, and the ones who are elevated beyond that and perhaps coming from academia, the world of history and style, very often do the same---or they might judge things based on approval passed down by  art historians before them, by experts or teachers whom they admire, or the fact that something hangs in a museum versus your art studio. Wise critics are rare. 

 I doubt it's possible for anyone to be truly objective, but we have to try--- the effort must be made, always, because the effort to be objective reveals how difficult being objective is, and gives you a deeper understanding of the rarity of a searching, open mind that is willing to experience and judge without being first told what to think. 



What I do varies. Sometimes I ask people what they think about things I'm working on. I'll ask anyone. The mailman, the pest control man, anyone who walks by.  Other times I keep it all a big secret. Discouragement at the wrong time is bad.  It's different for everyone. A creative person is required to be a capable, cold-blooded, sovereign judge of their own work. Yet there is something wrong if you cannot be humble and open enough to weigh the opinions of others, since you never know where a gem of truth might come from. Perhaps that seems contradictory. I don't think so. It takes enormous confidence to hear the opinions of someone---for better or for worse--- and only be swayed by it if you believe the judgement to be meaningful. (In a nutshell, that is why Art Critiques are so valuable and yet also why plenty of artists have a hard time going to them.) 

While I believe very strongly that sensitive people have a duty to protect themselves from situations that would destroy them, it's been my observation that a creative person who is on their genuine path is not too bothered by disparaging comments, and if anything it is an abundance of praise that has the ability to get them off track.


Unfortunately, these days I think a side-effect of so very many artists now teaching workshops is that artists are too often required to present themselves as experts, "modern masters",  who voice  opinions rather than ask for them. So the humility inherant in asking "What do you think of this?" is out of the question. . Actually it makes me realize that every generation of artist has their own uneccesary  burden to carry that is just a byproduct by the times in which they live. It's always something----and I think now it might be the fatal imperative of being the Modern Master that shapes a painter's career as much as anything. 

 When my art studio was surrounded by other art studios, I asked the opinion of others whenever I wanted to. In a pragmatic view I had narrowed it down to a few people whose eye offered something specific that I found interesting. I wasn't guided that much by what I heard, as I wasn't looking for tips or even wisdom. The truth is, is usually showed me if I were remaining on-track with what I want to do, and not falling into traditions that I was trying to avoid. This may sound cold, but very often when someone said "I don't like that, why are you doing that?" I took it as a good sign. That is a hard concept to tell someone, so of course I didn't, I just said thank you and kept doing my thing. 

It's a pity that listening to the opinions of others can be seen by many as a lack of confidence, when it's been my observation that the most confident people are usually good listeners who don't silence opposing views. Oh, well.  The truth is, in EVERY area a creative person has to learn to trust themselves and follow the path they know to be the right one. 

Weathering praise as well as criticism is part of the journey. 














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