Saturday, July 31, 2010


What to Do: You Are Told That Your Work Sucks
Robyn Love
October 04, 2007

In 1994, I attended an artist residency where visiting artists came by on a weekly basis and offered critiques. The first day, a woman came into my studio and immediately trashed my paintings, which she had looked at in slide format ahead of her visit. After she had told me how awful and derivative my paintings were, she looked over at a piece of fabric I had hung up on the wall on a whim. “That looks interesting. What is that?” she said.

It took me a couple of days of licking my wounds before I could enter the studio again. During my time away I was forced to admit to myself that some of what she said was true, and perhaps even more importantly, that I actually disliked painting. I hated stretching canvas and, compared to my painter friends who practically seemed to want to eat their paint, I just didn’t like paint and its inherent qualities all that much. But fabric was another story. By the time I went back into my studio I was ready to put away all my painting paraphernalia and take out my yarn, needles, embroidery threads and fabric. I had felt very unclear about why I had packed them for the residency beforehand. But suddenly, my reasons seemed quite clear. During the remaining weeks, my work exploded. Now instead of dreading studio time, there weren’t enough hours in a day to make all the things that I wanted to make. And I owed it all to that one “bad” critique.

So what exactly is a bad critique? Although difficult at the time, the experience I related above was one of the most pivotal moments in my life as an artist. Negative feedback is a normal, natural part of life for an artist but you do with it can make all the difference. As Sonya Shönberger, a video and performance artist in Berlin says, “Not everyone can or should be into your stuff!” But the question is how to deal with the negative comments that come your way: when to take them seriously and when to let them go.

Shawn O’Hagan, a painter and fiber artist in Newfoundland, Canada, reminds us that “no one can be as critical as we are of ourselves. Always that voice – that makes us doubt, that makes us change, that makes us strive.” When criticism does come, if it rings true, then she knows that she has already said it to herself. If it is coming from an uninformed or dishonest place, “then it really doesn’t matter.”

Another Canadian painter, Jackie Alcock, uses the negative feedback as content for her work. “Painting is something I have to do. It is in my blood and when someone tells me maybe painting is not the way for me to go. Well (my) soul dips down into bowels of the deep black earth. My husband stays out of my way while I take every painting in arm’s reach and paint them the colour of my wrecked soul: black. Totally black, then just leaving a little of the painting showing. Ah! My soul rebounds! These paintings were meant to be black. Out of despair comes the creation of what I consider my tuxedo line: black painting in a white and black frame. I am happy again,”

New York City artist, Fran Willing, is more philosophical. After hearing negative comments, she “got mad, got depressed, got mad again, felt inadequate, felt invalidated, finally shrugged and tried to just get on with things, hoping not to have it hang over my head.” She did teach herself one simple technique for dealing with negative reviews. Before heading up the six flights of stairs that lead to her studio in DUMBO, she envisions all the negative stuff falling away down the stairwell with each step. By the time she is on the 6th floor and in her studio, she is free to work with a clear head and “the evil voices” do not follow her into her studio and her work.

Sculptor Barb Hunt once found herself choosing between speaking with the media about an upcoming one-person exhibition and actually get the work done. She relates her story:

A few years ago I had a solo exhibition in an artist-run centre in a large Canadian city. I did a site-specific installation and it was a lot of work, days on end, late nights, the whole bit. While I was working, people would drop by to see what I was doing, and the art centre arranged a couple of radio interviews to publicize the show. These took me away from the work, and I was really worried about getting the installation finished on time. So when a writer called to see if I could do an interview with her for a story in a local weekly paper, I postponed calling her back until I had the show finished. I think this was a mistake, to put off someone from the media. So when I finally called her back to say the show was finished and let’s meet, she said that she was too busy and didn’t have time. She wrote a review without the interview and she said something about my work that I didn’t like – that it was “too cold and calculated”. So I realized that the media has power over us artists and can represent our work in ways that we may not agree with. I told myself after that experience that I would always try to call people back right away and be really nice to the media. It is scary to realize that as artists we put our work out in the public sphere and make ourselves vulnerable to unfair criticism. It can be really hurtful, especially when we work so hard and don’t get fair remuneration for what we do! I think all artists are working in many different ways to make the world a better place, so when we get criticized unfairly or too harshly, it affects us very strongly. I try to keep thinking about the good reviews and all the good feedback I’ve had, and this keeps me going.

What keeps you going in the face of a bad review or harsh critique? Do you find purpose in negative feedback? Or is it simply soul-crushing and difficult? Whether we can process it and use it to make lemonade from lemons or not, getting criticized is a fact of life for artists. Each individual needs a strategy for handling it in a constructive way if they hope to keep working. Let’s hear your strategy.

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