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What to Do When People Criticize Your Art

One inescapable truth of the art world is that throughout your career, all kinds of people will say all kinds of things about your art, whether they tell you to your face, write about it, make videos about it, blog about it, post about it or gossip behind your back. Not only do you have to learn how to handle this continuous onslaught of thoughts, feelings, feedback, comments, criticisms, observations and impressions, but also how to evaluate and respond to them, and most importantly, how to not take them personally.
But first, a word to all you artists who have a habit of spontaneously asking people what they think of your art. The real question should be "What do YOU think of your art?" but let's save that one for later. Anytime you ask people what they think of your art, you have to realize that you instantly put them in awkward positions, especially if they don't really know you (why an artist would even ask someone who doesn't really know them-- or their art-- hardly makes any sense in the first place, but they go ahead and do it anyway).
Most people who find themselves in tricky situations like this will try to end the conversations as quickly and painlessly as possible, and you can bet that in almost all cases, what they'll tell you will not be what they think of your art, but rather what they think you'll want to hear-- which is usually that they like it. In other words, asking the question is basically pointless because you'll have no idea whether the answers you get will be honest or not, and have no real way of finding that out. Unless you already have an established relationship with whomever you're asking, or you're in a setting where people are specifically critiquing each other's work, there's rarely any upside to putting someone on the spot. If people feel like commenting, let them do it on their own; don't force the issue.
The good news is that you never have to ask because over time, plenty of people will volunteer every conceivable critique of your art-- some fantastic, others not so good. No matter what they say, these are always excellent opportunities to learn how your work impacts others, but at the same time, you can't take absolutely everything you hear at face value. Way too many artists have a tendency to get overly sensitive or defensive the instant anyone gets the least bit critical, and often without even thinking about who the criticizer is. These sorts of overreactions are rarely called for because most of the feedback you get comes from people who are not buyers, collectors, critics, gallery owners or anyone else who can impact or influence the course of your career, but rather from friends, family, acquaintances or casual art fans simply out for a good time and a little small talk. And making a big deal out of small talk does not do you one iota of good.
In order to figure out how seriously to take any conversation where your art suddenly becomes the center of attention, start by asking yourself a few questions. Who is this person? Do they know you? Are they familiar with your work? Are they familiar with the type of art you make? How much do they know about art? Are they qualified to judge art? Are they potential buyers? Are they respected members of the art community? Are they trying to make art conversation? Or do they just like to hear themselves talk? You'll come across them all... believe it. Once you figure out whom you're talking to and are able to get a little perspective on the matter, then you'll be in a far better position to relax and get the most out of every encounter.
This doesn't mean that if someone fails to "qualify," in your opinion, to meaningfully weigh in on your art that you blow them off or ignore everything they say. If one of your goals as an artist is to broaden your audience-- to expose your work to as many people as possible in as many different circumstances as possible-- then you have to consider and reflect on what everyone tells you, and not just a select few. Even the most uninformed viewers can at times provide brilliant bits of wisdom and insight into your art, not only in terms of the work itself, but also how it affects them, what they get out of it, what it communicates, what they understand, what they need help understanding, and so on. Input from others helps you become a better artist. It's just that simple.
Another important determination you have to make is whether a particular response is based on an individual's personal tastes, or is instead based more on certain degrees of knowledge, familiarity or experience of the art world as a whole. Usually it's the former-- someone either likes or dislikes your art only in terms of what they find personally appealing, and has little or nothing to do with the quality, meaning or significance of the work itself. This type of criticism is worth listening to, especially if you hear similar versions of it over and over again, but at the same time, you can't take it all that seriously because it's not really about you or your art, it's about them and their tastes. In other words, don't get all bent out of shape when someone speaks about your art in less than glowing terms, based solely on his or her individual preferences.
If, however, a person's comments are based more on facts relating to the art itself and are presented more from an objective critical perspective, then you should generally be considering them more seriously. For example, I see accomplished works of art all the time that I do not find the least bit appealing personally, but it's still good art, and I still have plenty of good things to say about it. And the same goes for not-so-good art. The important part is that I leave my tastes out of it and consider the art based purely on its own merits or lack thereof. These are the types of criticisms that are worth paying the most attention to.
Regardless of who's telling you what, you always have to keep the bigger picture in mind rather than flip out every single time anybody says anything the least bit contrary about your work (many artists fall victim to this, and it's almost always way more energy draining than productive). Think more in the aggregate, in terms of cumulative feedback over time. That's what really educates you about the impact of your work, and about how and what it communicates to others-- not any one person's remarks. Be more like a census taker and catalogue and accumulate data. Over the long haul, general response patterns to your art will emerge and become increasingly clear. You'll begin to see similarities in how people react to and experience your work, and you'll be able to make progressively better informed decisions about how to present yourself and your art to everyone's advantage, and to ultimately advance in your career.
Taking any one person too seriously is never good-- regardless of whether that person happens to have a profile in the art community or the ability to influence your career. The art world is so huge, especially in this Internet Age where pretty much everything is accessible to everyone (including you), that there's plenty of room for all points of view and all art to coexist, and plenty of potential interest in your art as well-- assuming you're willing to put the effort into finding it. The influence or authority of any single individual only extends so far, and even the influence they currently have is becoming gradually marginalized when compared to the ever expanding number of available options not only for artists to call attention to their art, but also for getting it out there in front of the public.
In the end though, while comments and critiques from others are certainly worth contemplating and at times even acting on, at some point you have to set them all aside. Remember way back at the beginning of this article when I said that the real question you should be asking is what YOU think of your art rather than what other people think? If you happen to be one of those many artists who are guilty of looking to others for acknowledgement or approval rather than looking to yourself, then perhaps change up your agenda a tad and occasionally reflect on why you find this quest for acceptance so necessary. Your art is ultimately about you and your belief in it regardless of what anyone else has to say. You can't underestimate the importance of other people's observations and input in terms of understanding the overall impact, effect and appeal of your work, but after everyone's had their say, your dedication, commitment and creative inspiration are all that really count.

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