critique, part two
Do I need to convince you that receiving constructive feedback on your work is a good thing? Probably not--most of us would like to know more about how our work is perceived by other people, and know from experience how helpful other people's insights can be. Interesting then the lengths we will go to avoid that conversation, even with good friends. I've come up with eight strategies that artists use to deflect honest, deep conversation about their work--I'm sure there are more!-- and I speak from experience. Not only have I observed these in action, I've prone to a few of these myself.
So, imagine yourself in your studio, with one or more visitors looking at your work, the setting for an informal critique. They may be friends, other artists you know, family members, curious neighbors. The purpose of the visit is not to sell your work (I'll save that topic for another post) but simply to show what you've been doing, and get some feedback. It is very likely that your audience has something of value to offer by way of insight, suggestion or reaction. Will you find out? Maybe not, if you retreat too far into any of the following defenses:
1. Saying, in essence: "Everything I do is great! I am so pleased with all of these!! Aren't they fantastic!?" (subtext: "You are not allowed to voice any criticism.")
2. Saying, in essence: "Everything I do is awful. I hate everything here. I am really bad at this." (subtext: "You'd better tell me only good things, or you will completely crush me.")
3. Going on and on about topics unrelated to the artwork on view. (subtext: "I am hoping to kill all our time before a single word of substance can be spoken about the work.")
4. Being silent, tense, wary. (subtext: "Please just go away.")
5. Rushing the viewer through the studio, giving them no more than 5 seconds to see each piece. (subtext, "I'm afraid to hear what you have to say, let's just get this over with as soon as possible.")
6. Talking only about the materials or technical aspects of the work. (subtext: "I'm an expert at this and that's all you need to know.")
7. Talking about the meaning of the work using art jargon instead of normal speech. (subtext: "I have been to art school and that's all you need to know.")
8. Talking only about sales, exhibits, collectors, and other aspects of success. (subtext, "Other people love my work and that's all you need to know.")
OK, I'm teasing a little here--I know that being scrutinized by other people, even ones you know and trust, can be very uncomfortable. Underlying all of these strategies is the fear of rejection and negative criticism by the audience--hence the desire to push the viewers away before anything bad can be said. This is usually effective, because despite wanting to see your work, the audience in your studio may also feel put on the spot, unsure and a little ill at ease. They want to say the right things, intelligent things, but may not enjoy the pressure to do so. The assumption by everyone in the room is that you are engaged in a judging, and being judged scenario, and the natural inclination is for an easy way out.
But you--the artist--can do everybody a favor by putting a different agenda into play. The first step, difficult as it may be, is to let go of the need for approval and praise. This frees you from the defensive strategies above and allows you to focus on open ended conversation about your art. Your studio visitors too will be free to move beyond liking or disliking, which may not a comfortable role for them either. (Of course, if they do like the work and say so, that's a fine starting point!) Here are a few suggestions for opening up dialogue next time someone comes to see your work:
As your visitors come in, talk casually about the work you have out to give them time to orient themselves to what's what. For example, you can indicate older and newer pieces, and things in progress. Mention ideas you're interested in and point out some relevant examples of how you're applying them. Don't launch into a big lecture, just do a few minutes of this to give your audience a chance to look around and get curious. That may be all you have to do--comments and questions will ensue and the conversation will flow. If you need some other conversational help, though, you can try working in some questions...ask what was the first impression of the work, and what came through after looking a few minutes longer. Or about how the person's eyes are drawn within a particular piece, if he or she thinks it would work on a much larger or smaller scale, or if there are any distinct emotions or ideas that come to mind in viewing the work, or which of the finished pieces on view would that person choose to put in an exhibit. You don't need to grill the person--these are just prompts to get a studio visitor engaged with the work, thinking and talking.
With people whose subjective opinion you trust, the questions can be more pointed and the feedback you request more specific as to whether something is working, or whether a particular direction seems promising. If you have an art friend who is direct and honest, the conversation can range from helpful suggestions to deep probing and revealing insights. In the end, the best informal critiques are not controlled by your expectations or questions--they take off into unexpected territory, and leave you with energy, new ideas, and all the art synapses in your brain firing.
(the untitled painting above is 16"x16" oil and mixed media on panel.)