Art critiques I shouldn’t have listened to.

With hindsight it is a lot easier to see the forest for the trees and art critiques are no exception. Any one that attends art school undergoes their fair share of evaluations and while most provide invaluable feedback that can help push and inspire work, others can do quite the opposite.

There are definitely some art critiques that I listened to at the time that have made a lasting impact on me. Critiques have shaped and created a foundation of how to view of myself as an artist and my feelings and own evaluation of my art work. Some of these impressions are positive but a few negative ones that I shouldn’t have listened to still stick in my mind even years after received.

Be less…

Perhaps the most confusing advice I’ve received was to essentially “be less”. Be less complex in my symbolism and stick to simplicity. Be less descriptive. Be less detailed. Include less in my work, experiment less, research less…

When someone tells you that you’re essentially too much it’s hard to understand what it is that’s in question. At times this critique was given in order to help me clarify a message or emphasize some aspect of symbolism being used. In this context it was helpful and meaningful advice. However, this advice was frequently offered without explanation and was likely a criticism of an overall aesthetic that simply didn’t align with the viewers expectations.

In my art I tend to instinctively favor maximalist imagery and there are many artists who do this successfully (Robert Rauschenberg, for example). I started to pair down my work because of this criticism and adopt aesthetic choices that were in opposition to my natural tendencies as an artist. In doing so I found a side of myself that I am happy to have met, however, I spent years mistakenly feeling like the other part of me was bad and undesirable. What would have been more helpful was to have been guided to understand how both sides of the coin came together.

If you want to make decorative work you should design stationary instead of paint.

During one critique I was told (and I’m paraphrasing) that if I wanted my work’s meaning to come through it should be less decorative, and that if I wanted to make decorative work I should look into working at a greeting card company instead of painting. This scalded at the time as I was in a graduate painting program struggling to find my voice after continuously being told I was “too much”. My work has and always will be on the decorative side.

I tend to idealize forms and shapes and perfect edges in a way that makes them aesthetically pleasing to my eye, much like William Morris and many other nature artists. At the time I took this to mean that I needed to be either more abstracted or more realistic because the moment I struck in between was unappealing or confusing to my message.

Your work is almost too pretty and too detailed.

My work at the time was about mortality. I can see how the idea of beauty clashes with this, however, how can the use of beauty as a communication device diminish these messages? Countless vanitas paintings throughout history use this same principles and they are often praised for their beauty? What I took to heart was that working detailed and precisely was not acceptable (as was working too decoratively) and was not effective in communicating my message. What I see now is that this isn’t true.

The stylistic choices I make that lend themselves to decorative detailed pretty work is simply just a part of my personal aesthetic and I would venture to guess that this criticism was born from personal issues rather than altruistic motivations. I wrongly tried to push my style away from a more simplified realism to fit this advice and in doing so confused myself and made things harder in the process.

Stop reading and researching so much.

I was once put on a media freeze by a professor who told me that my tendency to research and read was interfering with creating work. When I think about this one I realize that I DO actually have a tendency to use this aspect of my creative process to avoid work that I feel unprepared for. Regardless, I also have to recognize that this is my way of working and is central to my work.

I also know that this part of my process is a key characteristic of the depression phase of my bipolar disorder and isn’t something I can simply stop doing. To be fair, my professor (and I) didn’t know about this at the time. When I’m too down to create work, I hibernate surrounded by books and Pinterest and art magazines as a way to hold onto something creative until I am capable of making work again. For years I felt guilty and even pulled back from this part of my process because of this advice and it has only made my depressive states worse.

If I had understood my mental illness better at different stages of my life I would have been able to recognize when I avoided making things because of procrastination and when I was struggled from a different place.

Overall, a good critique can be filled with applicable and beneficial strategies to become a better artist and to strengthen the effectiveness of your artwork. It is, however, important to consider the source, context, and intentions behind the advice. Even good and well-meaning criticism like not allowing one aspect of your process (research) to prevent another (making work) can be destructive to your well-being if it’s presented or even understood in the wrong way.

As an educator I’m reminded of how powerful the words we choose to use during critique can be. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing. I do no hold a grudge against the people who gave me the advice listed above because in the end I know that the intentions of these people weren’t malicious. The simple fact is, not all critiques are helpful.

Let go of the comments that you recognize as being not applicable to your situation or of benefit to your artwork or practice. And, as I’m personally learning based on my own experiences, (and in the words of Elyse Myers) if people tell you you’re too much, tell them to go find less.

1 comment

  1. I don’t believe, even a professional art critique or teacher, can be completely unbiased from personal like and dislike, frankly. As an artist, I try to roll with the punches; not everyone will like my work and as an author, same. One size doesn’t fit all. Those who like our work will find us as I’ve discovered with commission work rolling in. If someone wanted me to ‘be less,’ I would seriously think whether we were a compatible match for the work… that said one style is for more conservative tastes (very detailed) whereas my abstracts are far less conventional. With all this, there is one thing that springs to mind… we don’t really paint for others, we paint for ourselves, pouring so much of ‘true self’ into our work and so, ‘be more’ if it expresses you and most importantly, nod and smile, walk away… and ‘you be you.’

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