Writers work with the connotation of words, which means the attending feelings that surround a word. The words “brilliant” and “glaring” describe the same quality, but the former is a positive trait and the latter is decidedly negative. So goes the fine line between a critique and criticism. One is kind; the other is not. But they can both be helpful.
Artists of all kinds depend on effective critiques. The best artists use them to grow. We work through a process that requires the creation of our work be done in isolation from the very audience who will eventually be asked to react to it. This is where art—including music, photography, filmmaking, writing, and fine art, among others—becomes an interactive process. It’s also where the trouble starts. When you made it for yourself, it was one thing. But now you’re revealing things that you often wouldn’t tell your own mother.
Most of us were attracted to art because of the isolation. We choose to work on our own, playing in the rich and endlessly entertaining environment of our own imaginations. But once the work is done, it’s time to present it to an often unsuspecting world of people who never get to visit the creative sanctuary of our minds. Who knows how they’re going to react? And how we’re going to react to their reactions? It’s part of the work of the artist to help build a context that the observer/reader/audience can then use to relate to your work.
So we have art shows, photography shows, writing workshops, film premiers, and contests of all kinds—all designed to tell us what others think of our painfully personal work. The vast majority of comments will not be helpful. They’ll either be vague and disconnected, or deliberately negative. Unfortunately, even in peer groups, people often mistake criticism for critique, and so they simply look to create a list of what is wrong, without understanding that there really is no right or wrong. It usually comes from a need to prove that they know enough to find what’s wrong with your work, so generally it is more about the critic than the art itself. And that’s another important distinction: criticism is about the artwork not the artist.
Still, every comment needs to be dropped in that vast pit of criticism you will receive in your artistic life, and before it is cast down into the dark oblivion of your unconscious where it can fester and sour your future work, you have the opportunity to listen once and render it completely powerless. Each time it is your choice. Make it a goal to step back and listen as though you were talking about somebody else’s work.
There is a level at which you have to appreciate that every opinion is valid. If one person hated the ending of your story, or didn’t like the color palette, or found some other fault with your work, then it might have been their own particular taste that was lacking. But if two people have similar reactions, it’s a good time to consider what they heard or saw that you might not have intended. As Stephen King has said, “murder your darlings.” It’s usually the one thing we hang onto in our art work—that one thing that we are so unwilling to give up that we force everything else in the piece to stretch to go around it—that we should be most willing to let go of.
As artists, we fall in love with a concept, a picture in our minds, a phrase, or just a wisp of a thought. It was probably the inspiration for that particular piece of art or writing to begin with. But that’s where you need to let it go. It led you here to a finished work, and now you have to look at the whole piece—which is where all those unwelcome critics can really be useful. They see it fresh, and without your lover’s eyes. If they see something to fall in love with, or react strongly to, or even to hate, then you know you really have something. It’s when they didn’t even engage enough to have a comment that you really need to worry.
Criticism hurts—even when it’s helpful. Get used to it. The sooner you do, the quicker you can move on to expressing what you really feel in your work, and the sooner you will find an audience that appreciates your message. That’s how you will find yourself as an artist—and a person.
© 2010 Arts Enclave. All Rights Reserved.