Let's hear it for criticism!
Every Tuesday, I get together to paint with a group of four to six artist friends at Wave Hill. We paint for a couple of hours and then do a show and critique over lunch. The painting I do at Wave Hill is not usually memorable; it’s the criticism that is invaluable. Criticism is worth its weight in gold to any artist who aspires to improve (and can’t we all — improve, that is, and don’t we all — aspire to improve, that is?). I do. No one should be cruel, but constructive criticism can allow us to see mistakes we might have otherwise missed and then fix them.
Of course, some mistakes are really obvious. One of my favorite memories of the classes I took with Dale Meyers was the night she looked at the fence in a painting I had just “finished” and said, “Why did you do THAT?!?” I laughed and said I wasn’t happy with that aspect of the painting myself, but wasn’t sure how to fix it. Her suggestion and that of the artist sitting next to me enabled me to turn it around. And Dale hadn’t exactly pussyfooted around (telling me 15 different ways that it was beautiful before pointing out the problem). She cut right to the chase giving me what I wanted and needed: useful criticism. I fixed the painting.
But I keep bumping into fellow artists who are unhappy about any criticism, no matter how it’s expressed. There’s the teacher at the League who won’t allow the work in the class show to be judged. Or the student who won’t take a particular teacher’s class because she (the teacher) is “too judgmental.” Or the art club member who always votes to have non-juried shows or doesn’t want the judges comments disseminated because he thinks jurying will intimidate some of the artists.
Of course, no one should be “forced” to listen to criticism. But the chance to have someone who is knowledgeable look at your work and tell you what they think is invaluable. It’s very hard to judge your own work when you’ve just put so much effort into creating it. And it’s not just that we are too easy on ourselves, thinking we’ve created a masterpiece every time. Sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves, when the gap between what we intended and what we actually created is just too great. What matters is what is actually there; the painting itself must be judged on its own. What works and what doesn’t. Even people who are not artists or especially knowledgeable about art can tell you something useful about your painting. If they like it, why do they like it. What, specifically, appeals to them.
One of my artist friends has banned the word “interesting” from her — and my — vocabulary. According to her, it’s what you say when you don’t like something, or you don’t know what to say. “Hmm, very interesting” is the kiss of death. It means it isn’t worth figuring out what works and what doesn’t, how you really feel about it. The devil’s in the details. It’s the specifics that matter, even if the person can’t always explain it. “I love the clean colors but for some reason my eye keeps going here. There’s something about that that bothers me.” As the artist, that a comment you can explore and use.