Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How Best to Respond to Your Critics

The immediacy of the Internet has opened up a new dilemma for those who feel compelled to respond to criticism of their artwork. No longer is the ear of the critic's audience the private domain of the publisher. It's now so easy to let all those same people who read the critique know how you feel about it.

I highly discourage the urge.

Oh, I've heard all the rationalizations. But whether the comments are complimentary ("It would be rude not to thank them, no?") or the comments are critical ("What does that sniveling, illiterate imp know about art?"), responding on the Internet rarely accomplishes anything good, in my opinion. And I've been thinking about this for quite some time.

When the first exhibition in our gallery was positively reviewed in the New York Times, a good friend of mine who works in Hollywood took me out to dinner to celebrate. I forget where we ate, but I'll never forget his advice: "I'll tell you the same thing I tell my actors," he said. "Don't believe the good press. If you do, then you'll have to believe the bad press. Just be happy for the press."

Mind you, I'm not suggesting other people don't believe the reviews of the art exhibitions out there (personally, I can't get enough of informed opinions on the ocean of artwork we're swimming in), just the artist(s) in question. Indeed, the artists I know who refuse to read their own press tend to have the healthiest attitudes about it.

Of course, this wasn't quite as big a deal before the Internet handed everyone immediate access to their own personal editorial page. In the past, if you were infuriated with a critic's panning of your work, you might dash off an angry letter or leave a nasty message on their answering machine, or snub them at the next opening reception you both attended.

If you wrote, then maybe your blistering retort would be subsequently published (after most people ceased to remember much about it), but the impact of even the most public of those options was limited to a small circle. Today, however, before most people have even read the original review or have any clue what's making all the heads explode across the spectrum of social networks (this time), the artist in question (thanks to Google alerts) and his/her friends can have worked themselves into an online frenzy that results in some tipsy typer very publicly speculating on the relationship between said critic's mother and a barnyard of large farm animals.

It's temporarily empowering, I imagine...but once it's out there, well...

My sincere advice is to think of the artwork you exhibit as your statement. You presumably had as much time as you needed to prepare that statement. You agreed to put it out there for others' feedback. Your part in this particular round of exchange is complete. Whether the viewers' response is praise or condemnation, you had every opportunity to put your best foot forward...you had your chance. Once the exhibition opens, its the audience's turn.

If you find the response disappointing, you can comfort yourself with the assumption that you're ahead of your time, or the audience needs to learn more, or whatever, but at this point any defensive response by you is parallel to the comeback you finally come up with after your heckler has left the room. It's simply too late. It makes you look lame to hurl it at the door they just exited. Your only recourse is to ensure that your statement is even better in the next round.

There was some Afterschool Special I recall from my youth in which a mentor tells a troubled young soul being harassed that there are four groups of people in this world: those who like you for the right reasons; those who like you for the wrong reasons; those who dislike you for the wrong reasons; and those who dislike you for the right reasons. That last group, the mentor said, is the only one you should really spend much time worrying about.

As applied to our current topic, I would interpret that to suggest you should send a private thank you note to any critic who likes your work for the right or wrong reasons, and simply ignore any who dislikes your work for the wrong reasons (or be big about it and thank them for choosing to respond to your exhibition when there are so many others they could have instead). That may not be easy, but if you're confident they're wrong, why expend the energy arguing? The critic who dislikes your work for the right reasons is probably the only one you should spend much time considering. Or not...it's not always productive to do so sometimes.

Either way, you have much, much more to lose by disagreeing in public with someone whose opinion you invited. If you didn't want it, why ask for it? The best way to respond to your critics is, again, to show them next round why they were wrong.

Labels: art criticism, art viewing


Anonymous Gam said...

Well said Ed

hear hear

7/13/2010 08:53:00 AM  
Blogger beebe said...

Luckily, most artists are blissfully free of attention's burden.

7/13/2010 09:59:00 AM  
Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...


I saw an old Liza Minnelli interview, she was advised by Elizabeth Taylor something about start to not read her shows reviews.
There's nothing worst than start a day with something massively down sizing, no matter what we do.

There's already a lot of energy to create, and to be judge by the final product, without sometimes know the process of the artist.

I wish sometimes be a little OCD to do some writing statement to go with the construction of everything I do. Clearifing the viewers is a good thing, but can be overwhelming just create something from nothing or form nothing go to something.


p.s. If wasn't Elizabeth Taylor maybe was Michael Jackson, Momo's chimpanzee giving the advise to Liza. Is hard to keep up with so much info and imagery in my mind.

7/13/2010 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Yes and no. Yes, it makes you look bad to hurl insults at the critic. But I would disagree that the artist's part of the exchange is over after putting up the work. In the larger sense, I like to think of exhibiting my work as one part of participating in the larger cultural dialogue. And some of us who make art also write (or curate or teach). In other words, we communicate in more than one way. So I'm uncomfortable with the idea that we put our "statement" out there in the form of our artwork, then we dutifully accept the response from critics. I'm speaking in a broader sense, so I'm not actually arguing that we should or should not respond to a specific review, just that I think to think that the dialogue is an ongoing exchange that can continue in some form.

7/13/2010 12:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. " ~ Oscar Wilde

Be grateful for your reviews ... it beats the heck out of obscurity.

7/13/2010 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric said...

In these days of Twitters, everybody has to whine about someone or something. Critique has become so prevalent, and we've become so used to hearing people trying to destroy the work or reputation of others, that I think the new artists will take it less at heart to read bad comments about what they do.

So, we're all not made the same, there are personality clashes and ego incompatibilities everywhere. So what? It's not a drama to be hated (as long as you aren't
physically assaulted). What I would suggest anyone is to try to hate the least people they can,
just to test if they're able to, but that's mostly because I think negativity is worst for your
own health than those of others.

Cedric C

7/13/2010 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

funny how we have moved into an epoch where permanency, stasis, (stability), tradition? has become a source of liability.

Not so much that continuity isn't valued, but that continuation has become impeded by words or acts from our past. That time somehow needs to fade into a past to allow a future to be chosen and not imposed ...

7/13/2010 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Well, you know what the movie ads do with the negative reviews: turn them into raves. "A monumental piece of crap" becomes "Monumental!"
I'm not suggesting we do that to our own bad reviews, but there's no denying it's empowering.

7/13/2010 08:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Bean said...

I'm an artist AND a critic and---from both sides---I agree. A review is an informed opinion, that's all. Don't take it so hard, folks.

But I have one caveat: please do let a critic know, in the politest possible way, if we get factual information wrong in the review.

One of the first reviews I received (as an artist) got my age, my medium, the dimensions of the piece, and part of the exhibition statement wrong! I've never forgotten how incredibly, deeply disappointing it was to receive critical attention (at last!)...and not feel like I could use the review in my portfolio.

The silver lining is that now when I wear the critic hat, I really try hard to get the details right; and if I don't I sure as hell want someone to tell me so I can correct it.

7/13/2010 09:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Artists should be seen and not heard.

Dealers and Collectors create the Value.

Critics just take Notes.

Sorry Ed, I don't agree.


7/13/2010 09:55:00 PM  
Blogger ellen yustas k. gottlieb said...

Edward, how very true what you write! In my experience I noticed that artists pick up on negative response more fervently then positive. From many positive they would focus on one negative.
Will re-post your wonderful topic.

7/14/2010 09:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know an artist that only puts out in the media information that he wants out in the media. In one interview, the reporter was not an art critic, but had been assigned to the job and clearly didn't think it was worth his time. The artist didn't like the reporters attitude, nor the way the questioning was going. The reporters angle was to make the artist accessible and kept dwelling on what the artist did to make money (he assumed and insisted that the artist had a day job). The artist was insulted by the assumption and did not see how that information was relevant anyway. The reporter would not listen to the artist's explanation of his work or any of the prepared information the artist wanted published. The reporter kept trying to get the artist to let his guard down, he was working the accessible angle hard. When it was over, the artist was convinced that the reporter was going to create a story that was not going to be the persona that he wanted out. He then called the reporter and insisted that the story be killed. (By the way, the reporter took photographs even when he was asked not to. The artist said he would provide photos, but the reporter was going for candid shots.) The two actually got into a shouting match on the phone, but in the end, the story did not run.

This same artist has also contacted bloggers and insisted they take down posts about him that he feels don't conform to the persona he wants out about him.

Through watching him, I know it is possible to have a fair amount of control over your image in the media. It does take work and it's best to take control before anything is published.

7/14/2010 09:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Marcos said...

Even in school, I thought it innapropriate to respond to slams and over the years I think I learned to say a not too awkward thanks to praise and leave it at that. But when a paid critic says lazy and stupid things about friends and artists I like, I feel that vitriolic attacks are understandable.

7/14/2010 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

++Through watching him, I know it ++is possible to have a fair ++amount of control over your ++image in the media.

WTF?!! The bloggers actually took down critic reviews because of what this artist thought about them? I don't believe it. Has anyone else ever seen something like this happen? I know bloggers can receive legal threats if they pass wrong (or even true) information with strong repercussions to a reputation, like claiming someone is a member of the mafia. But free press (hot topic du moment) should allow you to express whatever you feel about
an artist's work.

++It does take work and it's best ++to take control before anything ++is published.

It sounds almost like you're joking. I mean, it's a little scary.


Cedric C

7/14/2010 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

The practice of art criticism is probably the most intentionally misunderstood aspect of the art scene. I've said it before, one of the functions, maybe one of the most important functions of being an artist, is to give people something to be "critical" about. If you can't stand having your stuff out there to let people see, discuss and criticize it, then you probably shouldn't be an artist.

After many years of reviews and interviews, this notion of protecting a created "persona" is laughable. I've noticed that the great artists I've talked to, mostly older, are usually accessible and totally free with their responses (Frank Stella comes to mind). It's the younger ones that seem to fear being exposed, and I'll wager in most cases it's because they know their careers are built on illusion and hype, and thus, much more fragile.

I can understand people being shy and not wanting to talk to critics or reporters, but presenting a "persona" is what used to known as being a "phony".

7/14/2010 01:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was younger, I believed that my life and career was at the mercy of the forces that be in the world; that I had to take what came my way (even if it wasn't what I wanted), that I had to be the person the outside world wanted me to be and that I had to answer the questions that were put to me. I suppose that I hadn't grown up yet.

I no longer believe any of this. Now I believe that I can create my own opportunities, I can present myself any way I please to others (even if that is a disappointment to them) and I don't have to answer any question that is put to me. Basically, I believe that I am in control over my own life.

Just because a reporter asks you a question, does not mean you have to give them the answer they want. You can give them the information you want them to have. Because people want things from you, you do not have to give them - unless you want to. If you find that opportunities are not coming your way. make your own opportunities.

It is best to weigh and choose your battles, since it is always a good idea to come from a position of strength. I agree with Ed. It is too late to shake your fist at a bad review. It is ineffective and has put you on the defense. It is better to have made sure that as many people as possible had the information you wanted them to have BEFORE that bad review. While not always a rule, after working in publishing, I am aware that many publications are very happy if they can just copy your press release, rather than write something new.

There is a scene in "The Snake Pit;" Olivia De Havilland has been in a mental institution. She has cigarettes and the other patients always take them from her and she lets them. But then there is the point in the movie, where Olivia says no and keeps her cigarettes. That is the point when we know she is getting better and stronger and she getting released.

7/14/2010 02:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Wow, Anon. The art world isn't *quite* the Snake Pit. You seem to have a very antagonistic relationship to the art press.

And who are these artists who are hounded by reporters for interviews? And what publications do these reporters write for? Last I heard, every publication was cutting back on arts coverage.

I have also found that many critics (or, to be more accurate, people who cover the arts for mainstream publications, because actual critics don't do this) often will take a phrase or two from the press release, and sometimes use it almost verbatim. So it's a good idea to have a really good press release. Unfortunately, I have found it difficult to be in on the PR that galleries put out. I'm guessing they feel like I'm encroaching on their turf when I try to be involved. But the result is sometimes a statement that does not characterize my work well and often has inaccuracies. And then they get repeated by critics. But really, I'm grateful for any press coverage my work gets. I've never felt the need to rebut a review or strike back in any way. The little inaccuracies used to bother me, but after a while I realize that no one else really cares. Getting reviewed is more important than the details.

7/14/2010 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Doing interviews and getting reviewed are two very different things.

In an interview, you have control over what you say to the interviewer, how you act, what you show to her. If you don't like the question, respond with the answer you wish the interviewer to have. And if you feel the questioner is taking a wrong tack, redirect it by showing her something you wish to talk about. If you feel the questioner is trying to trip you up and you can't redirect the questioning, then end the interview; it's not going to end well even if you stick it out. But how many of us are in for a muckraking interview? Most interviewers are happy to be redirected to a more fruitful direction.

A review is something else entirely, based as it is on someone's opinion, informed or not. Make sure you or your gallery provide a statement and specific information. If the review is factually incorrect but you basically like the opinion of the reviewer, excerpt the most correct information.

Re blogging, I can't speak for others, but if I have misstated factual information, send me the correct info and I'll amend the post. But if you just don't like what I have to say, or the company you're in, well, uh--how you say?--too bad.

7/14/2010 08:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Hmm, James, I've met a number of art stars or even entertainment stars, and I'd say that personality and product have little to do together. You can be a mega-star and be a paranoiac (which usually ends up meaning you act like an asshole). I think the basic personality of someone is hard to change. Charismatic and lovable people obviously find success easier, but if you're successful with an awful personality, you're probably either terrifyingly brilliant or actually...err...talented. I think in the arts and entertainment industry, there is simply a lot of crazy people, wrether they are nice or not.

Cedric C

7/15/2010 07:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad said...

Advice I've been told many times "no such thing as bad ink".

In some book they even had the following hierarchy for reviews in USA newspapers (OK pre other media):

1) pick NYT

2) pan/trashing NYT

3) Pick other big US city paper

4) pan/trashing other big US city paper

5) Pick mid-sized US city paper

6) pan/trashing mid-sized US city paper


So your thorough trashing at one level maybe more important to you than some lesser wonderful sendup. Certainly worth considering...

I agree with Ed, show them next time there were wrong.

7/15/2010 07:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Getting reviewed is more important than the details."

I'm not sure if this is genius or dumb-dumb. Reviewers have a responsibility to do a little homework and if they still get it wrong, why not call them on it? It is most frustrating for curators and galleriests because they get critiqued as well. The show as a whole lacked... blah blah blah..
I remember a funny review of a Sol Lewitt piece in which the reviewer asked why Sol Lewitt didn't make his own work... if this fool had spent even 5 min reading about who the artist was they would have learned why... and if they still wanted to they could have wrote about the work in regards to his process.
Sometimes there isn't enough information on the artist, but most reviewers don't write about emerging artists in a negative way.. it's just too easy and cruel. They want to review the people making the waves OR the artwork they really like.
If the reviewer is simply saying they don't like the work that is different matter. If they have it out for the artist and continually write negative things just because, they might deserve an ass kicking.

7/16/2010 08:02:00 PM  
Blogger Christopher Quirk said...

"I don't read my press, I weigh it."
-Andy Warhol

7/18/2010 10:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree with bashing an art critic. However, I see nothing wrong with being critical of a critic who is obviously giving an artist a hard time.

Some critics get very personal and mention things beyond the art on display. In that scenario I think it is warranted for an artist, his friends, whoever, to examine the personal flaws of the critic and expose, expose, expose, if need be. Why not? This is the information age. Art critics are no longer the untouchable gods they once were. Gallery owners are not either for that matter.

Seems to me there is a lot of fear among the powers that be in that they don't want bad press that is focused on them for a change. You know damn well critics have ruined a few lives by making reviews overly personal. Placing the shoe on the other foot would be an awesome work of art!

7/24/2010 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As for artists who try to secure a persona by demanding that bloggers remove content about them that they do not approve of. When I receive emails like that I'm more apt to expose the fact that the artist is in fact trying to create an image.

Fact remains that you can't really do anything about a blog write up that you don't agree with unless there is clear character defamation going on. Saying an artist is not what she seems is a lot different than saying the same artist smears feces in her hair while feeding cats. Just stick to facts and opinions.

Today it is impossible to control the persona you want for yourself especially if you try overly hard to sustain that image. The harder you try the more bloggers will make a fool of you.

7/24/2010 09:02:00 PM  

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