Sunday, June 7, 2009

It's up to the artist

I just checked out a new how-to art book from the library, "The Creative Edge: Exercises to Celebrate Your Soul" by Mary Todd Beam, and I found a paragraph of hers (on page 18, headed "Discovering Your Path") to be right in line with my beliefs and experiences as a teacher and as an artist.

She says: "My students often urge me to say something negative about their work. This always amazes me. You get plenty of criticism out in the world -- I don't need to add to it. I want my workshops to be joyful and motivational, not judgemental (sic) and discouraging. I may give my opinion of work in progress and offer suggestions, but I believe you have the right to paint anything you want. I like everything that is executed from the heart, mind and soul."

I too have encountered that belief from certain students who insist on hearing "something negative." Makes no sense to me! Maybe they are used to criticism from childhood and think criticism equals care and attention. But I personally find a warm smile, a gentle hand on the shoulder, and a heartfelt "You're doing fine" more motivating than "This is wrong!"

Mary Todd Beam goes on to say, in the same paragraph: "When it comes to evaluating your own paintings, this is my philosophy: You have really reached a milestone when you don't care what anyone else thinks."

I very much agree. As an undergraduate in art school, you need basic, clearly presented technical advice on the various media and subject matter that you're working with. In graduate school, you need feedback on the clarity of your personal direction as an artist, as expressed through your work. Once you've graduated, IT'S UP TO YOU what you create.

I personally will not accept feedback on my artwork at this point. I have a style that has been honed after many years of hard work and trial and error. As a professional, I make it a point to continually push various aspects of my work -- new colors, different formats and surfaces, changing up the order of steps in my working process. But I refuse to go back to the critique situations of the art classroom.

There can be times in a professional artist's career when people try to give you a critique, I guess because they think you want to hear it. Sometimes gallerists or art professionals offer un-asked-for critiques. Sometimes studio guests make spontaneous comments when viewing your work. There are even some situations I've heard about in which talented artists willingly pay money to hear critiques of their work.

This does not make sense to me, and I will not have my work critiqued at this time in my career. If someone likes my work, that's wonderful; if they don't like my work, that's fine too. Everyone has different tastes, and that's what makes the world go around. Critiques, whether from a teacher or a colleague or an art professional, are personal opinions. They are not appropriate after a certain artistic level has been established.

When you're a professional artist, your viewers "critique" with their feet or their wallets. If they like the work, they will come to see it and/or buy it. If they don't like it, they won't. If you care, you will alter your work accordingly. If you don't, you won't.

Critiquing is different from editing, I believe. Visual artists need feedback from editors (aka curators or gallerists), just as writers do, on which pieces work better than others, which go well together in presentations, etc. But on the basic level of what subject, style or materials to choose, that is up to the artist herself.

Also critiquing as I define it here is different from the writings of an art critic. (BTW, I am also a professional art critic.) The art critic is writing a personal reaction to an artist's show, or presentation of a body of work. The critic should be analyzing a particular exhibition as a viewing experience, not advising the artist on what style of work to create.


Deidre said...

Hello, Catherine. I found this post through a link on Jeanne Williamson's blog.

This subject interested me greatly. I've been an artist for a number of years and relatively recently decided to go back to school to get a BFA. In painting classes, I've found the whole critique process to be somewhat irritating. I won't say I don't ever get useful feedback, because often a suggestion will resonate with me, but many times one person's feedback conflicts with someone else's and it often hurts more than it helps.

Also, on several occasions, I've gotten into a contest of wills with the professor, who grades by individual meetings with the students. She sometimes fixates on certain details in the painting that I feel have nothing to do with my intent for the work but are simply her personal taste, which is being forced on me. At that point, I can either redo it to her satisfaction to get the A, or stick with my personal vision and take a lesser grade. As an older, nontraditional student with some sales on my resume, I find the whole process somewhat degrading.

I'm also represented by a gallery whose well-meaning owner and manager continuously tell me I need to make work in this or that color scheme, or with this or that feature. One day it's "you need to make bigger pieces," and the next it's "bigger work isn't selling; you need to make some smaller pieces for us." I want to be accommodating, but a part of me knows that trying to please everyone in the end pleases no one, least of all myself.

Thanks for your insightful post on this topic. It confirms some things I've subconsciously thought about but not been able to articulate.

Catherine Carter said...

These are challenging situations you're describing, Deidre, because others are offering their opinions on what they think your work SHOULD BE rather than reacting to what it IS.

I believe that the only REAL question is: what do YOU want to say, and are you saying it as effectively as possible, or is there a more effective way of saying it?

That, and technical advice, is what professors are supposed to be teaching. Beyond that, it's just their personal taste.

As for the gallerist, they are being honest about what they think they can sell. If you want to work within those parameters, fine; if not, fine. That's clearly a business relationship. With the professor, it's different. They are there to help you learn, not to impose their personal opinions on you.

Thank you for writing. I know I have been there, in all of the situations you describe, and ultimately the most important thing is: to thine own self be true.