How to handle criticism and naysayers

Madeleine Dore

For any artist, the sting of criticism is inevitable. Here’s how to distinguish when it’s useful, how to handle it, and when to ignore it.
How to handle criticism and naysayers

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“A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.” – Will Self

As artists and creators, there is an increasing pressure to share your work online, show behind-the-scenes peeps at the creative process, continually create new work and build a dynamic body of projects.

But all of the above exposes the creator to naysayers on social media, as well as traditional forms of criticism – sometimes constructive, sometimes negative, and sometimes stirring such fear or hurt that it ceases the production of an artist's work.

Despite its potential sting, criticism is inevitable and in its best form, an important part of building a robust arts industry in Australia. So how does an artist learn to distinguish what is helpful and constructive, and what is best to ignore? How does an independent creator push past the fear of negative commentary in order to create the work?

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‘All criticism is subjective and all criticism is biased,' critic and writer Anwen Crawford told ArtsHub. 'There is no such thing as an objective, unbiased critic, and there is certainly no such thing as an artist having an objective, unbiased reaction to criticism of their work.'

‘The degree to which an artist uses criticism to improve their own work, or ignores criticism of their work altogether, is entirely up to the artist. Some artists will find particular pieces of criticism useful; others won’t,’ she added.

Having contributed to The Monthly, The New Yorker, Kill Your Darlings and more, Crawford is a seasoned critic and writer with some straightforward advice to other artists – don’t obsessively Google your own name.

It’s a helpful start when it comes to protecting ourselves from criticism we may not be ready to handle, as well as practicing a sense of detachment from our work, and the reponse to it.

‘Of course, perfect detachment is impossible, but it’s important to remind yourself that once a work is out there in the world, it no longer belongs only to you, the maker. The work belongs to the world, and you have no control over how people interpret it or react to it. You will appear thin-skinned at best and bullying at worst if you do try to assert control over the interpretation of your work.’

Crawford also has valuable insights when it comes to defining criticism.

‘I think it’s important to distinguish between a piece of criticism that is productively critical – as all effective criticism should be, even if the overall judgement is “positive” – and a piece of criticism that fails because the critic hasn’t made a good faith effort to understand the work and/or the artist. If your ego is smarting from a critical review, it’s easy to confuse the two, and to think that you’ve been given a critical review because your work has been misunderstood.’

It’s also important to remember who a review or piece of criticism is designed for, added Crawford. ‘It’s not written for the artist; you are not the subject, your work is the subject. If your temptation as an artist is to remove the dialogue between critic, artwork, and audience from the public sphere, then quash that impulse.’

Crawford continued, ‘But I will say again that criticism is a public act, and that those artists who complain loudest about the uselessness or redundancy of criticism are the ones who would, I think, most sorely miss that public attention should it disappear.’

How to engage with a review

Whether a review is favourable or otherwise, it’s important to recognise when and how its appropriate to engage with the criticism, without appearing spiteful or rubbing salt in the wound.

Co-artistic directors of independent theatre company Elbow Room, Marcel Dorney and Emily Tomlins, have experienced their fair share of frustrating criticism.

‘Both Emily and I experienced, as young artists, what it's like to read some ignorant, agenda-laden bulls**t in Murdoch-sponsored newsprint, and know that your family are feeling hurt and humiliated by it. But it passes,’ said Dorney.

What has been most helpful in receiving an undesirable review is to draft a response to both air any frustrations, as well as better understand the criticism.

‘One thing that we've found that helps is to try writing a carefully considered reply, no longer than the review itself, that tries to understand and take into account the frame through which the critic was viewing the work. Under no circumstances do we send it to them. It's just for us,’ added Dorney.

‘This can be weird and painful, but it's also a good exercise in trying to understand how other people see things, the limits – like word limits – they're working with, and whether it's worth trying to reach or convince them with future work. It's also a chance to assess what's useful in that criticism.’

As a rule of thumb, Elbow Room try to take feedback on board when someone outlines a problem for them as an audience, not how to fix it. ‘It's your work; they don't know how it was made. So when they start giving you unsolicited 'professional' advice on how to fix it, you can safely tune that noise out.’

‘We're really fortunate in Melbourne to have a number of intelligent and strongly opinionated critics, although they're rarely valued properly by their publications. We've had bouquets and brickbats from most of them by now, and they do not agree with one another, which is how it should be. The role of critic is vital, but that role isn't to write 'objective truth' for either the audience or the artist.’

Moving on from an ill-informed review

Writer and director Chris Pahlow’s first film received a range of reviews with ‘some people really liking it, some really not liking it, and some in the middle.’

But there was one that was more upsetting. ‘I felt that the criticism was unfair and ill-considered. While any bad review is disappointing, if it's justified then I have to respect it. But some of what was written just did not make sense at all.’

What can sting so profoundly about a “bad” or ill-considered review is how it can feel like years of work can be torn down in a matter of sentences, leaving you feeling angry and powerless.  

‘You can pour your heart and soul into something for years and years, trying your best to get things right, knowing that you will fall short on some things but you have to keep trying, only to be called out on stuff that's not even true to what's in the film.’

But as the author of Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk, reminds us, ‘It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one.’

With this in mind, how do we move forward with our work after receiving an ill-considered or hurtful review?

For Pahlow, it’s about deciding as an artist or creator which pieces of criticism or feedback is helpful to take on board, and which isn’t.

‘I think you definitely have to be careful about who you listen to…and I think it's also good to take into account the expertise of the people you solicit feedback from,’ he said.

Soliciting feedback at various points in the creative process can be a great way to grow and learn. ‘I think your practice as an artist or crafts-person needs to be a constant process of challenging yourself to improve. So I'm always seeking feedback and attempting to build on my strengths and address my weaknesses.'

Collaboration is key when it comes to having a sounding-board for your visio, he added. 'I think shutting yourself off from other people's ideas is a big mistake,’ said Pahlow. ‘I find collaboration incredibly rewarding, and I'm always happy to hear feedback and ideas from other people.’

Creating distance between the art and the person

For many creatives or artists dedicating themselves to their craft or a project, it can be difficult to distinguish the person from the art. As Pahlow explained, they feel like their work is them.

‘When someone thinks that their work isn't good or doesn't have value, they can feel like they have no value.’

Pahlow has found it helpful to work on more projects with shorter time-frames. ‘Doing one project over five years was very dangerous for my mental health. But now, working on three or four major projects in a year is a lot easier to bear. If one sucks, oh well, that's disappointing, but I've got three others that hopefully have potential.’

It’s also helpful to channel energy into various parts of your life, added Pahlow.

‘I'm always striving to create better and better work, but I'm not prepared to put my sanity on the line for it anymore. While my artistic work is, of course, one of the main ways I find fulfilment in life, I now make sure I seek fulfilment from other areas of my life too — friends, relationships, hobbies, even jobs I do for money instead of for love or in pursuit of artistic goals... I think increasing my focus on these other areas of my life has helped me to become a more rounded person, and has eased the pressure I feel in my practice.’ 

‘Don’t read the comments’

For artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, the majority of negative criticism has come from social media.

‘The main flack I get is from randoms on social media, which was particularly the case when I won the Sidney Myer Ceramic award in 2015.’

Such comments or trolling tend to go beyond criticising the work and instead focus on attacking the individual. ‘When the commentary has tones of racism I’ve often felt quite disturbed. I used to feel the need to respond, but I don’t waste my time these days. People can say whatever they want, I’ll still keep making.’

Sharing the comments with friends and supporters can provide comfort. ‘I usually screenshot the comments and post them on Instagram. They’re often popular posts,’ he added.

While the naysayers on social media may be easier to make light of, Nithiyendran sees room for change when it comes to critics engaging with the work of artists who identify as part of various minority groups.

‘I think criticism is good and there should be more of it. I’m a believer in evidence based positions, and well-crafted and thoughtful criticism. I think many writers in this country are apprehensive to critique works from artists – like myself – who identify as being part of various minority groups. But this needs to change.’

For all forms of criticsm, a support network and resilience is key. ‘While art is amazing and fulfilling, it’s also full of disappointment and rejection. If you put your work in the public sphere, you should be prepared for public scrutiny. Although good friends and a strong sense of community always helps with any feelings of hurt,’ said Nithiyendran.

What about the internal critic?

Sometimes it’s the fear of criticism that gets in our way. In this case, it is our internal critic or ‘fear monster’ that blocks us from starting our creative work, or sharing it with the public.

In Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential, Shirzad Chamine explains how our inner critic first developed as a survival mechanism to potential threats – but such a trait may have outlived its evolutionary usefulness.

As Chamine explains, 'The inner critic leads you to constantly find faults with yourself, others, and your conditions and circumstances, [which generates] much of your anxiety, stress, anger, disappointment, shame, and guilt.'

It can also block you from being 'more discerning, aware, agile, vigilant, creative, decisive, and action-oriented.'

To counteract the inner critic, Chamine suggests noticing it and giving it a name or a label – such as "fear monster", or even simply "John". For those who are more visual, drawing your inner critic and placing it in the studio or about your writing desk could also be a helpful cue to push past the fear.

‘Flattery and criticism go down the same drain’

As artist Georgia O'Keeffe once said, ‘I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.’

It can take some time to distinguish when criticism is constructive and when it’s not, but a helpful approach is to become less attached to both positive and negative feedback.

‘Not buying into negativity is important, but not being seduced by praise is equally important. Both can unbalance you, if they become the loudest voice around. Try to move forward with the integrity that made the work happen in the first place,” concluded Dorney.

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator 

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