I can still remember being a student, sitting in critiques where no one was willing to speak up.
People seemed to feel there was a right and wrong thing to share their ideas about the art. Now I wonder: were we all more concerned with how we sounded rather than about helping the artist and his/her art?
It’s good to be reminded that there are two sides to a critique and both parties can feel vulnerable: do I know enough to say anything? What if people tell me they hate it?
I would sit in those critiques feeling all kinds of anxious: “Will people like my work? What will they say?” After some time I began to feel frustration. No one was willing to say much of anything at all. How could any of us improve without outside perspective and feedback?
This doesn’t only apply to art, it can be a reflection of our lives. How do you navigate any kind of confrontation? Skills like this extend well beyond the confines of our studio.
Art factoid: the word critique does not mean you are guaranteed to receive negative feedback, or mean-spirited feedback. Critique in the art world is an opportunity to get feedback. If you read or hear someone say something about critical feedback in a more academic setting it’s not about being mean-spirited or feedback that describes the work as unsuccessful: it’s only about feedback to better your work.
As time passed I became an art teacher and then had to lead critiques for my students. I was no longer the student waiting to hear good (and maybe bad!) things about my art, I was the one guiding people. And over time, I’ve observed three stages artists experience when part of the feedback process.
Approval Stage: Wants/needs approval and support to keep making.
Artists at this stage feel especially vulnerable about their art. The slightest (even misperceived) comment could derail their creative efforts. Artists at this stage have a hard time even sharing their work and it can feel like the art is an extension of their entire person. Thus, any feedback on their art isn’t about the art, it’s about them.
Unfortunately, countless people stop making art at this stage. The lack of specialized support or awareness of this experience being completely normal shames people out of trying again.
Other signifiers of this stage:
Comments about your art make you feel defensive.
You are reluctant to post or share your art with others.
You often feel feedback is harsh or hurtful.
You never ask for outside feedback.
Apprentice Stage: Wants feedback from outside sources all of the time.
Artists in this stage have found ways to cope with their vulnerability and feel super driven to learn from everyone around them. They soak in as much feedback as they can. Artists in Apprentice Stage accept they can still feel sensitive to commentary about their art and learn information from others that helps their art.
The focus here for artists is on external approval, similar to stage one, but here the key difference is artists are capable of taking feedback to better their artwork. They may or may not be confident enough yet to consider and trust their own feedback.
Other signifiers of this stage:
You feel like everyone is more experienced than you.
You spend time worrying about what others think more than about the artistic choices in your artwork.
You are eager to share your work with others.
Autonomy Stage: Understands and embraces the ebb and flow of the feedback process.
Artists experiencing this stage have realized there is give and take in the world of feedback and that all feedback is not created equally. Because of this, they’ve begun to trust themselves to assess their own art as well as the quality and worth of feedback from others.
Sometimes they may not ask for feedback from external sources at all!
An artist in this stage can more effectively remove themselves from the “taking it personally” when someone shares an idea about their art they don’t like or agree upon.
Other signifiers of this stage:
You trust yourself to make the final judgement in your work.
You sometimes feel like your peers are sensitive about their art.
You can’t imagine not getting feedback to help inform your choices
I want to be clear here, this is not about stages of advancement, each stage is interrelated to the next. I can experience all three stages in a single critique, or in a single day! It’s some of the ebb and flow of vulnerability we face as we choose to explore our creativity. Some may perceive the first two stages as signs of weakness and feel ashamed they are in those stages.
You should NEVER feel ashamed about it. It is natural at some point to feel this way and in today’s perfectionist, achievement driven culture we are guided away from trying new things. All of these stages are a natural consequence of the world we live in… there is nothing wrong with you for feeling vulnerable about your art. Vulnerability is a natural part of the creative process. For some reason, we’ve tried to convince ourselves we don’t need it and try to avoid it as much as possible. That is another article for another day.
It’s good to check in with yourself about your stage before you share your work because you better understand your feedback needs, which we discussed in last week’s article. Knowing yourself and checking in with yourself before and even during a critique could help you have a more beneficial critique.
I still dream of an ideal critique environment. Our community definitely shares some of my dream qualities of a strong critique space. I’m grateful artists can share at all levels and feel welcome and encouraged.
I can still remember sitting in my studio, knowing I needed help but feeling like I had no one to turn to for feedback aside from my professor.
Critique does not have to be one giant put down that makes you feel like you were never an artist. It is a space we can cultivate to develop and refine our skill, our artist voice, our message. You can, starting today, make a conscious choice to see critiques as what they really are: a tool to help you better your art.
Be Courageously Creative: Which stage do you spend most of your time in? What is one thing you can do to help yourself feel successful with your art in this stage? I want to know, tell me more in the comments below.