Mary sent her slides off to a gallery where she had high hopes for representation. What she got back was the terse email, “You are such an amateur!”
Mary stopped painting for the next three years.
Such dramatically unfortunate events happen all too often in the lives of artists. One sharp criticism can derail an artist not only for far too long but sometimes altogether, making him completely doubt that he has the right or the wherewithal to be a professional artist—or any artist at all. The consequences of receiving a blow of this sort are so severe primarily because of our powerful initial reaction to them, one that is often so outsized and huge.
When someone says, either in veiled language or in no uncertain terms, that you are an idiot, that you have no talent, that you’re a fool, that you’re mediocre, that you’re a hack, that you’re derivative, that you’re … fill in the blank … you will have a reaction. Often it is a whole-body, hard-to-tolerate emotional reaction that shifts your world.
Virtually everyone has this strong, visceral reaction to being criticized, humiliated or shamed. These powerful, automatic whole-body reactions, like our blushing response or our fight-or-flight response, are fundamental, hard-wired parts of who we are. Maybe some very advanced human being can avoid feeling these things; maybe some very detached human being can avoid feeling these things. For the rest of us, we will feel them. It will feel as if something tremendously large and bad has happened—and yet all that has really happened is that we are having a feeling.
Once we have that feeling, then the ball is in our court. What are we going to do next? What you do next may affect how you spend the next year or even the rest of your life. If you take this pain and this criticism in without doing anything to defuse them or dispute them, you may lose a great deal of time or, if you manage to continue creating, work much less strongly than you otherwise might. Much better is the following. When a whole-body explosion of bad feeling erupts in you, use the following three-step technique to calm yourself down and help yourself get a grip on the situation.
First, acknowledge that something happened. We are amazingly adept defensive creatures who can deny almost anything. We can make believe that we didn’t drink that whole bottle of Scotch in one sitting; we can make believe that we hold no animosity toward our rageful, hurtful parents; we can make believe that getting to the studio once a month is really enough. Do not deny that something just happened. Acknowledge that you got slapped in the face, that it felt more like a blow to the gut than a slap in the face, and recognize that you suddenly found yourself awash in stress chemicals, negative thoughts, and bad feelings. Admit that something happened.
Second, doubt that anything really important happened. You will only be able to do this after the initial pain has subsided. For the first few seconds or minutes of being blindsided we can’t help but stand in pain. But then, slowly, we are able to face what just happened and acknowledge that we received a bad blow. After the acknowledgment can come a fierce determination not to let one man’s opinion or one woman’s opinion matter that much. Decide that your basic armament is a thick skin and your basic orientation is “I decide these matters!” This may be hard to say—or believe—in the first five minutes after the blow strikes, but after that it is your job to remind yourself that self-determination is your orientation of choice.
Third, engage in a courageous personal assessment of the situation. You may well not be able to engage in this assessment until later that evening, the next day, or at the weekend, which is just fine. It is hard to engage in a truthful personal assessment until we have simmered down a bit. But once we’ve simmered down a bit, we can do exactly that.
Maybe a visitor comes into our studio and says, “Wow, these paintings are pretty dead!” Two days later, if we are willing to look the matter in the eye, we may be able to come to our own true assessment of the situation. That assessment might be, “Ridiculous!” Or that assessment might be, “Yes, I see how trying to ‘copy’ my really alive photographic collages onto the canvas has produced fairly dead paintings. I’ve known that for a while. Okay, now I fully accept that truth. I can’t do that any longer. I see that the photographic collages are my real work and don’t need to be ‘recopied’!” You decide what you believe is true or false about the accusation made, making sure not to err on the side of unnecessarily doubting yourself just because someone launched an attack.
Not a single one of these steps is easy. Acknowledging the blow is not easy. Refusing to care is not easy. Truthfully assessing is not easy. But harder is losing the next year or your whole painting life. These blows come regularly. Know what you are going to do to deal with them so that they don’t completely blindside you and ruin your year.
This post made me think of the many times I have been criticized, usually with sarcasm, the root meaning of which is “tear the flesh.” I remember my mother telling me that my piano teacher told her that I had no musical talent. Thankfully, Mother told me after I got a talent scholarship to study at a prestigious musical academy. When I was in art school, I created a silkscreened book of handwritten poetry. My serigraphy teacher told me that I should stick to writing and give up visual art. My fellow students, recognizing that that the teacher was engaging in something other than a true critique (which, hopefully, helps the artist find the strengths in their work), defended my work. More recently, a visitor to my booth at a summer arts festival, studied a large photo illustration of spring and fall and pronounced, “this is incongruent! You should start over, this doesn’t work!” Never mind that the point of the piece was incongruence, it didn’t fit with her artistic worldview. I try to find the kernel of true critique in what people tell me about my work. It was harder when I was younger, less experienced, and unsure. A harsh criticism tests our mettle and challenges us to really look at our work as the viewer would.