In their latest Dazed column, your art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad speak on how art criticism can take your work to the next level
Sarah: dear the white pube. i’m an art student (2nd year of Uni). we have crits in uni and they always make me really nervous like i’ll be thinking about them the night before. i graduate next year but i dont know what i’d do if someone wrote a review (bad review) of something I did. How do you take criticism? can you learn to take criticism? SHOULD you take it? i dont know what to do so i’m asking 2 critics of course haha.
The White Pube: We got this question from you quite a while ago so I guess your second year of uni has finished now and you must be on summer holidays?? Apologies for not answering your question sooner but I hope what I write now helps you go into final year and then out into the big bad world feeling more secure in your bones and less drastically rattled by the people around you and whatever they might think about your art. Criticism is a mad one. It can be vital, boring, mean, helpful, and often the thing you need to take ur art to the next level. The answer I want to give you is that when it comes to learning to take criticism, it is partly about making sure you as a person are good for it, and partly seeing criticism for what it is - an opinion, and never The Actual Law. okay. I’m gonna structure this like a weird essay cause I’m feeling fancy.
“The answer I want to give you is that when it comes to learning to take criticism, it is partly about making sure you as a person are good for it, and partly seeing criticism for what it is - an opinion, and never The Actual Law” – The White Pube
Learning to take criticism has been the challenge of my own bastard life. this is about to go quickly west tho I promise there’s a point. sorry and hello trigger warning for domestic violence bleep bleep warning bleep: when I was 13 I got beat up by a parent and it took 11 years and a lovely therapist called Glyn to help me realise that it left me with deeeeep feelings inside my bones and brain of Not Being Good Enough. Cause like, if I HAD been a good enough daughter they wouldn’t have treated me like that so I MUST be bad, I must be lacking. I’ve been left with anxiety and it boils down to a fear other people will find out i’m not good enough and i’ll get beat up again. I am aware this sounds mad but it is mad, it’s completely irrational; and still, on some molecular and emotional level it makes a whole lot of sense inside me. THUS I’ve always tried to be Very Perfect to keep this worst case scenario at bay - whether it’s doing exams in school or drawing on my eyebrows, i have been on edge. Being perfect is impossible though (and doubly impossible in the art world where opinions, subjectivities, and a whole load of other things out of your control run the house), so my man Glyn had to teach me how to take criticism before i imploded. he said I was such an open wound of a person that not only was I falling apart at any negative comments about myself or something I’d done, but I was also too happy and reliant at the positive comments coming my way. I was relying on other people giving me some sweet sweet external validation that I had no self worth or self-esteem - nothing was there that I’d built myself. I was ! brittle ! and I was at the whims of a world I could not rely on to keep me safe and happy. I had to learn to love myself from the ground up and feel that I was enough (not amazing, not awful, just enough) because otherwise the threat of criticism would always be too much.
The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s a good (tho maybe extreme) way of learning how to lay the perimeters when it comes to criticism. Whether it’s about art or god knows what else, we all need to learn to see criticism for what it is and to hold it in the right place. Not too close and not too far, just at the ends of your fingers, I think. You can’t keep it too close because you shouldn’t be totally relying on criticism from other people to decide who you are - it can help inform but it can’t write the whole story of your life or your practice. It’s almost easier to think through this stuff when it comes to art as well, making sure to not get it twisted from the get go: art criticism is about the thing you have made, not you as a person, and if someone doesn’t like what you’ve made it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Take yourself out of the equation and focus on talking about the painting you’ve brought to the crit, and make sure others are doing the same. I wish the whole art world approached it this way so people wouldn’t feel like comments about their art were personal attacks but everyone is stressed I guess (see PART 1). hold this criticism stuff at arms length where you can consider it appropriately. For example: If it’s your tutor saying she thinks your painting should have been bigger, hear her but also ask yourself if you’re making this painting for your tutor lol. You made it small very purposefully and you like that about it. A group crit can be like a stress test to see what matters most; what you wanna keep, tweak, or get rid of altogether. If another student says she thinks the colours should have been brighter and you wonder what that might be like, take it to the studio and try a second version. Maybe it works and you like it better than the original, and you’re grateful she shared her experience of the work so you could push it further and closer to what you also want it to be. Listen to criticism when it comes and figure out what it is trying to say, but don’t swallow it as soon as it arrives or u will choke. Criticism is a big scary word but it is just the exchange of people’s experiences of art, and ten people are going to have very different experiences of the same sculpture. Don’t give any one of them too much authority, and don’t project authority on them either. even if they write for a living it just means they’re publishing their opinions for a living, and I’m sure you have as many as they do.
“If you’re making art and putting it out into the world, i think you have a responsibility to keep the door ajar, but be ready to slam it shut when these weirdos come your way” – The White Pube
PART 3. & IN CONCLUSION
As someone that has received criticism, love, and hate in all their many forms, I have a little more advice before I close this off. Once you’ve learnt to give this stuff boundaries, it is also very worth thinking about who is taking the time out of their day to think about your art and write about it. They might be writing from a place of optimism, care, or they honestly don’t know you and it’s a very new encounter for them to be thinking about what you make. they also might have an agenda. beware. People are racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, homophobic and all that good stuff - they’ll be ready to deride your art because of your existence and circumstances. if it falls into this category you have every right to spend NO time mulling over what they think, you don’t need that energy in your life. If you’re making art and putting it out into the world, i think you have a responsibility to keep the door ajar, but be ready to slam it shut when these weirdos come your way. and Finally, not all criticism is going to be said in this safe nice nice way in an essay or a nice university-nurturing environment or an advice column on an edgey website. I think people (read: me) reserve the right to be flippant in the way they talk about art in the same way they talk about the food they’re eating in a restaurant, or the funny clothes they’re looking at in Forever21. Art can be the butt of the joke too, it’s not this precious special thing exempt from humour or irony - and bearing that in mind and practicing it when i go to exhibitions has helped me not see criticism as this life or death thing. for a long time the world of having Opinions on Art has been the protected duty of old european men but it’s okay to play loose with it too. Art is weird! Wtf are we all doing??
And finally, remember you have the right to make art that other people think is bad or boring, but you should never make art that is offensive.