How to fight a critic.

critic

It’s tempting to fight back against criticism. But where does it get you?

Take Manet, the father of Impressionism. Outraged by a critic’s attack, he challenged him to a duel. They met in a forest, hacked ineffectually at each other with swords until they bent them, shook hands, and limped away. Neither man was badly injured and they both went back to work.

Take Whistler, a bad-tempered and thin-skinned genius whose memoir is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” When John Ruskin wrote an especially vicious review of one of his paintings, Whistler took him to court, strenuously defended his modernist aesthetic — and was awarded a farthing for his troubles.

In the long run, both men beat the critics with a different weapon — the brush.

Manet is known for launching impressionism, for making it acceptable to paint everyday life, for Olympia, Le Dejeuner, and the critic, well, his name was Edmond Duranty—ever heard of him? Whistler’s legacy is bit more ironic, due not to his critics but to fans of his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.”  After spending his life fighting against art based on moral lessons and maudlin emotion, he is known for a painting of his mommy. But it is a great painting and, even after the trial, he continued making many more.

Critics, internal and external, can raise any artist’s hackles. They can provoke you into violent defense of your work, into self-doubt, even into halting your creativity all together. One man’s opinion, published in a newspaper, or muttered in a gallery, or imagined in a moment of weakness, can suck up your energy and threaten your creative life.  Few critic’s opinions endure and that’s something to remind yourself of. Because opinions are products of the moment, influenced by current trends, by ignorance, by poor digestion. They are not eternal, objective, blanket truth.

Any condemnation of a work of art, whether it comes from a professional, from a neighbor, from a monkey’s voice in your head, should only be responded to with more work. Prove them wrong — if you have to acknowledge them at all — but never let them get you down.

Forget lawyers and swords. Make your case with a brush, a pen, a blog post.

16 thoughts on “How to fight a critic.

  1. Thank you for the “pep talk.” I walked away from my first portriat sketch with all the angst, frustration, and “I can’t doooooo this” monkey’s on my back. I’m going to go back and try again.

  2. The energy consumption is the part I pay attention to the most because it’s time and energy I won’t get back. And while I know that proving them wrong can work, somehow it still leaves me feeling that the little bugger got in there. I agree that responding with more work is the way to go. Edmund Duranty…never heard of him…what a hilarious illustration of the short half-life of the critic. Thanks for this one, Danny.

  3. Wonderful post. Re: Whistler, it’s worth reading the story of the Peacock Room — a masterpiece of decorative arts that is installed in, and recently fully restored by, the Freer/Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Whistler completed the embellishments for the room when the original architect was taken ill, but went completely beyond the work he was asked to do and transformed the room. An ensuing argument with his patron over payment inspired him to paint two male peaococks battling over silver coins on one panel. It’s worth reading the story, which you can find here: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/peacock/, and you can see a panorama of the room here: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/peacockRoom/pano.asp

  4. Great to see you working on another book. Also great to see and read your posts.Amazing how much we have to do to deal with critics, regardless of origin.

  5. It shouldn’t matter to us at all what they think. It’s all about the work, realizing the vision we each have. For me, once a piece is complete, that’s it for that piece. It stopped in a good place. It’s interesting and sometimes helpful to hear what people have to say, but the piece is done, that’s it. There’s a quality of obdurate finality to it, I never re-work. I’ve moved on to another piece, another project, another journal entry. Nothing they say can affect the joy I take in creating. My need to do it makes the practice a little impervious to critics, like shooting spitballs at a tank. When I sang, it was the complete opposite case, so I learned from those experiences.

  6. Strange thing, thinking and talkng to myself I asked for a sign in order to know if I should still pursue on my work ( very stuck after a negative critique, for a couple of years) and your post came up! I will definetly keep on trying, with a twist to my work but never let the pen, pencil or brush down. THANK YOU so much

  7. Thanks Danny, this is a great post. I had to note down your thoughts so I have it in front of me. Matts comment struck a cord too, “nothing they say can affect the joy I take in creating.” I love the encouraging, helpful atmosphere of SBS–kudos to you and Koosje!

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