The Open Window: Dealing With Criticism

Insights on Creativity by Quinn McDonald

When you show or sell your artwork, write a book, or teach a class, you put your ideas in front of the public. Whether you want to or not, you are now open to comments—often dressed up as feedback. Most people are polite, kind and supportive. But you’ll also hear unwanted and hurtful comments—particularly online. The Internet gives people anonymity, just perfect for those who like to sharpen their claws on someone else’s soul.

What’s the best way to deal with criticism? How can you get the most out of feedback without withdrawing from your authentic expression?

On my worktable is a Chinese chop that has a complicated pictogram that means “Do not become complacent with victory, do not become frustrated with defeat.” The writing is the 2,000-year old script of the Han dynasty. It is still exactly true today.

If you believe only the nice things people say—assuring yourself that those wise people have discriminating tastes—you won’t learn or grow. If you take every expression of distaste as a starting point for anger or an emotional downturn, you’ll lose the curiosity and fearlessness that makes creativity so worthwhile and powerful.

Praise heaped on your work is not about you; neither is criticism. Feedback is simply an expression of someone else’s background, training, values and taste.

Listen carefully to what is said. Examine the statement for evidence of truth. When someone says, “I hate that you use words in your collage, it ruins it,” the person might mean, “I think art should be images, not words.” You may not agree with that, so you continue to do your work. If you look at the work and see that the words in your collage are bigger than you intended, or in a color that no longer seems to work, then you have important information about what to do next.

When someone leaves a comment on your blog, saying, “You are a genius, so wise and insightful,” the commenter is acknowledging that the writing speaks to a part of her that agrees with you. It feels good to know you made a deep connection, but don’t confuse connection with genius. Giving either a compliment or a criticism too much power takes your power of balance away from you. Hang onto it; you’ll need it for your creative work.

The truly hateful comments? Feel free to ignore them. Yes, they hurt, and yes, you will remember them, but they are not about you. They reflect the personality of the person who spews them. Do not try to explain yourself to a hater. Your explanation will make them feel wrong, and the bad behavior will escalate. A wise boss once said to me, “Do not get off the high road to wrestle with a pig. You will get dirty, and the pig will enjoy it.” Hard as it is, do not reply. Do not explain. Do not defend. There is a dignity in silence.

Criticism can inspire you. You can learn from feedback. And best of all, you can learn not to depend on others to validate your creativity.
Quinn McDonald is an artist and certified creativity coach who helps artists through transitions in their lives and work. You can e-mail your business-of-art questions to Quinn is the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art (North Light Books).


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One Response to The Open Window: Dealing With Criticism

  1. Seth says:

    Wise, wise advice Quinn. Every artist (and in fact every person) would do well to take these words to heart.