On Saturday Joe Blodgett and I went out painting in the Miss Reveller. We’re the kind of people who generally go about our own business. We were drifting, and after a while we drifted into giving each other a little crit. I have to tell you that we know each other’s faults so well that they can be communicated with a grunt or a raised eyebrow. “At what point,” he blurted, “should an artist let in another’s opinion?”
A painting coming along in a boat is like a fish on the line. You have to be left alone to play it. It has to be brought alongside, netted, boarded and bonked. A fish is beyond criticism. Remarks like, “It would have been better bigger,” are not much use. Joe knows well enough not to say those sorts of things, and so do I.
“Some criticisms are pure gold,” Joe said. “It has to do with respect. It’s the mark of true friendship. Honesty is everything. Non-artists may be awfully nice, but they don’t have it. You need someone who’s been there and preferably made the video. Professional critics can’t help you. Professional critics are like eunuchs in the harem. They see it done but they can’t do it themselves. You have to invite the right people to the party. Criticism is an art that ideally takes place between two accomplished solitudes.”
December can be pretty gray out here. It was getting late. Our knuckles, sticking out of our glove-holes, were getting cold. Our noses were wet. With the discomfort and inconvenience of outdoor work, a nice crudeness was happening. I thought I detected ice on the palette. I could see that Joe was also feeling a beautiful sense of the arbitrary. Mother Nature’s palette was being subverted by what was handy. It didn’t matter whether these were salmon or rock cod. What was important was that we, both of us, were trawling.
Joe looked sideways at his own painting. “There is less in this than meets the eye,” he said.
PS: “Before you criticize people, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away. And you have their shoes.” (J. K. Lambert)
Esoterica: Art-making is a celebration. It’s the triumph of rugged individualism. But a small degree of confidence in your work can indulge and celebrate the input of a trusted friend. He may know what you already know, and help you to see it. “You’ve no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself–and how little I deserve it.” (W. S. Gilbert)
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Constructive criticism elusive
The most difficult thing I know is to give some criticism to a friend (the other difficulty is to get one from him) — because of the too personal interaction of two friends. One has to be impartial to give some valuable advice (praise isn’t a criticism, is it?) — and can’t. That’s the reason for professional critics prosperity – they are impersonal. It’s very difficult to divide personal and professional relations, sometimes impossible. My own experience says that it depends upon some inner features of both individualities and if there are some complimentary parts in creative interests of both — there is some useful discussion, and if there aren’t — no discussion, no use and no ways to change it.
I’m happy ’cause my wife is painter and we like to give each other some criticism, and it’s useful — but I’m aware, that it isn’t widespread situation. A friend, who can (and wants to) understand one’s eyebrow gesture is very uncommon — it’s a great fortune to meet one — and twice more if he is colleague.
Grad panel demoralizing
I just had my Grad Panel review. This is a 40 minute critique with 3 instructors that, in my case, tore me and everything that I presented to shreds. Actually they spent more time criticizing the presentation and the website (nothing technical about it, though) than the actual work or concept. To make a long story short, it left me thinking what am I doing in art school and that I should be in therapy. It seems hard for people within this art school to understand that I do NOT make art for the people there, but for the people who are not part of the “art” discourse and that I am coming from their perspective.
At this time I have concluded that I am an artist who does not invent but reinvents through mechanical means (Pop Art). I came to the door of this movement late and I would think that I am in the post era of the movement. However I really do not like to limit myself to one means of painting, but we do not live long on this planet. Artists have been known to make mid-career and radical changes in their art, for instance Picasso, Pollock and others. And as for critics, as a writer and an artist I have been judged fondly and sometimes harshly, as my book reviews in the Washington Post & Times. But I welcome this. However, I am the opposite of you; if a friend tells me what’s wrong too much I do take it more personally than some critic in Washington. My super-ego remembers their words and maybe I listen. Two heads are better than one, but I must only truly please one in the end.
Useful friend of artists
At some point, there came into practice the making of a distinction between criticism and a critique: the former can lead to an inference that it is strictly negative, and possibly unconstructive, the latter that it is feedback both positive and critical, and if critical, strategic, tactful and constructive. I have routinely had my comments solicited by successful artists who claim to have found them of practical use. Anyone with the eye and heart to provide a good critique could be useful to an artist, whether another artist or not, and provided that the proper etiquette is observed — no comments unless invited! That is my opinion, but consider the source: “a eunuch in a harem”!
A place immune to criticism
I always thought that I hated criticism so much because my parents were so critical. My cup was full by the time I was 8 years old. They wanted the best for their children and really aimed at perfecting some young, inherently imperfect, humans. I continued through my life, hating criticism and criticizing more than most. Criticism is everywhere, everyday. The world is constantly trying to change you, especially if you excel at something. I was listening to a tape that I had listened to many, many times before. It is full of spiritual leaders, like David Whyte, Depack Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Stephen Covey and Dr. Bernie Siegal, all talking about living. For the first time, in all the times I had listened to that tape, I heard Depack Chopra, say that in order to deal effectively with criticism, one has to find that place within that is immune to it. This is about having a spiritual self. We can take all the self-help and esteem building classes we want, but until we take the road within, and see the one-of-a-kind, beautiful, and imperfect being, we cannot be immune to criticism.
Shared feelings of the joy
I say thanks with tears in my eyes for this last letter about criticism. The feeling you conveyed of being out there in Nature in whatever it was that She was dishing out at the time and the heart and soul of it that you are trying to put on the canvas with your heart and soul and the feeling companionship that only comes when you are with a trusted friend. The not wanting to give up until it’s caught, even if your body is in rebellion, fingers frozen and chilled to the bone. Oh, what glory it is! Not one person shall understand unless they too have experienced the same.
Don’t crit too early
Joe’s question. “At what point should an artist let in another’s opinion?” is a good one. If I am the receiver of an opinion I do not like to get one until I have gone way beyond the block-in stage. My paintings end up realistic but they often start out in an expressionist whirlwind. This is not the time to critique me, I am in the flow abstractly. Later, when I am sculpting it out I don’t mind having my perspective questioned or being asked which of those focal points is the real one. I think being questioned about one’s intent is helpful. If I am the giver of an opinion, I always want to know the other artist’s intent. Don’t praise something specific about another artist’s painting too early. It is really difficult to run over a beautiful under-painting color after someone tells you that it really makes the painting. We should encourage one another but not control another’s painting.
John D. Vedilago, Göteborg, Sweden
New word for your dictionary “Facilitator”, “One who makes easy.” I like it better than the word “Mentor” especially when speaking of art. If I was to be so presumptuous as to “Facilitate” you, Robert, I would suggest a couple of days of seriously working “lean over fat,” “light over dark,” “conversational art over monologues,” and see where they take you. As a facilitator, not a mentor, I would start you with a big matte black, paper square, five feet by five feet, and box of twelve color pastels, reflecting the full spectrum, with no black or white. Start with a single line and let the potential for that determine the next, and the next, etc. Relax enjoy and let the painting tell you when to change colors, fill in, soften, harden etc. The issue is time, 3 hrs minimum, process over product, avoid images and when they occur (and they will) dissolve them into a series of transformations through chaos, complexity, and self organization. Over time you will come to directly experience Kandinski’s “inner need” that drives every painting and if lucky the honest line (You’ll know it when you do it). No Yin’in, No Yang’in. No inner and outer children, just ART: the purest form and language of the human dialogue and the basis of all spirituality.
Life-work on line
Phyllis Rauch, Jocotepec, Jalisco, Mexico
My husband, Georg Rauch, a lifelong professional artist, and I (neither of us computer whizzes) have been working on a project for the last couple of months. Photographing many of Georg’s works — things he either held back for retrospectives, that are in my personal collection, or that didn’t sell for one reason or other. I’ve been learning to use Adobe Photo shop, cropping, titling, etc. There are close to 200 paintings and our rather vague goal (at the moment) is to put this “gallery” of excerpts from 50 years of painting on the internet. The main goal is not a commercial one (though that could be a small portion of the project) It’s to share Georg’s life work, a small bit of his philosophy, to make this available to whomever — perhaps to students, schools, art lovers? I wonder if you might have any suggestions, words of wisdom, questions that could guide us in this project. Our webmaster is a great guy, but not an artist. Most artists here in our Mexican lakeside community seem to be happy amateurs. Nothing against that, but there is a difference between just “liking to paint” and someone who has dedicated his life to it.
(RG note) This is a great idea and something we are going to see more and more of. On-line exhibitions of the life-work of artists. Less expensive than building a dedicated brick and mortar gallery, and reachable by a potentially greater number of people. My advice is to avoid a flashy site. The one you’ve got now is a good start. Get right to the art with a certain amount of biographical info on the home page to snag the search engines. Make it simple to navigate and write cut lines carefully to show the depth of the artist’s commitment, travels, struggles, triumphs. Flesh it out with personality and human interest and people will go to it. Anything that shows the artist’s process is good, too. For example, the slide show of my struggle with a large painting (Anatomy of a commission) attracts over 1000 visitors a day. It’s at http://painterskeys.com/slideshow/
Slide show effective
Jamie Lavin, Gardner, Kansas, USA
I can’t quite put into words what a treat it was to watch you work. The detail and effort that went into producing that slide show of the totems was simply fantastic. I think sharing is probably what you’re on this earth for, and I can only tell you that your efforts to reach all of us out in the world, painting our hearts out, is so welcome. This newsletter is good for the artists’ soul, more valuable than a tax refund, and so well structured that all involved must be congratulated. I feel very privileged to belong.
(RG note) We broke all our own records with that slide show of the totems. I would like to thank everyone who sent letters similar to Jamie’s. I have to tell you that I never thought anything of it until about half way through. The camera was there and I just set it off every once and a while. What a medium this is!
Me and My Art
Vivian Tsao, Saudi Arabia
Hallway with Brown Doors
Quotations on criticism
A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her. (David Brinkley)
Criticism is like many other things, it drags along after what has already been said and doesn’t get out of its rut. (Eugene Delacroix)
We have as yet no socially based art criticism, which can address the inherent irresponsibility of the work of art. (Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe)
Those who never sail stormy waters are the quickest and harshest judges of bad seamanship. (Susan Glaspell)
To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. (Elbert Hubbard)
If to the viewer’s eyes, my world appears less beautiful than his, I’m to be pitied and the viewer praised. (Rockwell Kent)
Don’t be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against, not with, the wind. (Hamilton Mabie)
Insults are pouring down on me as thick as hail. (Edouard Manet)
I didn’t like the play. But I saw it under unfavorable circumstances–the curtains were up. (Groucho Marx)
If I can’t put the critical comment into an aesthetically adequate form, I don’t make the comment. (Philip McCracken)
When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself. (Louis Nizer)
Vuillard balances too far on the side of fantasy the people in his pictures are not properly defined. As he’s an admirable draughtsman it must be that he just doesn’t want to give them mouths and hands and feet. (Paul Signac)
(RG note) The above quotes are just a few from the section on criticism in the “Resource of Art Quotations.” This huge collection is entirely the work of volunteer subscribers to the Twice-Weekly Letter.