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What to Do: You Are Told That Your Work Sucks

What to Do: You Are Told That Your Work Sucks

"Standing Still" Commissioned by Art in General, Robyn Love

Robyn Love

October 04, 2007

In 1994, I attended an artist residency where visiting artists came by on a weekly basis and offered critiques. The first day, a woman came into my studio and immediately trashed my paintings, which she had looked at in slide format ahead of her visit. After she had told me how awful and derivative my paintings were, she looked over at a piece of fabric I had hung up on the wall on a whim. “That looks interesting. What is that?” she said.

It took me a couple of days of licking my wounds before I could enter the studio again. During my time away I was forced to admit to myself that some of what she said was true, and perhaps even more importantly, that I actually disliked painting. I hated stretching canvas and, compared to my painter friends who practically seemed to want to eat their paint, I just didn’t like paint and its inherent qualities all that much. But fabric was another story. By the time I went back into my studio I was ready to put away all my painting paraphernalia and take out my yarn, needles, embroidery threads and fabric. I had felt very unclear about why I had packed them for the residency beforehand. But suddenly, my reasons seemed quite clear. During the remaining weeks, my work exploded. Now instead of dreading studio time, there weren’t enough hours in a day to make all the things that I wanted to make. And I owed it all to that one “bad” critique.

So what exactly is a bad critique? Although difficult at the time, the experience I related above was one of the most pivotal moments in my life as an artist. Negative feedback is a normal, natural part of life for an artist but you do with it can make all the difference. As Sonya Shönberger, a video and performance artist in Berlin says, “Not everyone can or should be into your stuff!” But the question is how to deal with the negative comments that come your way: when to take them seriously and when to let them go.

Shawn O’Hagan, a painter and fiber artist in Newfoundland, Canada, reminds us that “no one can be as critical as we are of ourselves. Always that voice – that makes us doubt, that makes us change, that makes us strive.” When criticism does come, if it rings true, then she knows that she has already said it to herself. If it is coming from an uninformed or dishonest place, “then it really doesn’t matter.”

Another Canadian painter, Jackie Alcock, uses the negative feedback as content for her work. “Painting is something I have to do. It is in my blood and when someone tells me maybe painting is not the way for me to go. Well (my) soul dips down into bowels of the deep black earth. My husband stays out of my way while I take every painting in arm’s reach and paint them the colour of my wrecked soul: black. Totally black, then just leaving a little of the painting showing. Ah! My soul rebounds! These paintings were meant to be black. Out of despair comes the creation of what I consider my tuxedo line: black painting in a white and black frame. I am happy again,”

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