Dealing With Criticism as an Artist (While Keeping Your Sanity)
So you’ve created a thing and now some people know about it. Congratulations! Someone is about to be a total asshole to you.
What’s that? You thought you were just gonna make something cool, put it out into the world, get some people’s attention and then bask in the glory of your greatness? Good story, but have you been outdoors lately? The world is literally teeming with pricks. Yes, there are many lovely people. You may know some. You may even be one. But that doesn't circumvent a simple truth:
The assholes are always louder.
As soon as you create something, as soon as you bare your heart and soul and make yourself as vulnerable as a human can be, that’s when the horrible folks flock to you like flies to a carcass, where they do everything they can to knock you down a peg and a half. If you pretend it will never happen to you, you’ll be particularly shocked when it inevitably does. Someone out there will always hate what you do, so let’s talk a little bit about dealing with artistic criticism in its many colorful forms.
There once was an awful young boy who found the newfangled technology of Internet chat rooms to be fertile ground for wreaking a little boneheaded havoc. Back in the late-‘90s, the world wide web still felt shiny and new and the number one pastime for many people was to log into Yahoo Messenger or AIM or any number of alternatives to find a chatroom full of strangers from all over the world who wanted to discuss a topic of shared interested. But where most enjoyed pleasant conversation, this boy saw a golden opportunity to have a little fun in the way only an imbecile could. So he and a few of his friends created chat handles that all started with the same word (in this case it was “JET”), went into random chatrooms where everyone was generally being civil, and acted like complete shitheads in order to ruin everything.
They were always more annoying than sinister or hurtful, especially compared to the vindictive trolls of today’s comment threads and message boards. There were no threats, there was no bigotry. But while tame, these dumb children got a kick out of being genuinely irritating and disruptive, more or less sucking the fun out of an otherwise enjoyable situation. As more of them would log into a chatroom, someone would inevitably lament, “Oh great, another JET idiot."
In case you hadn't guessed, that awful kid was me, and the JET moniker came from the two friends I founded this moronic undertaking with: John-Evan-Tim. More friends joined the gang as we went along, and we probably only did it for a few months before we got bored and moved onto something new, but what a few months those were.
I fully admit it was a dumb, immature thing to do. I’m completely embarrassed by it now, even telling it here and knowing that in the big picture it's inconsequential. But my point is, even an incredibly enlightened and nearly perfect individual such as myself can succumb to destructive criticism at some point in his life.
We’ve all received destructive criticism. It's criticism with no redeemable qualities that essentially boils down to someone saying you’re ugly and no one could ever love you. This can sting coming from a complete stranger, and it can be downright devastating coming from someone you know or care about. But it will happen, and it’s especially common nowadays. Thanks Internet, you asshole.
But there are actually some positive aspects to this type of critique that we can focus on a bit to ease our ego pain.
You created something legit
When something is mediocre, it usually brings about mediocre criticism. It’s a snooze-fest all around. But when you create something real, raw and truthful, something authentic where you took a stand as well as a risk, that strikes a nerve. For a lot of people it will be a good nerve to strike, and your work will resonate deeply with them. For others it will strike a nerve that makes them prefer stubbing their toe on a lawnmower blade, and as a result they'll need to channel that feeling through vitriol aimed in your extended family’s direction. Believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing—not that they're acting like a dickhole, but that you made someone feel something. Maybe it's not exactly what you hoped they would feel, but it was still something strong. That’s an amazing accomplishment. Much of the greatest art in the world is simultaneously revered and reviled.
Many of the most successful artists gleefully alienate people, because reaching everyone is both impossible and requires the blandest of approaches. Destructive criticism is an unfortunate side-effect of being successful in that sense. Congratulations: you’ve avoided the safe route and created something unique and very “you.”
The more popular you get, the more people will hate you
There are probably hundreds of thousands more people in the world who hate U2 than who hate you personally. If that’s an incorrect statement, I either fear for your well-being or I’m honored that such a famous person would be reading this blog post. Would you mind publicly endorsing my site, and would you like an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of my face to hang in one of your enormous bathrooms?
A ton of people hating you is often a sign of popular and commercial success. That one jackweed who thinks you’re more worthless than a pile of damp belly button lint is actually the beaten-down bottom rung on your ladder to greatness. Be sure to step extra hard on his eye socket as you climb far, far above him.
It doesn’t actually mean squat
Criticism is meaningless when it says more about the person giving it than the person getting it. Not only does destructive criticism usually have little to do with the actual thing you created, it’s often an ugly reflection of the other person’s insecurities. Sometimes that insecurity comes from jealousy (that you had the guts to create something), fear (that they could never really create anything worth a damn), legitimate psychological trauma or abuse (in which case they’re just avoiding and redirecting their own pain), or any number of other issues that have everything to do with them and nothing to do with you. Some people genuinely don’t understand what they’re even doing, especially when it’s online. They may be an ignorant kid (like I was), they might think it’s all a game, and they certainly are not connecting with the fact that there’s a real human on the other end who actually feels stuff once in a while.
Putting your art out into the world is an open invitation for anyone to try and tear it down (at least, according to unenlightened people). But because destructive criticism doesn’t actually reflect what you create, and most certainly doesn't reflect you, it doesn’t mean anything at all. It may sometimes be a challenge to avoid taking things personally, but keeping this fact in mind does make it a lot easier.
There are two ways of dealing with destructive criticism: ignore it or respond to it. Ignoring it is almost always the best option. Responding can sometimes diffuse the situation if it’s done with positivity by thanking the idiot — er, person— for their feedback while completely ignoring the childish vitriol. It will suck the fun out of the situation if they don't feel like they can get a rise out of you. You can strike back with a witty putdown if you want, or you can forever take the high road, but people will notice the choices you make, so choose wisely.
It’s important to remember that you do not have to tolerate destructive criticism, even if you don't fight back. You don’t have to listen to it or take it to heart. Easier said than done, I know. Just don't let it bring you down to the troll's level.
Constructive criticism can genuinely hurt, because often it’s f#$%ing true. The truth can be the biggest kick to the testes/ovaries one can receive, but the good news is if we learn how to take that kick properly, it can be really beneficial. That’s because constructive criticism is actually an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to learn what people other than yourself get out of your art. It’s an opportunity to gain some objectivity on the thing you’ve spent so much time losing yourself (and your perspective) to. It’s an opportunity to—gulp—grow as an artist.
I have a friend who started working on his debut album, and every time someone asked him about it he described all the ways he was trying to make it revolutionary and innovative. He would agonize over how his music could change the world unlike anyone before. He knew he had it in him to create a timeless work of impeccable art, he just needed to unlock that magic formula that would take the project out of mediocrity and straight to immortality. He refused to release it until he reached this lofty goal.
That was a good five or six years ago. There’s been no album. There’s never been a hint that anything will get finished. As far as I know, he’s still trying to calculate the formula for revolution, or he gave up on it altogether.
The point isn't that you shouldn't set big goals for yourself, it's that no artist revolutionizes in a vacuum. The absolute best way to make progress toward innovation is to put as much stuff out into the world as possible for people to tear apart. Even the musicians who put out a brilliant debut album have been falling flat on their face in public for a long time playing shows and figuring out what works. The same process happens in all creative fields. Some call this "paying your dues." I call it properly getting your shit together. Could you theoretically lock yourself in a room alone and emerge ten years later with a society-shifting masterpiece? Sure, it’s possible, if unlikely. But why not take a shortcut to awesomeness by having the balls to actually share what you create along the way? Why not get feedback from real people and help it shape you as an artist?
But I get it—feedback is criticism, and that can be hard to take. And constructive criticism actually does mean something, which can make it feel even rougher than its destructive counterpart. Here are a few tips to to make it more palatable.
Strip away the destructive language
Oftentimes, constructive criticism can be found wrapped in some rather unconstructive language. So even if you suspect you’re on the receiving end of some destructive criticism, your first step is to break it down and see if there is some legitimate feedback hidden amongst the name calling and jealousy-fueled tantrums. Genuinely consider all feedback until you can determine if there's anything worthwhile buried within it.
Annihilate your ego
The hardest, but most crucial, part of receiving criticism is separating yourself from it—even when the criticism calls you out on a personal level. You are not your art, no matter how much it may seem like you are sometimes. A criticism of your work is not a criticism of you as a human, so your best strategy is to swallow your pride, set your ego aside and avoid taking any of it personally. You might even try imagining it's someone else's work that's being critiqued and pretend you're an objective third party assessing the suggestions.
If someone doesn't like what you've created, you haven't failed. And you certainly are not a failure as a human being. It just means that one person doesn't see what you see when they look at your creation. That's what art is all about.
Find the truth
In every legitimate criticism lies a grain of truth. Your job is to find it. That little nugget of wisdom is like pure gold to you as an artist. It's the part that can help you grow creatively. Sometimes it turns out this "truth" is only true for the person criticizing you. That’s OK—you don’t have to agree with it, you just have to find whatever subjective truth is informing that criticism and give it thoughtful, genuine and deliberate consideration. Then if you disagree, tell the other person that they're dumb and they smell funny. This last part is optional.
Do they say your work is too derivative? Maybe you should reevaluate how much you let your influences shine through in your creations. They think your work doesn’t have anything to say? Think about the message you were trying to convey and ask yourself if you did everything you could to help it come across. Use their critiques to ask yourself the hard questions, then find the honest answers. It just may help you improve on something. Or it may show that the other person has questionable tastes. Win-win, if you ask me.
Take it with a grain of salt
Art is subjective. Sometimes a person just won’t "get" what you do, and there’s no reason for you to try and convince them otherwise. You don’t have to take anyone’s advice. Criticism can be both legitimate and straight up wrong for you. Sometimes there will be opinions you respect and value but still disagree with. After you’ve let yourself be open to constructive criticism, in the end only you truly understand what’s right and what’s wrong with what you create.
Hoo boy... This one's a doozy. Criticism doesn't always come from external sources, and the bad news is your self-criticism is often the most harsh, destructive and hurtful of them all. But it doesn't have to be! We're total hypocrites when we criticize ourselves because we're often way bigger jerks to ourselves than we would be to anyone else, including strangers. When you notice yourself laying down some nasty self-deprecating vibes, there are a few things you can do to keep from spiraling into self-destruction.
Start with the same methods as constructive criticism
Much like with constructive criticism, often you have legitimate concerns buried under piles of vindictive bullshit. The best thing you can do is strip away the unreasonably insulting layers to see if you're left with a good idea or two that will help you improve in the future. Take this example:
"I'm an idiot! Why did I think this drawing would be any good? It's slightly better than my last one, but still completely the wrong proportions. That other artist would have done it with so much more life and realism. I'll never be good at this!"
This is counterproductive self-criticism. But if you peel off the negative self talk, you might get something like this:
"This didn't turn out how I had hoped. That's frustrating, but it's a step in the right direction. The proportions look a little off, so I'll compare this with some drawings by that other artist and see if I can learn where it went wrong. I need to practice this more to get where I want to be."
Holy crap, it turns out there was a pearl of wise advice hidden in that pile of garbage! Find your own garbage pearls and over time your negative self-talk will start to silence itself.
Imagine you're a close friend (to understand how big a dick you're being to yourself)
This is one of the best strategies not only in the creative world, but for your real life problems as well. We're way meaner to ourselves than we ever would be to another human. If you heard a friend put herself down like you just did, what would you tell her? You'd probably immediately say, "Um, no," then give her some constructive feedback to point her in the right direction. Treat yourself like your best friend, because you should actually be your own best friend. There's no reason for us to be jerks to ourselves, because it doesn't make us any better at anything. Instead, take yourself out to a nice meal, treat yourself to a couple drinks, plan an awesome vacation where you can bond with yourself, then eventually ask yourself to be your own best man or maid of honor. That won't be awkward in the slightest.
Learn to draw the line and celebrate your victories
Even if you're having trouble finding that garbage pearl, it's good to learn the skill of drawing the line. Maybe you didn't make something great, but that's OK. Let yourself be disappointed with it, then move on. Most of all, when you do reach some sort of milestone, like a noticeable improvement in skills (look back to where you used to be to feel good about where you are now) or the completion of a project (no matter how bad), celebrate! Don't just mindlessly move onto the next thing without acknowledging that you created something. Give yourself a little reward. Eat a pile of carne asada fries while chugging beer. Talk to an old friend for an hour. Spin in your office chair until you puke if that's something that you really enjoy doing for some sick reason. Every step toward greatness is a small victory. Let yourself feel good about that once in a while.