On Critics and Criticism

Crossing Over

In his recent book Marketing Fine Art Photography (Rocky Nook, 2011) photographer Alan Briot suggests that “it will be those who are discontent, displeased, or upset by what you do who are the most verbal.”

Briot continues: “I have found that those who love what I do are far less expressive and tend to enjoy the work quietly and peacefully instead of manifesting their enjoyment in a loud public display of admiration.”

In this regard—and in a number of others that I won’t go into here—Briot’s experience is not my experience. I am fortunate in having many people clearly let me know how much they appreciate my work and only a very few vocal detractors—but no matter what you do there will always be critics and criticism. This is true if you have a mundane occupation, and certainly true if you are an artist with some visibility.

When it comes to accepting criticism a certain delicate balance is in order. Firstly, there is absolutely no point in arguing with a critic. The folk-saying about not getting down in the mud and wrestling with a pig applies: you’ll only get muddy and the pig will enjoy it.

You do want to be able to be able to listen and understand the critique of your work. The day that I begin to believe that absolutely everything I do is golden is that day that I’ve come to believe my own marketing hype and the day that I am in danger of losing my artistic perspective.

But you also don’t want to take uninformed criticism that may even be intended to wound to heart. One needs to have a strong enough sense of one’s own artistic goals and vision to not be swayed in matters that are the core of who and what you are as an artist.

By the way, if you do encounter people who are critical of your work out of malice do your best to insulate yourself from them. Do not let them destroy your confidence in your own work. This kind of criticism is toxic, and there’s no reason for listening to it.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from criticism, even if it is superficial and amounts to the fact that there are certain people who don’t like a specific subject matter or kind of composition. But if my work is involved, and the critique goes beyond cosmetic and cuts to the quick I want to know that the critic knows his stuff. Do they do work that measures up to mine? If not, why are they qualified to take on my work (there are some valid reasons).

It’s important to any artist to find people whose reactions are informed and trustworthy. But these people are not easy to find. When you find someone who can help you in this way they are golden—do what it takes to keep them around!

I get asked fairly often to critique work by photographers I don’t know, and this is a task I am not willing to undertake lightly. There’s almost always some positive suggestion that can be made, but for anything more than superficial criticism I really like to know something about the person and their art before I open my mouth!

In summary, there’s no point in fighting criticism. Listen to it and see what you can learn, unless it is malicious…in which case run don’t walk away. On the other hand, be true to your own inner voice and artistic judgment. Finally, make an affirmative effort to form relationships with peers or mentors who you can trust.

This entry was posted in Photography, Writing.

One Comment

  1. fafield July 4, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    Harold —

    Spot on! No matter how hard it may be to accept, we need to approach constructive criticism as a learning opportunity, discover what we think is valid and incorporate to our work. The decision to accept or reject is the receiver’s decision alone.

    Thanks for your continuing posts to your blog. I read regularly and almost always take some new learning away.


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