Dealing With Criticism

muppets

The always opinionated Statler and Waldorf from Jim Henson’s marvelous creation, The Muppets. This comedy duo lambasts everything and everybody. 

“Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are endless.” — Seneca

Everyone’s a critic. Family, friends, peers, the boss and your mother-in-law all have signed up as candidates. If your neighbor’s dog could speak, it’d probably have something discouraging to say too. Being an artist means facing an endless barrage of opinion and conjecture. And that’s just from people with neutral to positive opinions of you. Then there are those busy-bodies — people with nothing better to do than to put other people down — they should be completely ignored and their comments erased from memory. There is no value in defending against their tired vituberations and especially if they hide under the cloak of anonymity.

ShallowHal

Shallow Hal, starring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow, is an awkward comic romance that exposes the blindness of the small minded, judgemental critic.

As for those ‘impossible to ignore’ members of your social circle, you can (and must) forgive them. For most of the time, they do not know what they speak. When people don’t get what they expect, they get upset and frustrated, and voicing their displeasure is just a dolorous yet natural consequence.  When they’re the audience, it’s their right to do so. At the same time, however, that doesn’t make their opinions necessarily valid or worth paying attention to either. Unfortunately, whether the points contended are valid or not, and no matter who they are or how strong you are, it always stings at least a bit, and sometimes a lot. No one’s immune to painful criticism or attack. Art is a personal affair exposed to the world and dealing with feedback, mean-spirited or not, is an inevitable part of being a real artist.

“Watch out for the joy-stealers: gossip, criticism, complaining, faultfinding, and a negative, judgmental attitude.” — Joyce Meyer

Film-making is hard. Making ANY art, in fact, is a tremendous struggle. But mockery, that’s easy, and a lot of the time, it’s both weak and sad. The harshest critics are, more often than not, those who have never created anything. They can’t bear to look at themselves or their own work because they haven’t done anything worth analyzing. So why should we give these people any credit or attention?

Jurassic-Park

Director Steve Spielberg and company on the set of the landmark film of CGI technology, Jurassic Park. Despite his numerous accomplishments, he is often derided for both his directing choices and choice of projects. Spielberg has five films in the AFI Top 100 Films of All Time List — Jaws,  E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. How many can his critics claim?

“The better a work is, the more it attracts criticism; it is like the fleas who rush to jump on white linens.” — Gustave Flaubert

Making art is an accomplishment. Courage, effort and diligence is to be commended. It’s an eye opener to respect the creator. It’s brave to be willing to see with eyes wide open, to let in what we’re not yet comfortable with. Action speaks much louder than words, and the active use of our imagination is the ultimate action of all actions.

BladeRunner

Image from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was very poorly received when it was released in 1982. It has since proven to be one of the most loved and creatively acclaimed science-fiction films of all time.

What about sought-after or professional criticism? As a teacher, I have one cardinal rule — don’t judge the person when judging the work. We all have a right to an opinion, but we must remember that what connects or disturbs is personal, and quite often illogical. If criticism is expected or required, it’s got to be delivered constructively — it mustn’t be vindictive or political. That said, when worthwhile and constructive opinion is present, it is usually insightful, additive and generous. It takes time and care to do it right and its contribution must be respected and gratefully accepted.

“Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy.” — Robert Henri

It’s easy to be especially susceptible to external feedback. Given how much of an artist’s success and survival is dependent on factors such as appealing to the mass market or expert opinions from art journals — we shouldn’t be surprised that any lack of appreciation or respect for our efforts digs so deep. A single critical opinion can appear to make or break books, films, and careers.

jackson-pollock-paint

Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock seen here with wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner. Pollocks’ radical painting style and life of strife and alcoholism brought great fame to his work and his persona, but ultimately, it is his art which shines and endures. Photo by Hans Namuth.

That said, formal criticism and the business implications associated with it, is not necessarily a realistic or true assessment of your work or abilities. Neither does positive or negative critical feedback guarantee financial success or predict failure. Therefore, we must take all such news in stride and with a healthy does of perspective. Of course, this is easier said than done. We are human after all, and as artists, we are all sensitive sentient beings whose work necessitates our keen sensory attributes. It is our willingness to expose our dreams and emotions in the most vulnerable fashion that makes us artists. How could it not hurt?

Want to know what it feels like to be a literary genius? Well, here’s a tiny sample of the criticism for Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick:

“I found myself having mini emotional break downs trying to comprehend how anyone could possibly enjoy such a terrible book.”

“Like choking down a week old doughnut.”

“‘Call me Ishmael.’ It’s undoubtedly one of the most widely recognized opening lines of any classical novel. Unfortunately, it’s also the best line in the book.”

“I think Melville was a genius*, yes, but the structure in which he wrote the book did not make sense. Don’t read this book if you don’t have to.”

(*Notice that even when you’re recognized as a genius, your work is still deemed unnecessary!)

A beautiful moment from Pixar’s Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird. This wonderful gem about rats and cooking, tells a much deeper tale – one of prejudice and judgement.

So remember when things get hard, take solace in the fact that you’re the one doing the work, taking the chance and making it happen. Whether it’s received well or not, is irrelevant. It’s always good to know your work is special because it’s personal. The unknown, which both frightens and excites us, is also what frightens and excites others. It’s what makes this whole journey worthwhile.

“I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettiness.” — Søren Kierkegaard

This disruption to the status quo has always been received with opposition — harsh criticism or disdain by both critics and the masses is likely if not expected. It takes time for the world to catch up to our ideas and our artistry. What’s considered great today, has only become so after the test of time when all the dust settles.

“The big men have been rare because most men heed the dictators. Nobody wanted Walt Whitman, but Walt Whitman wanted himself and now we have Walt Whitman.” — Robert Henri

Still not convinced? Still feeling raw from hurtful feedback? Well, here’s a rule to remember that should soften the blow and that is: critics say much more about themselves, then they do of the work when they criticize. If you bear this in mind, then those rather painful moments of anger or self-doubt that accompany those nasty remarks will lose its power over you.

“Everything external is but a reflection projected by the individual machine.” — Henry Miller

Seinfeld is a great comedy series that exposes the hypocrisy of mankind, and in this case, critics. Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Throughout history, the greatest artists have been mistreated, disregarded and misunderstood. The track record of the world’s juries and critics is incredibly poor. So ignore the noise — all the main stream media and social internet chatter — and just make your art. No one EVER remembers a critic. The greatest contributors to humanity became what they became because they took risks and lived with the consequences, both good and bad.

dali-dream-sequence

An image from the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film, Spellbound which received mixed reviews. Hitchcock was never afraid to try new things. Here, he explored the themes of psychoanalysis working with the visually creative mind of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali.

A final point to remember is that we artists are not alone — other artists share our pain. A powerful kinship exists that’s built on our mutual respect for our creative dedication and courage, one that stretches beyond the mere barriers of time and geography. And as a collective, we strive to work within the shackles society might put on us or break free from them altogether. We know that the solutions and hope always lie in our hands.

“Through art, mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.” — Robert Henri

So don’t worry about criticism too much. As professionals, we can only (and must) do our best. If our work is good, it will stand the test of time. Trends, fads, and trivia fade. Pay no heed to such nonsense. Trust in yourself and make your art instead.

The late Robin Williams, shares a little Walt Whitman poetry in Peter Wier’s Dead Poet’s Society, one of the most inspirational films of the 20th century.

“If you shape your life to nature, you’ll never be poor, if according to other people’s opinions, you’ll never be rich.” — Epicurus