Unconditional art

I was just commenting mini-ranting on a post on Alyson B. Stanfield’s Art Biz Blog. I have been following her artbizcoach.com site for a while now and bought her terrific book I’d Rather Be in the Studio! The Artist’s No-Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion. This post got me cooking though, on a sore subject for me… art critique.

As an artist (writers, dancers and musicians also count), how many times have you received unsolicited critiques (with the best intentions) by relatives, teachers, and complete strangers? How many times has it been suggested that you do ballet after your tap recital? Show your wares at the fruit and vegetable market even though the price point is not compatible. Heard these comments…

Hmm, hmm, uhm. Hmm. What does it mean?
Why don’t you paint some pretty flowers?
Can you paint my cat/child/husband/motorcycle? (said while they admire your abstracts)
Can you make one for me in green? I like green.
What were you thinking when you painted this (were you high)?

Then there are the unspoken comments…

But that doesn’t look like a pear.
The perspective is all wrong.
Why doesn’t she make it more realistic?
Why is it so expensive?
I don’t understand this.
Why on earth would someone want to have this in their living room?
It’s ugly.

But that’s just my point! Sometimes art is ugly!

Every artist has to follow a path to what feels right to them (you might say that art should be good, acceptable, technically proficient, marketable, etc. but I don’t think that’s the point).

The process begins with a learning curve that can’t be skipped. Seeking out teachers (not the general public) during this learning curve can help the artist decide what THEY BELIEVE will help them towards their best self expression. They may choose to disregard standard, generic teachings and stretch for something else, something unique or even anti-art.

Once you reach a certain level with your art, I think it’s useless to ask for or react to criticism. Your path as an artist cannot be affected by “The analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of an artistic work.” This would presume that there are standards and practices that artists should follow and get scored on. That’s not true and it’s counter-productive.

How in the world would an observer know if your art were on the path to its zenith? Maybe if it was a pretty color, or looked realistic? I don’t think so. There have been too many artists rejected for creating works that were merely ahead of their time.

So, no, I never ask for criticism. When I was learning, I had many teachers (and artists I could study to decide my own path) but critics served only to de-motivate me. Now I am the best judge of what I create. That’s as it should be. The real question is “Who is art for, the viewer or the artist?” I believe it exists for self-expression. The viewer’s reaction is secondary and might be quite unfavorable. That doesn’t make it any less “art.” I know Alyson understands this because she has museum experience and business experience both, so I was a little surprised by her post (she doesn’t give her opinion about asking for criticism in the post.)

The best art affects the viewer coincidentally, a bonus for the artist and the viewer. The best art can make you feel euphoric — or it might make you feel awful but you know it’s the truth, and the truth hurts. The best art is the artist turned inside out. For you, the artist, the best art is yours and yours alone, unconditionally.

14 thoughts on “Unconditional art

  1. Hi PJ
    Yes, his post does echo what I am thinking, have always thought. I am more than a bit anti-establishment and more than a bit skeptical (actually more pissy than skeptical) about convention, especially for subjects like self-expression! (Whips up visions of Pink Floyd’s The Wall).

    Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
    …”Wrong, Do it again!”

    At some point you must become your own master, am I right?

  2. Thank you for saying this. I totally agree. I do not seek criticism of my art. I don’t need it and I don’t want it. I am already my own worst critic. People are welcome to like my work or not. If someone likes it, I’m happy to listen to them talk about it. In fact I have learned a lot about my art hearing other people talk about it. But if someone doesn’t like my art, nothing they say about it will help me.

  3. Recently I mentioned (somewhere, memory what it is) that I had gotten to the point where I prefer strong reactions positive or negative over bland approvals when presenting ideas (my paint of choice). The client who hates something gives me more information in a few seconds than I get from ten meetings with the folks who just let things go forward without real comment. I like the context you’ve put around criticism here – where even when you receive it you are still responsible for your own growth and satisfaction. A good thing to remember no matter what kind of work is being criticized.

  4. Hi Fred! “The client who hates something gives me more information in a few seconds than I get from ten meetings with the folks who just let things go forward without real comment.”

    That is a great line and sounds like a good idea for a post. Please let me know if you find it?

    I met Don Van Vleet (Captain Beefheart) a couple of times and had a long convo with him at an art show once. In addition to being a musician, he was also an artist. He told me that art was his vomit. It wasn’t pretty…or fun, nor should it be. I never forgot that conversation.

  5. Most people think my art is pretty ugly, that is how I know I’m staying sharp. If it starts to be too pretty then the edge is gone and I failed.

  6. Jennifer, I can see why! Your paintings are so rich and satisfying emotionally. I especially like “Revealed.” What a luscious gallery.

    Zachary, Hmm, I don’t see ugly there. I do see you working with natural and emotional themes. “Hail Storm Full of Grace” has a visceral impact on me, while Pond Water makes me relax into it. I don’t want either to leave.

    Thank you both for commenting so we can all see your work!

  7. Thanks Alyson. The subject is a hot one for creative people!

    It’s interesting that I gave “feedback” to Zachary and Jennifer yet I despise critique, LOL. I hope my feedback wasn’t interpreted as criticism or leaning one way or another about your style, which is your decision alone!

    Also, I missed replying to Barbara and I wanted say why. I got so caught up in her web site that I replied to her there instead of here.

  8. Mosaicmoods,

    Unfortunately, I don’t really have much experience in terms of art, but broadly speaking, I would have considered personal expression to be a critical feature of the process of artistic creation, and in general, I would have thought that there would be a danger that too much unwanted feedback would simply serve to interfere with this process.

    We all have different tastes, likes and dislikes, and I would have thought that a critical aspect of being an artist would be that of expressing yourself and your ideas the way in which you yourself see them – not the way a committee of well-meaning critics see them.

  9. Andrew, you have it exactly right! Thanks for putting it so eloquently.

    You don’t have to be an artist to understand creativity or personal expression. Everyone is doing it every day (defining themselves, expressing themselves), in the way they live their lives. For whatever reason (mass control? LOL) culture wants to hamper this essential process of defining oneself, for oneself. You also don’t have to be an artist to resent this intrusion! The (good) irony is, if we had no one to “push against” how would we come to know what we believe?

    Forming your personality via a committee would be awkward wouldn’t it? But isn’t that sort of what schools do? Later, corporations take over for them.

    Self-expression is necessary for mental health, and so is trusting your own perception and judgment. That’s what this blog is all about. Trusting that your heart knows what you need.

  10. Excellent topic, Diana, thanks.
    I have enough art education (school and self-study) (not that there is ever enough, but you know…) and experience to be the judge of my own work, but I do have to be careful not to become self-indulgent and accept everything I do as good. Some of it isn’t. The work that isn’t may have some value in self-expression, fighting the demons or whatever, but still. It’s a trap I don’t want to fall into. Too easy.
    As you know, i am a happy member of EBSQ, and critiques are one of the things I value in the forums there. It never hurts to hear what other artists have to say, and i am not intimidated by any of it. I feel completely free to ignore whatever is said. Often, there are interesting suggestions. What does annoy me is the tendency of some people to praise everything to the skies no matter what, if the artist is a friend. You’ll never learn anything from that.

  11. Hi Muriel, good to hear from you!

    Yeah, I’m not so self-indulgent (or naive) to believe that everything I do is good or equally successful. But I prefer to let me be the judge of that, LOL.

    You know I was in EBSQ. I did not like the critiques. I was starting a new style and it was good to get some encouragement but later I didn’t even want that. Everybody likes to hear good stuff, but for me it doesn’t have a lasting effect on my determination or motivation. I think that’s what you’re saying about friends praising everything you do.

    But I also don’t expect to learn from other artists any more either. I think at this point my art has to be a personal (and private) journey.

    Don’t be a stranger here 😉

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