Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Uninvited critique (or criticism)

Interesting discussion going on last week on Nina-Marie Sayre's blog (which I check out every weekend to see what other fiber artists have been up to).  She talked about critique and how it's better to ask for comments from people whose work you respect and whose design esthetic you share.  That makes a lot of sense -- who cares, for instance, whether Jeff Koons likes your work?

Then the subject changed from invited to uninvited comments, and Nina-Marie wrote, "When someone offers an unasked for critique I paint a small smile of interest on my face and immediately stop listening... maybe nod a little -- offer a little humph and ignore it all.... Hurts no feelings -- yours or your well meaning critic's."

Here is where we part ways, because I think you should listen to what people say about your work. Isn't that a large part of our motivation to make art in the first place, to get other people to look at and think about our work?  Why would you preemptively decide to ignore what somebody has to say, without first listening to it?

But what if this is an idiot talking to me, you reply.  Why should I waste time listening, especially if the idiot is going to tell me everything is wrong with my piece?

So how do you know this is an idiot, I reply.  How do you know what the idiot is going to tell you?

Sure, if it's your jerk sister-in-law, perhaps you do know in advance she's an idiot and what she's going to tell you.  But if it's a relative stranger, you have no idea whether her ideas are good or bad, or what she might see in your work.  Perhaps her comments will be valuable, helpful, right on the mark.  Perhaps she will even buy the work or offer you a gallery show.

If it turns out this person is less knowledgeable, sophisticated and art-savvy than you are, she still may have comments worth listening to.  For instance, I once was working on a series of small pieces that I had given what I thought were sublimely witty titles, not only witty but enhancing the political meaning of the work.  When I showed it to some other people, they told me the titles were confusing and led them to think the wrong thing about the work.  My first response, of course, was to tell myself these people were less knowledgeable, sophisticated and art-savvy than I am, and they just weren't sharp enough to perceive my sublime wit.  My second response, which took a while to kick in, was that if the titles were confusing people I ought to change them; I didn't need to shoot myself in the foot.

In public settings -- your booth at an art fair, or the reception where your work is in a show, or show-and-tell at your fiber art group -- I think it's always good practice to engage the viewer/commenter in conversation.  If it's apparent the person doesn't know quilts from shinola, you can explain how you made the work or what meaning you intended to convey.  If you can do this without being patronizing, you will have educated somebody a bit, and perhaps impressed her with your knowledge and vision. Who knows, she might even want to hire you to give a lecture or teach a workshop.

It's a talent, or perhaps I should say a skill, to talk about your work without coming off as conceited, condescending or foolish.  If you're going to regularly take your work out in public, cultivating that skill isn't a bad idea.  For instance:

If the person says something wrong, correct her false assumption gracefully.  Q: Do you have a quilting frame?  My grandmother did that.   Wrong A: No, can't you even tell the difference between hand quilting and machine quilting??  Better A:  Yes, my grandmother had a quilting frame too, but I don't do hand-quilting -- I think it's too time-consuming.  I work with a sewing machine and that way I can do several quilts a year instead of just one.

If the person asks a question about what you consider an unimportant detail, use it as a bridge to talk about what you consider important.  Q:  How long did it take you to make that quilt?  Wrong A:  All my life.   Better A:  Well, several months on and off.  This is kind of a complicated process, because each of these fine lines is sewed in separately, so there's an awful lot of sewing to be done.  But I look upon the tedious work as kind of a metaphor for life -- each day is mostly like all the rest, but eventually they all coalesce into something that has meaning.  I think all my work is about that.

But what if, after you've listened politely, the uninvited comment is really stupid and even insulting?  First kick the tires -- is there a germ of truth to it?

A famous story in my family has to do with my grandmother, who arrived one day for a visit.  After 500 miles on the road, she walked into the living room, paused where we kids were lined up for kisses, looked over our shoulders at a new painting that had just been put up on the wall, and announced, "That's upside down."  We've been laughing about that story for five decades, as an object lesson in making snap judgments with no valid reason.

But when I eventually inherited the painting from my parents, I tried hanging it upside down, and decided I liked it that way.

what do you think?  upside down or right side up?

The object lesson turns out to be that maybe the snap judgment from the unsophisticated observer isn't so dumb after all.

But if it is, feel free to ignore it.


  1. I totally agree with you on how to handle the opinions of others.

    I would like to ask you a question about your inherited painting - how would you feel if someone bought your quilt and decided to hang it another way round? I can understand why you and your grandmother prefer this orientation of the painting - it now looks like trees in Autumn; but the other way round looks like the same subject but in reflection in a pond - which is lost when upside down. But, that's just my snap judgment!

    1. Excellent question. I don't think it would bother me to have a quilt hung upside down; they're all abstract works anyway, and sometimes I have a hard time deciding which way is up. But I have had issues in the past when people have disrespected my work in other ways -- usually friends and family members who received work as gifts -- and that did bother me. Maybe that's a subject for another post some day.

  2. I had a friend who made art quilts. I never understood the subject matter. So I ignored that and would comment on something in the piece that attracted my eye. My friend tactfully accepted my comments and over a period of years- told me that my rather odd comments had improved the way she worked. She listened rather than ignored.

  3. The painting looks SO RIGHT; can't imagine it otherwise. Your comment is a keeper--about how long it took to make a piece--when you said you "look upon the tedious work as kind of a metaphor for life -- each day is mostly like all the rest, but eventually they all coalesce into something that has meaning. I think all my work is about that."
    We should all hope that the time and energy and stitches we put in will add up to a life with meaning. Thank you for putting it so clearly.
    Martha Ginn

  4. Well, it's all in how you look at it, and the ability to be creative is to see all the possibilities.

    About the so called idiot viewers... yeah, it's rough when they are truly clueless, but sometimes a viewer with an untrained eye can pick up something those of us so-called "experts" miss. Years ago when I was working on a portrait, I was having trouble with one eye. My then six year old son came bounding in, took one look at it and said (giggling) "Mom, the eye is too low and too far over to one side," then turned around and ran out of the room. He was in the room for less than 30 seconds and looked at the drawing for less than five, yet he was absolutely correct.

    I also think it's important to separate the "subjective" comments from the "objective" ones. If viewers don't like something, it's their preference, and that's different.

  5. I did a series of art quilts that started with hand painted men's hankies in black and white patterns, cut apart and pieced with a center hankie not cut up. I thought they were great. At a art fair a woman came up to me and asked if I had pieced all the small black and white pieces. I told her they were painted and cut and she said "oh, I thought it was an art quilt" floored me.

  6. The French expression "l'esprit de l'escalier" -- the wit of the staircase -- means the perfect response that you think of after you have left. One perfect response could have been "Well, there are no rules to what constitutes an art quilt, and an awful lot of them are made without piecing. Painting and other forms of surface design are very popular in art quilts. But a lot of them do use piecing."

  7. Kathy, you crack me up.
    And I also had that kid (a teenager, no less) waltz by the design wall, exclaim "its two separate quilts" (though I had it as one) and she was right. I immediately cut it up and redesigned.

  8. i like your response to how long did it take to make that quilt question. i get that at art shows and fairs and i try to decide if they really want to know, what i find unknowable or think they need to know how much an hour i charge.not enough usually.i might say i have no idea but it was a process of decisions over a period of time,(months,years) and i had a good time along the journey.

    1. Sonja -- I think that questions like this mean that the person is interested in your work and would like to chat with you but doesn't know enough about quilting to ask a more appropriate question. I always take such remarks as an invitation to help the person enter a discussion. (perhaps I am too much of an optimist)

    2. I think that is very true. Asking about the time is a starting point. They can see that it must have taken a while, but don't have another way to talk about the work, especially if it is abstract and they don't feel like they know 'enough' about art. "Gosh I like blue" sounds lame, so they go with how long it took. At that point I then hope to avoid the "I don't have the patience/creativity to make things" road. I never know where to go with that convo. It's a dead end.

    3. Leigh -- I agree that's a dead end. (And it's true -- not everybody has patience and/or creativity.) So you can either smile and let the conversation end, or say "and that's a good thing, because if everybody had the patience/creativity to make this I would never sell it."