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.
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.