It’s the cry of every scorned artist – “The critics hated the Impressionists, too!” – but the claim is only partly true. Within a decade or so of their first major exhibitions, the critical tide had turned in the Impressionists’ favor, especially as unceasing stylistic developments within the School of Paris soon made the work of Monet and company look relatively tame. By the time he was in his late 70s, Monet was lionized, an acknowledged Old Master of modernism.
Most artists, however, are unwilling to wait that long. Artists, especially those who have achieved some recognition, tend to shrug off negative reviews of their work and stress how it’s more important to concentrate on one’s own art. However, not far below the surface, anger at some art critic or critics in general lies waiting to be tapped.
“One reviewer said about my work, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Is this art? Why did someone go to the bother to make this thing?’” sculptor Donna Dennis said. “Another time, a critic with a Marxist point of view said that the scale of my work suggested the upper classes looking down on poor people. My problem with art critics is that they often have a set point of view to which they want your work to conform, and they refuse to open their minds to see where you’re coming from.”
No one appreciates a negative review. They are “irritating,” “annoying,” “pointless” – the more artists you ask, the more the adjectives fly. Sculptor Marisol, when she has become angry or depressed by a review that seems “nasty or personal,” has gone to the lengths of sending the critic “a letter insulting him, in order to get even.” Clearly, success doesn’t make an artist’s anger or insecurities go away when a review is unfavorable. In fact, success may seem to raise the stakes on whether or not the write-up is favorable or otherwise. Donna Dennis noted that “a poor review affects me financially now whereas, when I first started out, it only hurt my feelings.”
Perhaps, commercial success should compensate for criticism’s version of Bronx cheers, and it may be that the critical nay-saying is a result of the commercial success. Newsweek’s former art critic Peter Plagens noted that “critics seem to say, ‘This artist already makes a lot of money and is so popular, why should I add to it?’”
Coping with criticism, both adverse and positive, is one of the most difficult tasks for any artist. Is there any truth in what someone else is saying? Does a negative review mean that the work is bad? Do misinterpretations by a critic suggest that the work isn’t communicating clearly with the public?
There may be a great temptation for artists to respond to misinformation. Environmental artist Christo noted that the titles of his work are frequently mispelled, and facts such as his nationality (Bulgarian) are often incorrect. “Some critics wrote that I am Czechoslavakian,” he said. “One person wrote that I was born in Belgium.” Donna Dennis pointed out that the scale of her work doesn’t reflect class differences (as the Marxist critic had written) but “the scale of my own body, which a feminist critic would have understood.” Most artists, however, see reasons to check the impulse to respond.
Beyond the questions of the critic’s value in making public mention of the artist and of responding to potential misinterpretations is the deeper issue of whether or not criticism resonates as true. Some artists that criticism may prove most valuable and constructive when it parallels one’s own private doubts and concerns. Criticism, whether favorable or otherwise, is often able to open up ideas and provoke discussion.
Actually, most art reviews are favorable. Smaller circulation newspapers rarely knock artwork, and editors often try to help locals – artists or galleries. Only a handful of major newspapers will ever say anything negative about an art exhibition, and even then it’s rare. Usually, the artists who receive any sort of negative criticism are well established – “critic-proof,” as they say.
Artists may be able to hear criticism only from critics, from friends, peers, family members or, perhaps, from no one. Some people respond to criticism in certain ways, regardless of whether they are artists or shoemakers, but the real issue is how confident the creator is his or her own work. Criticism can come too early and too hard for some artists, and creators might want to hold off displaying their art until they feel secure in what they have made – secure enough to make it public and, as a child, let it go off into the world. Once a work of art leaves the studio, it no longer belongs exclusively to the artist; rather, it belongs to the world. It is liked and understood according to the tastes and knowledge of the people who see it, and the creator becomes just one more person in this chain. Sometimes, criticism opens an artist’s eyes to facets of the work that he or she hadn’t before realized. The artist learns to step back, watch the processes of the art world, pick up what good can be gleaned and go on to the next creation.
Feature image: Claude Monet – Garden at Giverny