The Art and Craftiness of Critique

“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame.
I simply follow my own feelings.”
― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be
ruined by praise than saved by criticism”
― Norman Vincent Peale

Criticism. Getting it. Giving it. Ignoring it. Implementing it. It’s a fraught topic from any angle, and, as evidenced by the above quotes, even great people debated its impact and importance.

Where I sit? Somewhere between Wolfgang and Norman.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Art is subjective, this we know. What one person adores, another finds grating and idiotic. But either way, every artist knows there’s no escaping the inevitability of critique. The question becomes: how do we healthily solicit it, and what do we do when we get it?

Peer critique groups or not so much? Is a famous writer’s opinion gospel or just another opinion? How’s it going with that writing coach you hired? What did the agent say? Beta readers, yes or no?

There are as many opinions on these questions as there are on art itself, so what follows is simply my take. And, as I assert with any notes I offer, “Keep what resonates, toss the rest.”

I once had a very wise mentor say: “Never give your work to a random bevy of people to critique, especially those you don’t know. No matter who they are, you’ll just get a random bevy of opinions put through the filters of their personalities and proclivities, and the sheer range of potential contradictions can stop you in your tracks. Instead, pick five (or so) of the most trusted, skilled, and experienced readers/artists/advisors you know and stick with them. You’ll get consistently useful and qualified critique every time.” I’ve never strayed from that maxim and it has served me well.

Have I always agreed with everyone on my team? No. In fact, I recently got notes that stopped me cold, so disparate were they from my own perceptions. I put them aside, convinced they were ones I could “toss,” but later went back to reread them in a less kerfuffled state. To my chagrin, and though the tone was perhaps a bit more brusque than I would’ve liked, they actually hit some very useful points, with perspective I couldn’t ignore.

I ultimately implemented a great many of them, which made my WIP significantly better. I also let the critic know how much I got out of her input, with, yes, some constructive discussion on how to better present it. She was grateful, as was I, so it seemed we both got something out of the exercise.

But I’ve also experienced the opposite: I ventured outside my trusted group to a paid consultant whose report was basically, “I don’t like much about this; it needs a page-one rewrite.” Was the book that far off or just not her cup of tea? I didn’t know, so I sat with her notes, pondered them, tried them on, but ultimately decided, like Wolfgang, that I’d “simply follow my own feelings.” That book went on to become very successful.

What does that tell you? Only that you’ve got to trust your own voice, and know the heart and soul of your work so well you actually can figure out when to listen and when not. That can be tricky, particularly, as in my examples, good notes can be clumsily delivered, or, conversely, bad ones can be offered with finesse. You’ve got to separate your emotional reaction from the value of what you’ve been given. That takes practice, but, hey, we get plenty of that.

As for the art and craftiness of delivering critique, many of the same rules apply. While style is always less important than content, delivery can determine how input is accepted and, therefore, how useful you’ll be in actually helping someone improve their craft. Giving critique is as learned a skill as any.

Early in my career, I studied acting with a teacher who was brilliant at critique, and who taught me his method so I could run one of his classes. It was quite simple. After the actors performed a scene, he’d ask: “What were you working on?” Then he’d critique that, how successfully (or not) they’d achieved their goal. He didn’t pontificate on other issues; he focused on what they were trying to do, and helped them figure out how best to do it.

It sounds stupidly simple, but I’ve used some version of that technique throughout my career and it’s been gold. With writers I ask, “What’s your intention with the story; what do you want me to feel, to get from it; how much detail do you want?” Then I critique based their answers, offered with a balance of what worked, what didn’t, in a tone that’s constructive and empowering. I know when I’ve hit the nail: “Good critique will excite the artist, make them eager to jump back in to do the work.” That’s something I’ve witnessed with others, felt for myself, and hold as a useful gauge.

Yet, ten other people will offer ten other opinions on all this. That’s how it works. So I “simply follow my own feelings” … with the concluding hope that you, too, find the best guidance in your own.

[Originally published at Women Writers, Women’s Books]

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The Art of Art Discussion: Just Quiet Down and Go Create

We all need a break now and again from the day-to-day work that holds our focus. Like the vaunted “15-minutes” regular office workers get to stroll into the cafeteria for java and a Danish, we freelancers take our moments, too; often to hop online for a little social media refreshment. I’m as guilty as anyone; there are days when serious-conversation_smmeeting a deadline, finishing a project, getting errands done, or managing my ever-growing list of marketing tasks all require the interruption of some light trolling on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Huff Po, Fine Art America or any of the groups and discussions one might find here or there. And when I do, I’m typically compelled, by virtue of senses stirred, to jump in. Sometimes it’s just clicks on photos and links I enjoy but, equally as often, the urge for rejoinder is strong. It’s hard for me to read inane chatter, mean-spirited comments, or truly debatable topics without wanting to throw in my two cents!

Certainly political postings corral the lion’s share of this type of response, but more recently I’ve read or partaken in “art discussions” — analysis and deconstruction of style and technique, contest decorum, commerce demands, etc. —  and, much like politics, the tendency for some to veer into cynicism, negativity, and arrogance is apparent. And disappointing.

Like anything else on the Internet, Art is a big topic. Go to any art-oriented site – photography, painting, jewelry design, graphic art, whatever –  and you’ll find opinions on every aspect and angle. And in those discussions, you’ll meet as many wonderful artists as you will curmudgeons, which, frankly, I find surprising. I don’t know why, but I always expect artists to be more uplifting and good-spirited than they often are.

See, I was lucky to have been given a constructive and very positive foundation in my training. My experiences in a wide variety of “the arts” included an overriding message of support, assistance, camaraderie, and the sheer joy of the craft. Certainly there were those who took opportunity for snarky critique, behind-the-back denigrations, sniffing arrogance, or bashing disguised as instruction, but I was fortunate that most of the teachers, professors, mentors, and fellow artists involved in my impressionable youth exuded their own joy in the craft and that imprinted upon me a higher-toned mission statement; one of constructive input, positive output, and personal and communal artistic integrity. Or, as is suggested in this age of The Secret and The Power of Positive Thinking, a “half-full perspective bereft of the toxic effect of negativity.”


“Either love it or do something else,” I was advised. I was also reminded of the old adage, “If you haven’t got something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Which, unless you’re a bona fide reviewer, opinion writer, or comedian, applies to pretty much everyone else.

So it’s jarring for me to read threads in which artists snipe at each other, knock down the work of others; become “authorities” about what is or isn’t Art (as if they, in particular, know!), criticize and demean the marketing choices of fellow artists, or denigrate any aspect of the industry – art or commerce –  that they, personally, don’t appreciate or wish to partake of. These are the kind of people who find fault and spew criticism, whose toxic brew of negativity was what a mentor of mine used to call “sour-pussing.” Glass half-empty. Discordant. Contrary.

For example; at Fine Art America, the very well managed site that provides hosting, printing and delivery of fine art photography and paintings – and a place where I’ve met a slew of very talented, supportive artists who are smart, enjoyable people – there is a contingent (likely too large a one) that “sour-pusses” on a regular basis. A discussion thread commenced recently regarding the winner of a now-concluded “Times Square Art Contest.” The woman who started the thread posited her prompt with a tsunami of criticism; of the winning piece, the artist, the contest, the overall marketing demands of the art world, concluding with a cranky assessment of “the whole thing.” (Frankly, I wanted to get her a juice box and tell her to take a nap!) But, more disappointingly, what followed this diatribe was a slew of commiserating comments, supporting her thesis to some degree or another. Lots of judgment of other artists’ work, denunciations of the overall state of the industry, snarky rejoinders about contests that “demean” artists into “begging” for votes, right down to a nihilistic grump-fest that included the statements, “There will be artists as long as there is society, but that too is coming to an abrupt halt. America is going under as we speak, and the rest will follow in quick order,” and the exceedingly grim “THERE IS NO FUTURE to ART. Humanity is much more interested in Ipods and marching blindfolded into the future. We are the last artists on this planet.”

All I could think was…WTF?!?

I shook my head as I read this manifesto of negativity, wondering how these people got out of bed, much less found the energy and inspiration necessary to create art. Luckily there were a few bright individuals who spoke up to shoot down the negative trend and did so with enough intelligence, optimism, and artistic good-will to offset, to the degree they could, the snarling hordes but, I have to say, I was disappointed that so many seemed hell-bent on ripping Art, and its artists, a new one! I was tempted to leap in and make my points, but realized, with some weariness, that the thread leader was jumping on every response with her continuing brand of snark and snarl and it was just too nice a day to get involved in that level of crankiness…though I did send an email to the most cogent and wise of her debaters, thanking him for his insight!

While I agree that we all have “the right to our opinions,” as Debbie Downer repeatedly pointed out, too many seem to have missed the lessons of integrity, constructive thinking, artistic magnanimity, and a positive, supportive outlook. Clearly Art has long had a history of creative personalities who were churlish and mean-spirited; many who were (are?) burdened with insecurities, jealousies, schadenfreude, and plain old nastiness, but in the communal world of online art exchange and discussion, there really is no room or reason for all that.

But people are who they are; I can’t change them. The woman running that thread is clearly a person with many other issues in her life that contribute to the attitudes she exudes online. But while I feel sorry for her (and certainly anyone in her near circle!), I ain’t gonna debate her. Because I reserve my perspective, my thoughtfulness; my contribution, for conversations that are constructive and focused on offering views and opinions that transmit something positive and helpful, rather than the banal, deflating, blather-fest of negativity I found on that thread.


My suggestion to that crowd? Stop talking and go create. If you have that much time to spend tearing down others in a community setting, go make another piece of art instead. Rather than getting some kind of buzz out of stirring up mutual frustration to feed your own, shut off your computer and pick up a brush or a camera. Don’t worry about what others are creating, just create. Quit expounding on what you think is stupid and create. Don’t announce what you won’t do, just do what you will do. If you don’t have the desire to be in a contest, don’t; but don’t cut down others who do. Don’t want to ask people to vote for your work? Again, don’t. But quit yacking about others who have no problem garnering support for theirs. And if someone wins a damn prize, offer congratulations and accept that even if “it’s not really creative” to you, it clearly is to someone else…enough that they won! And if you don’t have it in you to congratulate them…

Just quiet down.

Stop talking.

And go create.

All photographs by Lorraine Devon Wilke

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