Thursday, September 10, 2009

Prairie Artsters: Art Criticism*

Looking for an honest rejection: Criticism isn't so bad, so long as you know who's doing it

When it comes to feedback, be it on an art show or a new haircut, there is always an overwhelming pull to only hear the negative. Falling back on that tired cliché that it's just easier to believe the bad things in the world, those who want to make art simply need to grow a thicker skin. Art is meant to be shared in the public arena, and that means it will be scrutinized, speculated, celebrated and judged no matter what.

Moving in-between fine lines of honesty and brutality, criticism and whining, and previews and nepotism, when there is a hint (or a smack) of rejection or negativity, what should be professional quickly slides into something personal. As artists, often in the case of emerging artists unsure of their own path, one diss often turns into all that was needed to second guess yourself, your capabilities and quit your art for something safe from the barbs of outside perception.

But the context changes if rejection of your work is coming down from an anonymous source, a faceless voice, one that doesn't even offer any context or background from which constructive criticism could be gleamed.

All of this comes from a recent sit down with local industrial designer and artist Adriean Koleric, who wanted to talk about criticism. Starting from his own investigation into looking for honesty in reviews of his own work, Koleric was interested in talking about how I have handled criticism, in both dishing it, but mostly taking it.

Referring to the anonymous/moniker shielded remarks found on the Prairie Artsters blog, Koleric's interest in how I deal with rejection is a fair one. As artists and writers, you put yourself out there, often seeking feedback, and in the realm of internet anonymity, can only brace yourself for anything—so why keep doing it at all?

A recent article by the New York Sunday Times's Randy Cohen addresses this exact issue. Arguing anonymous posting on the Internet has proved to be more toxic for than encouraging of free speech, the article was prompted by the recent court order put onto Google to divulge the identity of one of its users who was anonymously defaming public personas for further legal redress. Cohen outlines legitimate forums for anonymity (like political dissent), while pinpointing that a major problem of Internet anonymity is that the crude keeps everyone else at bay. With no boundaries whatsoever, trying to maintain a healthy discourse with anonymous Internet users is akin to growing a garden in a patch of noxious weeds. The bad chokes out the good, and that simply cannot be ignored.

That said, I personally don't believe any real feedback should ever be dismissed, but we should note that no feedback exists without attachments to major self-esteem or entitlement issues, which when mixed with the distanciated communication of the Internet, is almost always poisonous.

A thousand "That's greats" are no equal for just one "That sucks." But as a believer in calling-it-like-it-is, I am an advocate for a difference of opinions so long as those opinions are legitimately backed up by a name, or research, and if we're all lucky, a bit of social etiquette.

*First published in Vue Weekly, September 3 - 9, 2009


Amy Fung said...

attention: if we can't play nice amongst ourselves then we're going to need a monitor.

ahab said...

A bop on the nose most always counts as feedback but could only ever be considered criticism if your boxing coach ran out of ways to get it through your thick head that your guard was down when it should be up.

When challenged, if you're unable to prove you're right or unwilling to admit you've been proven wrong, then you're asking for a proverbial beating. If you can't tell the difference between feedback and criticism, then you'll get thrown out of the ring altogether.

Franklin said...

As it happens, one of the most ferocious trolls ever to appear at was part of the We Have A Problem With Modernism contingent from Edmonton, which is not a foreign viewpoint to this very blog. Maybe you even know her real identity. (We do.) I was told by this person that I knew "nothing" about the Edmonton art world for having lived in it for three weeks, while she critiqued the work in my show last year at Common Sense based on the jpeg that went out with the press release.

You instantly win a certain amount of credibility just by signing your name to your writing, it's true, but refusing to do so merely starts one a little further down on a ladder that can only be climbed through a public display of reasonable thinking. You simply have to set boundaries - weeds out, flowers in. I like the garden metaphor in the above article. But the problem you've identified here isn't weeds - it's a lack of competent gardening.

It's entirely possible to have a fruitful discussion on the Web among anonymous participants if you formulate what kind of discussion you want and delete comments that don't honor those decisions. But it requires a level of nerve that I don't think you possess. I have no idea what you're talking about when you say that "there is always an overwhelming pull to only hear the negative" or "one diss often turns into all that was needed to second guess yourself" or "A thousand 'That's greats' are no equal for just one 'That sucks.'" I have been told, flat out, to stop painting. I have been likened to specific fascist dictators. If I felt any of those sentiments you describe, my art and art criticism careers would have ended in 1998.

Here's the thing: there's something called "the discussion" that you and some of your colleages have been trying to nurture or elevate for years. I found out about this when Mary Christa O'Keefe published a useless list of grievances about the Edmonton art world in Vue last August, to which I have already responded. But it's not a real discussion; it's an imagined discourse as conceived by people who have trained in academic postmodernism, in which no assertion can be taken at face value (" feedback exists without attachments to major self-esteem or entitlement issues"? Speak for yourself), and participants are so inured to academic language that "distanciated" looks like a good word to use in an article for an entertainment weekly. You could have all the real discussion you want by showing up at someone's studio with a nickel bag and some chocolate chip cookies. But all the etiquette in the world isn't going bring the imaginary one into existence, because its terms are too contrived.

edmontonian said...

Oh yes, "the discussion", by which you mean the yawns or slightly bored expressions that most edmontonians feel when a certain brand of steel sculpture and its accompany ideology are trumpeted as just about the only remaining vestiges of quality & innovation left around these parts. It's not so much a conspiracy like you make it seem, as it is a sign of collective ennui.

Now's maybe that's mere "feedback", but a more succinct criticism of the above yapping is that very little constructive dialogue will ever take place between parties who have little interest in respecting each other from the get go.

Franklin said...

So what's your plan, Edmontonian - moan about art you don't like from behind a pseudonym until the various parties develop interest in respecting each other? Good luck. And say hi to "most Edmontonians" for me, since you're on familiar terms.

The author's judgment erred when she took what I believe are her own feelings (about criticism, in this case) and generalized them into broad truths, which is a doomed effort. When she sat down with Koleric (you couldn't make that up if you tried), they could have talked specifics about how they deal with criticism. If written right, a reader might have found something to sympathize with. Instead, Koleric disappears shortly after his introduction and Fung digresses into someone else's article. Koleric asks, why keep doing it at all? We never get an answer. Postmodernist tics aside, she isn't crafting her prose as she ought. Koleric is starting from his own investigation into looking for honesty, instead of looking for honesty. The last paragraph consists of two passive sentences. I'm sorry, but this is terrible:

As artists, often in the case of emerging artists unsure of their own path, one diss often turns into all that was needed to second guess yourself, your capabilities and quit your art for something safe from the barbs of outside perception.

Here's why:

Especially if you're an emerging artist, unsure of your path, one diss can make you second-guess yourself and your abilities, and quit art for something safe from the barbs of outside perception.

Which is false, because such fragile creatures would never emerge in the first place, but the syntax doesn't make me hate life. So what of it, Amy? I have signed my name, I have studied the material, and I have minded my manners. Are these fair criticisms, or no?

Amy Fung said...


you have presumed far too much about the conversation between koleric and myself. from one writer to another (I presume you are another artist/writer?), you may understand how one thread of conversation leads to another. as long as I've been interviewing artists on and off the record, I have been very conscious of how many people give up because their work has been ill received. Passive or not, it's a common perception. You may, however, note it's not exactly a stance I personally share, but that doesn't mean it can altogether be discounted.

the conversation was prompted by a.k. and precisely focused on how I personally have handled the negativity on this site (not really going for sympathy) nor am I here to shape his investigation into honesty. but if any readers care: the answer, if you really need one (even though he didn't seem to fixate on getting an answer out of me) has been a dynamic one that is still unfolding right before our eyes. but in static terms: keep working.

your notes have been duly noted. thank you for reading.

Franklin said...

If that's the case, Amy, then somebody didn't get their exhibition reviewed so that you could pen an article which says that criticism hurts, and while you and someone else figure out how to deal with it, people should sign their names to it and be more polite. You're one of a diminishing handful of writers who can get their criticism into print, and that privilege obliges you to serve your art community better than that.

edmontonian said...

If I'm moaning about anything, it is attitudes that allude to "proverbial beating[s]" and your letter to vue's viewpoint that O'Keefe's article was a " useless list of grievances". Seems to me that in the latter case you're the one taking "[your]own feelings (about criticism, in this case) and generaliz[ing] them into broad truths" about the Edmonton art's scene.

Maybe you know more about Edmonton's artistic community than I'm giving you credit for, but I'd like to think that we work as a community, even when that involves criticism. You're welcome to participate, but don't expect that generalizations about some sinister sounding "discussion" or "academic postmodernim" lends itself to a respectful discussion. I'd honestly be interested to know what led you to reply to this post, as it reads like there's some personal baggage involved!

Bellows said...

Wow, holly and wow, those are the first things I think about after having read ,enough to stop reading. HMMM some call me an artist, I like that idea, and I've lived here in edmonton my whole life (hole). Crticism can change a person but in the end the individual is responsible for their response. Some times this may be positive and sometimes not so much. What I need is a voice that is strongly critical of all things and has high expectaions of all things, if you can't do that you can't help me make better art.


Franklin said...

I thought Amy had closed this thread, since my last comment didn't appear. On the contrary, I gather from the appearance of Bellows's comment that she did not see fit to post it. This is puzzling, but in the interest of answering Edmontonian's last remarks, here we go again.

My criticism was not that the imaginary discussion is sinister, but that it's ersatz, and not that academic postmodernism is sinister, but that it freights assertions with attributed motives and lapses into cant. I cited examples from Fung's article, so it's not generalization, as you put it. I see that you're not disputing my comments about said article. I imagine that my replies to this post could "read like" anything, given enough bad faith.