A Humorous but Comforting Take on Why People Say Cruel Things To Creatives & How To Recover.
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Ever been punched in the gut and splooged on by pigeons at the same time?
That’s what receiving an unforgivably harsh critique of your art or writing can feel like.
But before I get to why I think certain yoyos splatter on unsuspecting artists and how to respond if you get splattered upon— I want you to know something.
Some very magnificent artists have worn the same pigeon- splooged jacket you may be donning right now.
Take Matisse for example.
Henri Matisse Put Up With Years of Harsh, Unsolicited Critiques
Did you know in Matisse’s early exhibiting years that groups of wealthy, ignorant, Parisian yoyos with zero empathy used to annually gather at the Salon d’Automne for the sole purpose of laughing at Matisse paintings?*1
Matisse was so humiliated by them he asked his wife to stay away.
But as we all know now, Matisse had the last laugh.
And like my artist friend Mary, you will too.
Mary’s Story of Receiving a Harsh Critique
Mary, a fine artist and Charmed studio subscriber was minding her own business making her beautiful paintings.
When a man asked her if she’d like to participate in his online gallery.
Mary checked out his gallery and sent him several jpegs of her pieces.
And here comes the shocking bit:
The gallerist responded to the submission he asked for with a nasty email declaring the majority of the work Mary sent in to be soulless pieces nobody would ever buy.
“I felt as if I’d been physically punched in the stomach,” said Mary.
What puzzled Mary the most was that in her thirty years of working as a professional artist and having countless meetings with gallery owners and art professionals, she had never had anyone say anything like that to her.
Why hadn’t she received this kind of critique before?
Because this wasn’t a professional critique.
IMO it was a personal attack — from a yoyo.
Constructive Critique Vs Personal Attack: Learn To Spot the Difference
Signs of a Constructive Critique
Real critiques are constructive. They strengthen you.
If you are the sensitive type like me, professional constructive critiques may sting for 5 minutes, or put the fear of God into you for ten. But that sting, fear, or embarrassment is temporary. It often soon morphs into agreement and even excitement.
After a bit of recovery time (which varies with each artist and each situation), a constructive critique will eventually have you running back, not walking back, to your studio to implement the new perspective you’ve been gifted with.
There are 3 signs I can think of that signal you’ve received an emotional attack, not a professional critique.
Here they are.
3 Signs of an Emotional Attack
Sign 1. You feel humiliated.
Emotional attacks are often intended to shame artists.
You know you’ve received one if you feel humiliated.
Mary told me she had benefited from the scores of tough but fair constructive critiques she’d received in the past.
“The difference in this instance was,” said Mary, “that I felt put down — humiliated.”
Sign 2. Internal Bullying Begins
The second sign you’ve been on the receiving end of an emotional attack vs a constructive critique is that you start shaming or bullying yourself.
A chorus of cruelly creative voices in your head begins beating on pots and whispering nasty things to you.
And I’m sure you know when those vile guys start in on you, you consider doing all kinds of self-destructive things, like the following.
Sign 3. You Start Thinking About Giving Up on Artmaking
Unlike a professional critique, an emotional attack often makes you doubt whether you should keep doing the very thing that makes your soul sing — making art.
(Many of us artists had shut ourselves down for decades because some jerk of a grade school, high school, or college “art teacher” served us an emotional attack disguised as an art critique.)
We believe these yoyos at the time because they are in supposed positions of authority. They do the initial damage and we pile on ourselves and do the rest.
Mary describes this perfectly: “At first I feared there was perhaps only a grain of truth in what the gallery owner said.”
Eventually, though it got worse. Mary began to fear the gallerist was right because his words were a confirmation of her secret fear.
“That fear being that the quality of my work has gone downhill, that my best years are already behind me, and that I’m only trying to hide the fact that I’m a second-rate artist and a fraud. I had a classic case of imposter syndrome.”
Can you relate? I can.
But right about now, you may be asking yourself, ‘Why on earth would someone say something so hurtful and ridiculous to an artist?
3 Big Reasons Certain People Dole out Non-Constructive Critiques
1. In my opinion ( I’m not a therapist), harsh, unsolicited “critiques” sometimes are handed out like Halloween candy by narcissists.
Narcissists can have zero empathy and seem to love to dole out attacks disguised as critiques.
Some narcissists actually enjoy knowing that their words have provoked a painful reaction in others.
Your fear, anger, or devastation can act as Miracle-Gro for narcissists because it can give them what psychologists sometimes refer to as “narcissistic supply.”
But it could also just be garden variety envy that caused someone to lash out at you.
2. Unsolicited, harsh art “critiques” can stem from envy.
Non-narcissistic yoyos may attack out of envy.
As I told Mary if you’ve been a serious creative long enough, you eventually encounter people who unconsciously wish they could paint like you, write like you, act, or dance like you.
In Mary’s case, I would add they also wish they could or would travel as she has and see what she’s seen. Or if they have traveled-they wish they could see the beauty of the world as she does.
Have you ever noticed some people can have all the money and time in the world but still don’t see the poetry and beauty you see in it?
Secretly, that makes some of these folks mad as hell.
Which takes us to reason three yoyos may have attacked you or your art.
3. Some folks emotionally attack artists as a form of resistance.
Unsolicited harsh critiques can come from strangers, friends, or even family members who are not painting, not writing, not acting, etc.
Steven Pressfield calls this avoidance, resistance; it’s a universal force he claims acts against human creativity.
These folks want to create like you but they’re scared.
So they try to jam a stick in the spokes of your new, tangerine orange, Huffy 10 Speed with the streamers on the handles.
So how should one respond to these spoke-stickers?
How To Respond to a Harsh Critique
I was sorely tempted to send the guy that hurt the lovely-souled Mary a Xerox copy of my rump.
However, Mary, being more mature than me, opted to send a business-like email back to the gallerist explaining the majority of her work was tied up in exhibits at the moment.
But artist and art biz author, Laura Den Hertog thinks the best response is often no response.
Den Hertog counsels artists and writers who receive an emotional attack to:
“Walk away and let out a huge sigh of relief that you cottoned on to what an abusive idiot someone was early on before you have invested more of your precious time, energy, and art into them.”
Stopping yourself from engaging and walking away is an act of self-love that strengthens your future resilience.
When you do this you send a signal to yourself that you don’t engage with non-professionals or emotional hooligans.
This allows to bounce back quicker and get back to being fabulous and making fabulous art.
One Way to Bounce Back After a Harsh Critique
I’m happy to report Mary has let go of the critique and returned to her studio to paint.
She wisely decided it would help her to look at positive feedback she’d received in the past about her art. This reminded Mary that people do in fact respond to what comes from her heart, and they also buy it.
(Check out The Charmed Studio Post: Why You Need a Feel Good File: The Recovery Tool No Artist Should Be Without.)
“After feeling self-conscious and insecure at first (am I going to make another soulless piece of trash?), I decided I am just going to paint whatever I damn well please,” said Mary.
The Silver Lining In Every Harsh Art Critique
Den Hertog points out that surprisingly, harsh critiques can actually be a good thing for artists because they sharpen our “jerk radar.”
These events can act as big, flashing neon directional signs that steer us away from potential icebergs that can temporarily shipwreck our art practice.
“Pay attention to the signs, especially if they say: “No”, or “Don’t Go Here With Your Art,” or “Beware – This Guy Is a Colossal Ass!,” said Den Hertog.
And speaking of art, asses, resilience, and critique, I want to end with one of my favorite Georgia O’Keeffe stories.
Take Critique Like O’Keeffe
In the Spring of 1961 O’Keeffe hand-delivered a painting to the Edith Halpert gallery in NYC for her upcoming show.
“Upon seeing what O’Keeffe had brought, Halpert sighed, ‘Oh Georgia, is that another flower?’
The accomplished artist snapped, ‘No, Edith it’s my ass!’”*2
And knowing Georgia O’Keeffe she probably added, “Where do you want me to hang it?”
Moral of the story:
When you are considering getting sidelined by sarcastic comments, even if it’s not a harsh critique, why not follow Georgia’s example?
Use your humor.
Pull-on your cowgirl boots
Summon up your grit.
Keep making art – your way.
Keep shining dear.
And if all else fails, just ask ’em where you should hang that picture of your ass.
*1 This Is Matisse by Catherine Ingram, p16.
*2 Taken from my interview with Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keefe.
Were you ever sidelined by a harsh art or writing critique?
Any words of encouragement for Mary or other artists?
Let us know in the comments below.
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