The Value of a Good Critique

Whatever your endeavor, it is important to expose yourself to critique, and equally important to learn how to handle it. Learning to be critiqued and not feel stung is a very powerful tool that can be honed with practice. Practice can slowly trickle in over the course of a career (I could wallpaper a whole house with the rejection letters I have received) or you can actively seek it out to speed up your learning process.

When I was young and spending some time in NYC I decided to go around to some galleries peddling my portfolio. In retrospect that endeavor seems so misplaced and naïve but the experience gave me something that has continued to benefit me to this day. Obviously I was setting myself up to receive constant rejection and dismissal, which I did. I continued anyway, telling myself, “Okay, three more rejections then I can pause for lunch,” and so forth. Occasionally I would meet a gallerist who admired my tenacity or felt sorry for me and would throw me some words of encouragement, but that is not why I continued in this pursuit for days. I continued because I felt something very powerful happening. I was realizing that I still felt okay about myself and still felt okay about my artwork despite the brutal responses from most of the people I was pestering. Feeling okay anyway made me giddy with power, like I had on a bulletproof vest and could get shot and nothing would happen. I was learning that my own belief in myself was more powerful than someone else’s. I was learning that I was my own validation. I felt like an invincible superhero when it was all done. That core belief in yourself is pretty necessary if you want to be comfortable putting your creative endeavors out into the world, and pretty necessary if you want to be able to gain as much as possible from critiques.

Now I can’t pretend that this invincibility is always the rule. When I am emotionally tied to an outcome from a certain person I can feel defensive about their critique, but I am aware of the sensation and try to treat it as such – just a sensation that can be superseded by intellect. I have also learned that there are people to whom I can’t relate, who come at the discussion only from the perspective of their own art needs and mindset, who seem to continually sap my confidence and instill doubt in me about my direction. I have learned to take these critiques as an opportunity to see how my work might be fitting into someone’s larger view of the art world without feeling the need to abandon my own course. If I am sure that I am not being defensive or personalizing a review and the person tends to regularly give assessments that leave me feeling defeated, I decide to avoid that person’s opinion.
A poor critiquer directs. A good critiquer elucidates. A good critique invites you to further explore. A bad critique leaves you feeling like you ought to be trying to be somebody else. You can learn the difference through experience. Don’t miss out on the value of the former by avoiding the discomfort of the latter. And don’t worry, I will have to remind myself to reread this after my next critique.