I participated in a group show in another city, and an art critic wrote a review of the show and totally dissed my work! He called it “underwhelming.” UNDERWHELMING. I feel like roadkill. I’m heartbroken. I know I shouldn’t care about what others think, and I should just move on but my brain won’t stop harping on it. This is only the second time anyone at all has written something about my work. I’m wallowing in my own self-loathing. Not to mention, I’m just … embarrassed. Please help me get over this, Sara. Tell me it’s not that bad.
First, take a deep breath. Inhale through your nose, exhale out your mouth. Listen to my words: the world is not ending; your career is not over. You, pumpkin spice, are going to bounce back from this and shoot up high into the stars forever and ever.
Now, we need to get you leveled-out, so let’s start by talking about me. I’m a person who writes a lot about art. I also occasionally diss people’s stuff. Thus, I have a some things to impart to you that I’m confident will help you put this into perspective.
Number one: it’s all just opinion. What that critic said is one person’s opinion. There are now, oh lord, over seven billion people roaming this wild planet? So, if we’re talking percentages, one out of seven billion is insanely negligible. Doesn’t even register on the charts. Now, I know that’s hard to remind yourself, because that one single person’s opinion just happens to be the one that got written down and blasted out to your peers. That does suck. But it doesn’t mean it should matter any more to you than your good buddy Andrew, who’s opinion didn’t get published, but who looked you directly in the eyeballs and said, in the most sincere and soft voice you’ve ever heard, that he thought your work was amazing. That, my love, is worth its weight in gold.
So let’s ask ourselves, what does it mean to be an art critic? Good art critics are trying to creating a larger discourse around art and help artists (like you) by dishing thoughtful analysis and constructive feedback—which is highly valuable. Most of the time, artists and writers and musicians get zero feedback from people who aren’t their moms. You slave and slave away at your craft, and in large part, no one really takes the time to truly consider what you’re producing and provide commentary on it. So, considering the peanuts writers gets paid for criticism these days, it really is an act of deep, expansive love.
Being an art critic means you’re willing to step up to the plate, think hard about a particular work of art, and voice your opinion about it publicly. If a good critic disses you, they SHOULD elaborate in a way that helps you rethink that aspect of your work. And you should be grateful for that and try to gain something from it because that is how we grow as people and professionals. From distress and struggle, we gain strength, right?
Way back in the 18th century, my boy Thomas Paine wrote a very good thing in a book called The American Crisis. He said, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” I think he was really onto something there.
(P.S. If the writer didn’t diss your work in a constructive way, then screw them, they’re not doing it right.)
Also, while doling out your opinions as a critic may sound like a gambol in a field of daisies, it’s not. Critics set their thoughts out in the world to be scrutinized, too, just like you did with your art. In the case of the critic, some readers applaud them: “Well done!” they say. Others viciously berate them: “You’re pea-brained thoughts are dumb and worthless!” Subjective opinion is a gun barrel everyone is looking down.
For you, the gun fired this time, and you got hurt. But remember when 50 Cent got shot nine times and then rocketed to a new goddamn stratosphere of existence when he released the seminal chart-topper “In Da Club”? He didn’t let haters get him down—and I’m not going to let them get to you either.
Now, am I saying don’t respect critics’ opinions? No, of course not! They are an indispensable cog in our whole operation, and often help us judge art on its substance and rather than its price tag. Plus, they think about a great deal of all kinds of art—and they likely have a decent idea of where yours falls in the general landscape of what they’ve encountered.
That said, critics rarely ever come to a complete consensus on any art. If you’d had 15 different critics opine about your work, they’d all say different things. What happened to you, sweetness, was that you got the one who wasn’t all that into it. And that sucks for you, but you’ve got to believe that there might be 14 other critics who would’ve loved it.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to renowned paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared. Her writing and art criticism has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.