This article is by regular contributing writer, Mark Edward Adams. Mark is a modern sculptor born in Tucson, Arizona and raised in the Phoenix area in a family full of artists and musicians. He was trained in classical figurative sculpture but eventually gravitated toward a modern expressive style focusing on animals. His work has been exhibited at the Gilcrease Museum, Tampa Museum of Art, Brookgreene Gardens, and in private collections in the United States and Europe. In 2013, Mark was awarded the prestigious “Beverly Hoyt Robertson Memorial Award” by the National Sculpture Society for an outstanding sculptor under the age of 40. He has been featured in a variety of publications including Western Art and Architecture, American Art Collector, Fine Art Connoisseur and on the NBC TV show “Art Pulse”.
Most people that critique your work do not know as much about art as you do. They have not spent years learning the craft and immersing themselves in the history of art. Often times their judgment is based on what they have seen casually in museums or galleries. While one cannot state that a person’s feeling about a work of art is wrong, it can be detrimental to your progress as an artist if you listen to them.
An analogy of this occurrence can be seen in the culinary world with the celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. He was the youngest chef to earn a Michelin star and would eventually run a three Michelin star restaurant. In the world of fine dining, this is near perfection. Then in 1999, he famously gave back his stars stating that he was tired of being judged by people who had less culinary knowledge than himself. White understood that heeding the advice of these less knowledgeable food critics would prevent growth and innovation.
This phenomenon can take on many forms in the art world. I remember when I applied for membership to an art organization, I was rejected and they included a critique of my work. One of the main points of contention was that I could not properly render the legs of a horse. If you look at my work you will notice that I often make the legs of my horses straight like sticks. I am well aware that the legs of a horse are not like sticks and my stylization is not new in the art world.
I immediately knew these people who judged my work did not know the history of equine art. They have most likely never studied the ancient Chinese horse sculpture of the Tang or Han dynasty. And most likely they are not aware of artists such as Alberto Giacometti or Marino Marini who stylized their work in a similar manner to my own. When they looked at my piece they only saw legs that did not match what they had seen in the past.
If I took their critique seriously I would have changed my style so I could fit into their worldview of art. If I followed this path I would have lost my personal style and it would have prevented my further growth as an artist. I, instead, realized this organization was not for me. The judges lacked some of the basics of art history.
I point out this one event, yet this sort of judgment happens to artists all the time. A random stranger may point out an error in your work or another artist who has a different style may give advice to improve a piece. While these people may have good intentions, they know less about your artistic style than you do. You should ignore their criticism completely.
If you examine historical figures who were judged harshly by those who knew less you will find artists like Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Rodin, Turner, Modigliani, and Rothko. Each of these artists were on the cutting edge of innovation and few people understood their intent in the early years.
Rodin was judged so harshly for his sculpture of the French writer Balzac that it was removed the public view. The sculpture of Balzac was very rough and impressionistic and was not an exact copy of Balzac’s exact physical appearance. But Rodin knew his physical appearance by heart and even measured Balzacs’ old clothes from his tailor. He spent months creating a realistic version of the man and realized that it should be distorted in order to capture the character of deceased writer. Rodin understood the process far better than his judges. Years later this piece would be viewed as a masterpiece.
I am not advocating that you should stop listening to all critiques of your work. Critiques are an essential component to your education as an artist. But you should only be listening to people who definitely know more about your style than you do. This is often from a mentor or accomplished teacher. Besides giving critiques of your work, they can also dispel the erroneous remarks of others who judge your work.
The life of an artist is never easy. In order to find your personal style and innovate, you must move past the judgments of those who know less. This means you will have to grow a thick skin. You must move forward with the confidence that your work can stand on its own despite harsh words from others. As the director Francis Ford Coppola explained, the things that receive the most criticism in the beginning are often the same things that brings you the most praise later in life.
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