Feedback: it’s a crucial part of any artistic endeavor. And yet, it’s often one we’re not particularly good at as artists. Feedback is a place of intense vulnerability, and we fear the pain that often comes from seeking criticism. Sometimes we’re the ones doing the hurting when we criticize. And so I thought I’d offer what help I can in navigating this difficult process.
When I brought an earlier draft of this piece to my feedback group, people reacted negatively to the word “critic”. That term brought up images of a person who’s eager to tear apart any work they can get their claws into and disembowel it in search of flaws. One reader opened her thesaurus in search of alternatives, only to find that all the synonyms for “critic” also had negative connotations. So instead of picking a different word, I hope to redeem the one we have, showing how critics can be like doctors: people dedicated to helping and wholeness.
If this sounds good to you, and you want to be a critic for good and not evil, the key is to remember that it’s not your job to make someone else’s piece into what you think it should be. Nor is it particularly to make it into what the intended audience wants or needs; that’s the artist’s job. Instead, your job is to help the artist turn their piece into what they want it to be. The key here is humility and a heart ready to serve.
Firstly, remember to point out the good in the piece. Receiving harsh feedback can be devastating to an artist, so it’s important to point out the positive aspects as much as the negative ones. This helps the artist remember they are skilled and can create beautiful things. It also makes sure they don’t scrap the best parts when they’re reworking the piece. And as a bonus for you, if you’re hoping the artist takes your feedback, adding in some bits that encourage them helps them swallow the parts they won’t enjoy. If you can’t see any good in a piece and don’t appreciate the potential it holds, it’s likely you aren’t the right person to be giving feedback on it.
Secondly, it’s your job to suggest areas for improvement, not dictate changes. Some artists need help figuring out what to do, especially if they’re inexperienced, and you might consider giving them some extra guidance. But once you point out a weakness to an experienced artist, they’ll often understand the problem and know how to fix it, and their fix will be truer to their vision for the piece than anything you could recommend. Whatever you do, do not argue. You can explain what you meant and why you think that change is important if you think the artist would appreciate it, but it’s not your job to convince them you’re right and they got it wrong. It’s their name on the piece, not yours, for a reason.
Thirdly, be careful to avoid assuming you know everything. It’s tempting to take on the role of the wizened master who has all the answers and bestows them on the unworthy artist. But there’s a mark of good feedback, and it’s a question mark. A quality critic’s feedback is filled with questions like “This is coming across as __________ ; was that intentional?” or “What do you think about trying __________?” You’re never going to understand the artist’s piece better than they understand it themselves, and to pretend otherwise is foolishness. The true masters are always asking questions; that’s how they got to be masters.
On Receiving Criticism
The thing about receiving feedback is to remember that art is a collaborative process and you need other people. No matter how wonderful your vision is, your perspective is still limited. A critic is taking their valuable time to further your ambitions, usually without any chance of recognition from anyone but you, and it’s important to value their input. Humility comes into play in receiving feedback as much as it does in giving it.
So the first thing to watch out for when receiving criticism is your own ego. I heard someone once compare putting your work up for feedback to having someone come in and criticize your child. I relate to the vulnerability that expresses. Pride doesn’t like hearing that your work could be better, and it will fill your mind with all sorts of reasons as to why the person giving feedback is attacking you and is a wicked person who can be ignored. But that mindset blocks the path to excellence, while humility allows you to glean good insights from even the most inept feedback.
Secondly, never argue with your critic. It’s your piece; you can do whatever you want with it, and you’re not accountable to the critic for the choices you make. So why do you have to prove them wrong? This is the ego again, protecting you from the pain of feeling like you’ve made a mistake. If you really think a piece of feedback is wrong, treat it like a gift you don’t want; smile and say, “Thank you,” and then put it in storage and never use it. But don’t disrespect someone’s freewill gift of criticism by trying to push them into admitting they were wrong to give it.
Thirdly, realize that humility doesn’t mean believing you’re terrible. False humility would have you believe you aren’t as great as God says you are and that the gifts He’s given you are garbage to be discarded. This is just pride donning a mask and telling you to trust your limited understanding over God’s Word. Don’t listen. Instead, make sure you’re talking with God about how He sees you so that when someone says something hurtful about your piece, it doesn’t shake your identity. And make sure you know what your piece is and what you’re trying to do so that you can accept advice that makes it more of what it’s supposed to be, but reject suggestions that would have you turn your work into something it’s not.
Fourth, even criticism that you know is flawed can still be useful. The more often you get the same piece of feedback from different critics, the more you need to consider if that’s how you want your piece to be viewed, and if not, make the necessary changes. When you get a suggested fix that doesn’t work for your piece, take a moment to look past the surface. The suggested changes might be wrong, but what was bothering the critic that they made the suggestion in the first place? Asking yourself that question can often reveal flaws you didn’t notice–ones that you can fix in new and innovative ways.
Fifth, if someone’s putting in the time to give you feedback, don’t waste their efforts. Keep a list of all the parts of your piece you’re unsure about, and ask how they received that. “How did you react to this section?” “I was trying to do this; did I succeed?” “Do you think it would have been improved if I had done x instead of y?” “What is your favorite part?”
Finally, remember why you’re doing this. As an artist, you are working to glorify God, but you usually want to bring benefit to an audience as well. If your piece isn’t getting through to the audience the way you’ve made it, it’s your job as an artist to rework it for their good, not proclaim that it’s fine as is and insist you deserve a better audience. That may be true, but it runs contrary to the example of grace. The Son of Man came to serve and not be served, and He expects His followers to do the same.
You’ve probably been reminded of some instances where you handled criticism incorrectly, and maybe you’ve even hurt someone in the process. Don’t get discouraged. It’s a part of being human. Repent, ask for forgiveness, and move on. Everyone makes mistakes; that’s why we solicit feedback. But the most important part is to keep moving forward.
And that brings us to the end of this blog post. If you have anything to add or any suggestions on how I can improve next time, please comment below. I value your feedback.
Cameron Miller, writer
Photo by raf vit on Unsplash