On Having Thick Skin: How to Take Rude Comments and Critiques

May 24, 2021

Based on recent comments from the CDC and local officials, it looks like the masks are off and we may soon return to some level of normalcy. With that, I’m hoping we soon see the return of in-person art events like gallery openings and art fairs. There is a sense of intimacy about meeting an artist, talking about their work, and sharing the same space with them that cold digital meeting spaces can hardly represent. With the eventual return to art events, we may all have to retrain ourselves on what it takes to discuss our art with strangers.

We’re often told that it takes “thick skin” to be an artist. It’s not always easy to open yourself to the criticism that accompanies the role of the art-maker. I suppose you could say it’s one of the biggest downsides of the position – whether you see yourself as a hobbyist or as a career professional.

I’ve had someone once tell me that my work, “Looks like something I would take to the dump!,” which is both hilarious and true (I make assemblage from rusted metal). You really have to be able to shrug off comments like these.

What makes people say such horrible things? Is it intentional? Are they really determined to “take you down a notch” or are they just ignorant? If we put our egos aside, it’s probably not intended as bad as you might imagine. People make awkward or just plain rude comments for a few reasons, and most of them are completely forgivable – and forgettable.

1 – People feel the need to fill the empty space of conversation. If you’ve ever shown your work in public -you’ve been there, you just introduced someone to your art with your elevator speech about who you are, what drives your art, what it’s all about, etc. Once you wrap up your spiel, the spotlight then turns to the viewer. The unspoken rules of American culture imply that they now must add something to the conversation. Where a simple “Thanks for sharing,” would suffice, they feel the need to add something more, and it might come out as, “that’s an awful lot of yellow,” or “what kind of (points to an insignificant object in your painting) is that supposed to be?”

2 – They might not know how to talk about art. Not everyone at an art event is prepared to “talk shop” with an artist. Reminder – it is possible for people to love and appreciate art without having all of the art-school vocabulary or understanding of art history.

3 – They might not understand your art. Your art is probably not for everyone – especially if you are following your own path and creating something new and interesting. Some people at gallery openings or art fairs are just looking for something that matches their couch.

4 – They may be jealous or suspicious. Some (uninformed) people think that art is surely the greatest scam/money making scheme in the history of man. They look at the price tag, and say out loud, “$500 for THAT?!” Of course, they haven’t sat down with the artist and a calculator to see the price of materials, the booth fee for an art festival, the gas/mileage it took to get there, the price of art classes, the framing, the money and effort spent on all the pieces that didn’t sell, and then lastly – and most importantly, the artist’s time. Such critics would quickly realize that it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any measure. If you ever want to humbled, think about how many shows you have the opportunity to actually participate in over the course of a year, how many sales you think you’d need to consider it a success, minus the venue’s commission and see what the net income works itself out to be. Maybe it’s different for you, but for me, it’s hardly a get-rich-quick scheme. In fact, there’s an old joke where an artist wins the lottery – millions of dollars. Reporters show up and ask him what he’ll do with the winnings, to which he replies, “I’m just gonna keep making art until the money runs out.”

5 – They may be trying to help. A rude comment from someone trying to offer advice is by far the most difficult to unpack. In fact, the comment might not be rude at all, and may be legitimate and valuable advice, depending on who it’s coming from, their tone, and your relationship to them. The comment might also be entirely out of ignorance. Before you let an “unwanted advice” comment sink in, you really have to consider whether or not you value the opinion of the person offering it. If it’s solid advice, the comment might not be what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear.

Even if your art didn’t resonate with someone, and they felt the need to tell you about it, take that as a compliment. The ultimate goal in sharing art is to make someone feel something. If they felt that they didn’t like it, that it was awful, derivative, etc. – take pride in knowing that you caused a response. You made a ripple in someone’s pool of thought.

When I lead children on field trips at the Art Center of the Bluegrass, I ask them to respond to each piece of art we discuss with a thumbs up (yay, I love it!) or a thumbs down (ugh, not for me!). Then we discuss why we love it or not. In the discussion, sometimes kids might change their mind once they learn more about the artist, the subject matter, or how the piece was made. I do this exercise because I think it’s important that children develop the ability to make their own decisions about art and to trust their instincts about their own aesthetic sensibility. All too often, I feel that children are told that they absolutely must like this artwork or that musical piece because of its historic relevance, and little space is left for them to make their own decisions of whether or not it’s something that they enjoy.

When leading field trips, I always reinforce that even though we may not like a particular piece of art, that we appreciate that someone took the time and courage to share a work of art with us. I also share that as an artist, the greatest compliment that we can receive (short of someone purchasing it, LOL) is that our art made someone feel. The greatest insult to an artist is not expressing that you don’t like it. The greatest insult is to walk by a work of art without it making an impact at all.

So next time, you’re at an opening or art fair and someone is discussing your work, and it takes a turn for the worse – distance yourself from the conversation by taking your ego out of the question, realize that it’s not directly about you, and learn to actually enjoy their commentary. Rather than fretting about the potential for each conversation to go awry, learn to look forward to those great moments when someone puts their foot in their mouth. Comments like, “Looks like something I’d take to the dump,” really do make for the best “survivor stories.”

I’d love to hear from you. What are the absolute worst comments people have made about your art and how did you handle them? Drop me an email at brandon@artcenterky.org