FINDING YOUR TRIBE

Today’s post, Finding Your Tribe, originally appeared on Fine Art Views, a daily art marketing blog for Fine Art Studios Online

 Unfortunately, artists are people, too.

 I remember the first time I did a major fine craft show.  It was amazing!

 Oh, sure there were the expected (and unexpected) obstacles to overcome. These shows are incredibly expensive to do—booth fees, meals, transportation, marketing. The realization that your track lighting issues are going to get even worse. The nerve-wracking experience of packing, set-up, break-down, and everything in between.

But then there is the wonderful side, and that’s all about the people. Gallery owners who really love your work. Show coordinators who eventually become good friends.

And finding your tribe.

At one event, a major national wholesale show, I met people I previously only knew through our conversations on a professional discussion forum. (Remember those? I miss them. Sort of. Keep reading!) I distinctly remember thinking, “I’ve found my tribe!”

 For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were creative makers, like me. People who took their work seriously. People who were true professionals (for the most part) about getting their art into the world.  People who focused on doing excellent work, who worked at their craft daily, who sent their kids to college and paid their mortgage doing the work of their heart. People who laughed, shared information readily, supported other artists.

It was a magical year.

After a year or so, though, a few chinks appeared.

There were people who took shortcuts in their process, making it all about the money.

There were people who copied, diligently.

There were people who resented “newbies”, angry about people who “hadn’t paid their dues,” people who were envious of newcomers who won accolades and awards so “easily”.

There were people who were envious. People who were intensely annoying. People with obvious mental health issues. People with egos so big, they took all the air out of any room they enterted.

I tend to accrue a lot of information when I try something new, and I love to share it. (In fairness, tru dat.) So a few people let me know I was an upstart know-it-all with a big head.

And a very few people went out of their way to be obnoxious, to the point of bullying.

Where was my tribe?? I felt broken-hearted.

It took me years to come to terms with this unpleasant knowledge. (I still struggle, I admit that freely.) And now I know this to be true:

Artists are people, too.

In fact, some of the factors that make for a successful (however we define “successful”) artist can make for a difficult human being.

We have to make your art a priority. We have to believe in ourselves, especially when times are hard. We have to trust our process, sometimes to the exclusion of everyone else’s process. We (sometimes) have to fight work hard for our place in the world.

Sometimes this means: We believe we are always Number One. We believe no one else’s opinions matter. We believe our way is the only way. We believe when someone else gets a bigger piece of the pie, we won’t get our own piece.

One summer, after a particularly grueling interaction with someone who was making my professional (and personal) life miserable, another artist finally said, “We can’t all be the Buddha.” “Hah!” I thought resentfully. “I’m just asking her to leave me alone!”

Unfortunately, we really can’t be the Buddha. And in my case, the Buddha would probably be, “Quit trying to fix/change/out-argue those people! You can’t win!”

Because life is filled with difficult people, and creative people are no exception. If anything, we get judged harsher because we are creative people, because we’re supposed to be happier, more fulfilled, livin’ the dream.

And so, instead, I try to see them as, not a problem to be fixed, but an obstacle to get around.

It’s hard. I want to be friends with everyone. (Don’t say it, I know. I know. I KNOW!!!) I have an open heart, and I keep forgetting to put up big effin’ fences when I need to. I consider myself a student of life, and pursuing my art has enriched me on all levels—especially the learning part!

So when it feels like you’ve been voted off the island, consider the source.

Do the people I know and trust support me? Or do they gently suggest I still have some growin’ to do?

Do these people really block my path? Or are they just an inconvenient moment in my life I have to get through?

Can I learn to truly see the good in people who kinda suck are not perfect? (Note: Please do not excuse or make up a story about people with extreme malignant narcissism/sociopathy. Just get away.)

And most important, when the weight of personalities lie heavy on me, I can always go to the sacred creative space of my studio, and get back to making the work of my heart.

Do you have a good story about how you dealt with a difficult person in your art career? Enquiring minds want to know!!

 

 

 

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THE NEWLYWED GAME

I’ve been away, but I’ve also been thinking.

Here’s my post for Fine Art Views, that appeared on November 17, 2016.

The Newlywed Game

by Luann Udell on 11/17/2016 10:04:07 AM

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 Yes, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

 Four years ago, we came to California after an exhausting year in New Hampshire. Both our adult children had been in extreme danger. Our mantra, when people asked, was, “Nobody died!”  And we meant it with all our heart.

Still, nobody wants to get that phone call at midnight, and two of them had definitely taken a toll. A friend suggested we take a vacation, just my partner and I. “We’re fine!” we insisted. The suggestion got stronger. And we listened.

 My husband was a long-distance employee of a West Coast company. Long story short, his job was disappearing soon. We decided to fly to Washington to see what could be salvaged there, and then drive down the Pacific Coast, then fly back from San Francisco.

 Turns out the job was a lost cause. So we started a thousand-mile journey subdued, anxious, not knowing what was going to happen next nor what we should do.

 The restorative power of the ocean, the wild landscape, the light, the winding roads, soon healed our souls. Unusual for us, we had nary a bicker nor a cross word. (We were nicknamed “the Bickersons” early on in our nearly-forty-year relationship, and we try to live up to it every day.)

And on that trip, we fell so deeply in love with Northern California, six months later, we decided to move there.

 We put our home up for sale, and sold or donated almost 75% of our possessions (we had a full attic, a mudroom, a basement, a garage, and a two-story barn, and we I had filled them all.) We filled a shipping container with the rest (which went into storage), packed a car with everything we needed for a two-week trip (including our two big dogs) and started our last New Hampshire-to-California drive across country.

 Jon was losing his job any minute. We had no place to live. We had no agenda or plan, just to stop and see friends and family members along the way. We were leaving behind a life of 27 years, good friends, good times, good memories.

 It was exciting, and daunting at the same time. It was hard for some of our friends to cope. What were we doing?? Were we crazy??  How could we leave all this behind? And for what?? Earthquakes, sky-high housing prices, you name it, California was full of it.

 We told a friend’s mother, who was widowed, our “plan”. And she said the words that beautifully framed our biggest, latest life adventure:

 With a deep, happy sigh, she said, “Just like newlyweds….!!

 Those simple, wistful, yet powerful words set the tone for us, for our journey, and for the years ahead.

 How many times in life do we deliberately take a leap into the unknown? For most people (especially me!) we don’t. The older we get, the harder those choices become. Better to rely on the tried-and-true. Play it safe. Don’t rock the boat. Hunker down, and weather out the storm.

 And yet…..

 All ships are safe in harbor. But that’s not what ships are for.

 Coincidentally, we are also on another California trip, heading south to explore new places, fresh vistas. Simply a vacation, but again, with no agenda, no schedule. All we ask is for it to be another metaphor for the work that lies ahead.

 After the disappointing end to a scurrilous year, wondering what will survive of all the gains we’ve made in this country, we are all taking another leap into the great unknown. There is strange new territory ahead, one that looks formless and raunchy, full of hate bubbling over into hateful actions. Countless people are fearful because their gender, their skin color, their religion, is simply the wrong kind now.

 And yet…..

 Our role as artists is even more important than ever.

It may not feel like it. When times are hard, when people are afraid, they often hunker down. And art is not usually the kind of purchase they make when they don’t know what fresh hell is coming.

 Now it is even more important to create the work of our hearts.

 It’s even more important to help others see the true beauty of this world.

 It’s up to us to share our vision of what is light-filled, color-full, thought-provoking, and soul-deepening.

 When the towers fell in 9/11, I went to my studio in despair, sure the world had changed forever into a dark and dreary place.

 But instead, I found inspiration from the very cave that inspired me to pursue my own creative journey. The cave of Lascaux also dates to a time of great upheaval and frightening change. Those people saw their entire way of life in flux.

 Their choice, their powerful choice, was to send a message, a message we cannot ‘read’ as it was not addressed to us. They filled the cave walls with hauntingly beautiful images of running horses, leaping deer, agile aurochs—images that still create profound echoes in our modern hearts.

 Today, you and I start a new journey, too.

 Your art can heal the world.

You can do thia by sharing what is in YOUR heart, so your work will speak to the hearts of others. The act of making art is restorative. Share that with others, so that they can be restored to themselves, too.

 Stand with those who are given no place in the world. Speak up for those whose voices are not heard. Make room for those who are different than you. Support those who cannot stand alone. Feed those who are hungry. Hold the hands of those who are afraid. Sing. Write. Dance. Paint.

 However you bring joy into the world, do it now.

 Let them know the true role of the shaman/artist in the world….

 Teacher. Healer. Creator.

WHO IS A REAL ARTIST?

My column for Fine Art Views, on all the ways to make room for your art:

Who Is A Real Artist?

GETTING TO YOUR HAPPY (CREATIVE) PLACE

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 Good, constructive criticism is always a good thing. But we should also consider the source, and seek out our best people for triangulation.
I opened my journal today, and found an entry from a week ago.
It started, “I feel so….dead today…”  I went on to list all the things that were not going well, and how powerless I felt to change that. I had ‘failed’ at a workshop. I recalled cruel words about my work from a ‘friend’ years ago. My foot hurt. (I can really pile it on when I’m low!)
What did I write today? “And a week later, I am on fire with new ideas and designs!”
What happened in between??
To be truthful, not much. A change in the weather. A change of scenery. Meeting up with a good friend here and there. A good night’s sleep. Time. A glass of wine (or three!)
In short, everything that felt daunting and dreary a handful of days ago, has melted away, leaving new energy and enthusiasm in its wake.
We artists and creative people can easily fall prey to these passing mindsets. In order to create something new, we have to be open to the beauty in front of us, open and receptive to everything life throws at us.
Of course, that also means we sometimes forget to shut that door. We may leave ourselves open to a hostile remark, or the destructive narcissism of another person. The toxicity of the news can drain us. We may be heavily influenced by a powerful book or movie. We may care too much when someone is critical of our work, or our efforts, or our actions. Even something as simple as an idea that didn’t pan out, a painting that didn’t quite work the way we wanted, a design that wasn’t as exciting as we’d hope, can cause us to temporarily doubt our abilities and talents.
This was doubly proven to me today. A friend back East reached out to me recently. I held off getting back to them until I had ‘more time’ later today.
Then something caught my attention, something that made me realize I should call themnow. I followed that impulse, and remembered something powerful:
There are people in our lives who, when we stumble, will remember who we are. When we forget, they will hold us up until we can remember for ourselves again. 
After we talked, my friend exclaimed, “I feel so much better now! I’m so glad we talked!” I had to remind them I merely was repeating insights she had shared with me three years ago!
She held me up then. It was my turn to hold her up, now.
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I have to admit, simply HOLDING something I’ve created is often enough to reconnect me.

Journaling serves this purpose for me, especially when I’m in a hard place. It’s a way to get the buzzy voice out of my head, and down on paper, where it’s easier to test my assumptions. Are things really that bad? Is the situation permanent? Is it something I can fix, or something I can simply let go for now? Is there someone who can offer me another point of view? Or someone I can ‘triangulate’ with, someone who will confirm my perception, yet (or ‘and so’) offer me guidance?

Of course, some art, great art, is created because of the very hard places we find ourselves in. Picasso’s Guernica is an obvious example.
Yet a more subtle example is Lawrence Weschler’s essay, “Vermeer in Bosnia” (in his book by the same name).
During the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal years ago, Weschler spoke with a jurist who had to listen to horrific testimony for weeks on end. The jurist mentioned that he found peace and comfort in the Mauritshuis museum, with its collection of Vermeer paintings.
The final irony is, Vermeer’s intimate glimpses of quiet domesticity were actually created during a time of similar horror and violence. “Only Lawrence Weschler could reveal the connections between the twentieth century’s Yugoslav wars and the equally violent Holland in which Vermeer created his luminously serene paintings….
An artist creates a place for quiet contemplation, during a time of intense war and destruction, which, centuries later, creates another respite in an equally heinous period in our modern times.
Friendship. Journaling. Rest. A walk, or a drive in the country. A faithful dog or sleeping cat. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine (or three!)….
What restores you to your happy, creative frame of mind?

BRING OUT YER DEAD

Today’s post was originally published on Fine Art Views

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 Don’t bury your lead. Keep it up front, in its most powerful position.

 I love helping people write artist statements. Especially if I’ve had an opportunity to actually sit and talk with the artist. Especially if I’ve had an opportunity to pound them over the head with this one simple question:

 Why should I care about your art?
I try to tread carefully. I know how deeply artists care about their work, and what they want to say about it.
OTOH, if I have to read one more artist statement about line, color, texture, about boundaries and schisms, about anything that could have come from an Artsy Bollocks, I swear I will do damage to someone.
If I have a chance to meet with someone, or at least talk with them, my job gets easier. Because everyone has a story, a reason, a turning point in their history, that’s the deeper “why” about what they do.
And coincidentally, usually this powerful reason, if they include it at all, is at the very end of their statement.
It’s called burying your lead.
This writing structure is the bane of journalism and professional writing. We run on about our background, our training, our credentials, our methods, our materials, our media, etc. etc. And there, at the very end, is the deeper reason for it all.
It’s natural. Many of us were not raised to share our deepest, richest thoughts and history. We worry we’ll embarrass ourselves, admitting to pain, or loss, or even joy. No, we must be professional. Which means not a single sentimental, fluffy, unmanly thought will pass our lips. Er…pencil.
Here’s why it’s time to change that:
I know people who have known each other a very long time. They’re all artists themselves. They’ve also spent years—decades!—actually working in art galleries.
Over the years, there’s been a marked change in the world of art marketing. “It used to be,” said one, “Artists created work for the market. They figured out what was selling, and they worked accordingly, finding their niche in that market.”
“And now it’s flipped! The trend is to make the work that is unique to you—and find your market for it!”
That’s why the old artist statement style of the past is no longer working.
People want to know who you are.
People want to know why you make the work you do.
A few artists are sticking their toes into the new water. It’s very hard. It goes against everything they’ve seen to date.
But what we gain when we open our hearts, and stop hiding behind our work, is huge. It’s powerful.
This doesn’t mean your new statement has to read like a letter to Dear Abby. No need to hang all our dirty laundry in public.
But you need to understand….
Everyone has lost someone.**
Everyone wants to be loved, and respected, for who they are.
Everyone is longing for something.
Everyone needs to be protected from something.
Everyone has obstacles to overcome.
Everyone has a dream in their heart.
Because we are all human.
Our individual stories are as unique as we are. And yet we are all connected by common themes, similar fears, shared needs, and dreams.
It is also right on trend to be vulnerable. It’s now perfectly acceptable to wear your heart on your sleeve.  It’s been my own mantra for years. And now we have company!
Because other people want what you have—a vision, a talent, a gift, a story—for themselves.
And when you share what you’ve lost, what you’ve gained, what you’ve found, what you’ve learned, what you’ve overcome, you are actually setting an example for them.
You’re showing them it can be done. You’re showing them how to do it.
That is the power of our true narrative. It helps us connect the work of our hand, the work of our hearts, to the hearts of others. Your story can inspire. It can heal. It can encourage.
So go out on a limb today.
Get out your artist statement. Cross out every reference to education, technique, medium, credentials.
You can only reference one or two of these, if you can share why you chose this medium, this technique. (And no, “Because I just love color” is not enough.)  For example, one reason I chose polymer clay to make my artifacts is, no animals are harmed in the making. (E.g., I don’t want to use real bone or ivory.)

“There’s a really good reason why I use polymer clay to make my artifacts.”
Look for your power sentence. The one that, if you were speaking aloud, would make you stand up straighter, would make your voice more sure.
Put it right up front where it belongs. Take that buried lead—and lead with it!
Build that bridge, from your work, to your audience.
If you build it, they will come.***
Footnotes:

*”Bury the lead” made me think of dead bodies, which made me think of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with its infamous plague scene and the memorable quote, “Bring out yer dead!!”

**I also got to quote Guardians of the Galaxy!!
***And Field of Dreams!!!!  Triple play!

LEARNING TO FLY Part 1: The Checklist

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Managing your career as an artist is much like flying an airplane.
Recently we met up with a friend, a professional photographer, who’s been flying airplanes for years. Almost all his life, in fact. Of course, I asked him my go-to question whenever I meet pilots: I asked him about the backstory of a recent local airplane crash.
Turns out almost all small plane crashes are directly due to pilot error.  This set off a fascinating, dynamic course in what’s involved in flying a small plane, the mechanics of flying, the skillset—and the mindset—necessary to fly, and survive.
Anyone can fly!” Bob exclaimed. “When things are going well, when you have good weather, a well-maintained plane, anyone can fly a plane. It’s when things go horribly wrong that determines life or death.” (Note: Few people die when their art careers go horribly wrong, so that’s the one thing we DON’T have in common with pilots.) He went on to list the incredible amount of human error that is the root cause of most small plane crashes.
Turns out that flying a plane, and managing your career as an artist, have lots in common. Similar skills, similar guidelines. Who knew?! And like a plane, when things are going well with your art career—your audience is growing steadily, your sales are strong, your resume is impressive, and your enthusiasm is at its peak—it’s easy to ignore your checklist. “I’ve got it all figured out!” you think. “I’ve paid my dues, and this is my reward!”
But like an airplane, our lives can go from running smoothly to ‘unpleasant surprise’ in months, weeks, days—even hours. And like a recession, when things get super hard in our lives, art and art-making can be the first thing we drop. (“It’s a luxury, right?”)
So let’s start today with the first line of safety in flying—in a plane, or in your art. And let’s assume things are going well today:
The checklist: The very first thing a flight instructor teaches a new student is to complete the pre-flight checklist. This is a visual confirmation that every single item/instrument/safety feature/aspect of the airplane is in its place and doing what it should. This exercise consists of three steps:
1) Reading (or hearing, if there are two of you) the checklist item. You read each item on the list every time, before you ever, ever, get off the ground. Every. Single. Time.
2) Accomplishing the item—verifying the correct setting, executing of the checklist tasks.
3) Responding to the outcome of the action performed: The switch is turned on (or off), the instrument is looked at and the information verified, etc.
This is a constant process of checking and cross-checking, checking and verifying results, and constantly checking in with the other person verbally.
There is a visual check you do of the airplane itself, before you even get in. You do another check in the cabin, before you start the engine, of every single instrument. The ones that should be on, are on. The ones that should be off, are off. There is a checklist after you start the engine, to make sure everything is working the way it should be.
After landing, no matter how soon you go up again, you do the whole thing all over again. Every. Single. Time.
Tedious? Yes. Repetitious? Oh, gosh, yes. Tempted to skip it? Well, in your art career, you may not die from the crash, but it can do a number on your spirit, your enthusiasm, your dedication to your art.
Your checklist can be very basic: Did you get a good night’s sleep? Did you have breakfast? Did you get outside? Go for a walk? Did you hug your kids/your partner/your dog?
Your checklist can be very simple: Get to your studio every day (or whatever is manageable for you, of course.) Get your hands dirty in your studio every time: Make something, anything that gets you to your happy artist place. Is your workspace ready for you to work? Or do you have to clear a surface (or two, or twenty?) Did you order that widget/supply/tool you need to try that new thing you’re interested in?
Your checklist can be more assertive: Maybe it’s managing your venues. Have you checked in with that gallery lately, the one that’s carrying your work? (Oops… gotta put that on MY checklist!) Have you kept track of the ones that are doing well, and figured out what’s going on with the ones that aren’t? Have you researched that new art fair you’ve been invited to?
Your checklist can grow with the times: Is your website up to date? Do you try to post new work regularly? Have you been diligent about adding new email addresses to your newsletter list? Have you checked out Instagram? (It’s easier to use than I thought, and fun!)
Your checklist can be very personal: Are you still excited about the work you’re making? Have you been true to your own, unique vision? Or have you been distracted by someone who seems to be having more success with their style? Does your artist statement sound like everyone else’s in the room? Or does it give your audience an authentic insight at what makes you tick?
Even as I write this, I can see the advantage in a checklist. I’m good at writing things down, but terrible at keeping them in a place I can easily find them again. (Guess how long it took me to figure out which notebook I’d written the original notes of my conversation with Bob?) So on my checklist for today, I’m putting “Create a checklist!”
Next time we’ll explore the cross-check, and the importance of your support network. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what’s going on YOUR checklist!

CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

My latest column at Fine Art Views–enjoy!

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Kindness—and the benefit of the doubt—goes a long way with your peers and in your career.

In my last article, I wrote about respecting other people’s artwork, even if it’s not my thing. What if the person asks for your opinion? What do you say??

Let’s go back a few years… okay, a few decades. I’m a new mom, and my only friends are other new moms. (Most people run the other way when confronted with a frantic new mother and a crying baby. Hence, most of your friends will be other frantic new mothers and their crying babies.) I was in such a group.
Every new parent believes they’re baby is beautiful. No, not just beautiful—the most beautiful baby in the world.  And we know the right thing to say to other parents: “What a beautiful baby!”

That day, we were discussing what to say when presented with an absolutely ugly baby.

The responses ranged from, “Now that’s a baby!!” with a big smile, to “Cute shirt!” What we all agreed on was, you never say what you’re really thinking. That would be hurtful, and serves no one.
After all, we hope every baby is a wanted child, that every child is loved, and that every child, no matter what they look like, is a new human being in the world, with all that entails.  Besides, people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities—why on earth would we judge a baby by those criteria? No. We simply know that babies have a place in the world, to be their own person.
When it comes to the things people make (er…that aren’t babies, that is), it’s a whole nother kettle of fish.
Entire websites and books (regretfully, Regretsy.com, the truly wonderful curated collection of truly awful stuff on Etsy, is no longer active) generate plenty of caustic reactions to really bad art. Read a review of any movie in The New Yorker magazine that was made after 1956, and you wonder why anyone even bothers to make movies at all, so much so seriously wrong with them. Walk any art fair, flea market, online site, and marvel at the amount of bad art in the world.  It will instantly make you feel so much better about your own.
We can behave like old ffff…folks, and complain how young people ‘just don’t appreciate good art anymore’, or how kids today ‘aren’t taught anything about fine craft anymore’ (as if we ever were!)
And critiques are a long-standing practice of traditional art education. How can we know how to improve our art, if no one points out our weakness in our composition, the flaws in our technique, the naivete of our color palette?
That’s our lizard brain talking—our need to judge, our need to discover where we fit in, in the overall range of art from very, very good to oh-my-god-what-were-they-thinking?? And though critiques can be hugely powerful in improving an artist’s skills, we’ll never know how many ‘good-enough’ artists—or simply artists with more sensitive natures—have been devastated by unnecessarily-brutal art bashing in out-of-control critique sessions, to the point where they really were convinced they were not, and could never be, ‘real artists’.
Yes, good art stands the test of time. We all know it when we see it, right?  But so often, what we consider ‘great art’ was considered gauche, disturbing, or otherwise unpopular when they were originally created, and it could take centuries before opinion changed.
‘Outsider’ art, so-called ‘primitive’ art, ‘intuitive’ and ‘visionary’ art, folk art, Art Brut, naïve art, all were considered simply ‘really bad art’, until somewhere along the line, someone saw something deeper, more powerful, more engaging.
As for the teaching power of critiques, I believe there’s a difference between an opinion that’s offered (or forced on someone), and an opinion that’s asked for. There’s a difference between constructive criticism, and scathing sarcasm. There’s a difference between being wishy-washy, vs. offering good insights into how the artist can increase their appeal, and generating a stronger audience for their work.
Here’s my current situation: I’m newly exposed to artists who are self-trained, young artists who are fearless in the work they produce, artists who are inspired by very different memes and themes than the traditional landscapes and still lifes of my art history training. Video game characters, graphic novel illustrations, comic book heroes, internet memes, steampunk, Goth, the ‘maker’ movement, all contribute to a vibrant, design-driven, eclectic stream of work that simply boggles the mind that usually considers ‘traditional art’ the only ‘real art’. It’s tempting to reject it out-of-hand as immature, Day-Glo bright, or just plain weird.
But when I look at the people who make it, I see something else.  I see the same intense desire for self-expression, the same need to make something, the same dedication to practice, to growth, to connection with an audience, as I do.
So what’s the equivalent of “Cute shirt!” in our modern world today?
One suggestion: Find three things you like. And go from there. I got this idea years ago, from an article about home décor. It said, when looking at magazine spreads of beautiful homes, it’s easy to focus only on the decorating styles you love. But even styles you’re not fond of, can help you train your eye, and increase your design repertoire. Look for three elements you like: a color combination, a texture, a window treatment, a backsplash, or light fixture. Consider why they appeal to you, even in a layout that doesn’t.
It’s good advice. It helps me expand my sources of inspiration, and have new appreciation for different experiences, even in appreciating someone else’s artwork.
If I’m watching someone work, I notice how deft they are with their materials and tools. If I’ve been watching their work over time, I notice how their techniques become more sure, more polished. I note their use of color, textures, design, composition.
I ask about their motivation, their inspiration. I ask who their audience is. I ask what venues they use to show and promote their work. I ask what their professional goals are.
When they go through a rough patch—lots of likes on Facebook, but few sales—I ask how they’re attracting people to their website, their studio, their shows.
If I’m talking to someone working in more traditional media, working with more traditional subjects, I ask similar questions. Why do they focus on this subject over those? How did they end up choosing their particular medium? How did they get started? Where are they headed, and where would they like to be?
All of these focus on the intention, the dreams, the goals of the artist. If these align with the manifestation of their art, well, then, they are successful artists!
A last suggestion: If you sense that your feedback would be appreciated, frame it for easy listening. “I love this, and I’m intrigued by that. You have skills with x, y, and z. What you could do better is…” and then offer your suggestions.
There you have it. It’s not hard to be kind, and people might actually absorb more of your excellent advice if you are.