I’ve been fortunate in having received little criticism of my art. That is, of course, because I’ve had little exposure as an artist. It’s one thing to post on a blog; it’s another to put our work out in the “real world” where critics might, for one reason or another, offer harsh remarks.
Now, let me begin by clarifying my terms here a bit. True criticism — in art or any other field — is beneficial. A thoughtful critique is always encouraging and enlightening. Critique — and criticism — is actually a measurement of progress, an evaluation of where we are, complete with indications of what we’re doing well. Constructive suggestions on how we might improve round out a good critique and leave the artist, the writer, the musician, the actor, with a sense of accomplishment and hope for future work.
I’ve shared a few thoughts before about critiques and their value. Today I want to look at the topic from a much different point of view. Sometimes criticism is stinging. Sometimes it’s intended to hurt. And sometimes the most damaging and destructive criticism is delivered to the least deserving. And, as often as not, I suspect, the critic is probably not qualified to pass judgment.
Only a few minutes ago, I was engrossed in my daily study of tonalism, reading another article from “An American Paradise.” I’m learning about the state of the arts in New York City during the middle of the 19th century. There was much discussion then about whether or not a true “American School” of art was — or should be — recognized. For many art connoisseurs, European art was the standard of excellence. There were ideas, too, about the insignificance of landscape painting.
In the article I’m currently reading — A Climate for Landscape Painters — art historian John K. Howat writes of the horrible barrage of criticism to which “Hudson River” artists and those from the “Luminist Movement” were subjected.
He acknowledges that the criticism was “foolish”. He writes,
“…self-styled critics, returning from abroad with a superficial knowledge of European art, could be twitted in print for foolish comments…”
As I continued reading, I was so shocked and stunned, I had to stop so that I could share my thoughts, a few words from these “self-styled critics” and images of several of my favorite paintings.
First, here’s a painting of the Catskills by Asher B. Durand. I love this painting. I love all of Durand’s landscapes. He was, in fact, the artist who truly lured me into learning to paint. From the moment I first saw his work, I was awestruck
And yet in the 1850’s Durand’s landscape art was referred to as “tame and unpleasing”. Really?
Charles Loring Elliott was a portrait artist, and here is one of his self-portraits:
What did critics of the day have to say about his work? According to them, it “approached the verge of caricature.”
Personally, I love “Landscape in the Adirondacks” by Frederic E. Church. How about you?
I think it’s beautiful, but a critic of the day suggested that Church “would do very well, if he didn’t attempt the painting of skies.”
For me, George A. Baker’s painting of “Summer Tree” is inspiring. Oh, how I would love to have the ability to paint such glorious scenes.
Baker, sadly, was criticized for having “failed in color.”
Here’s “The Old Pine, Darien, Connecticut” by John F. Kensett. The painting now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kensett, too, was soundly criticized. He was advised that he “must look a little more carefully to the elaboration of his rocks.”
Now, granted, art is subjective. You and I might have widely divergent opinions on any artist or work, and we are each entitled to our opinions. I think overall, however, that we can all agree that the paintings I’ve shown here are worthy of praise and respect. I don’t find any of these artists deserving of the harsh criticism they received.
Reading about these “foolish comments” made me appreciate these 19th century artists all the more. I suspect that if I were to ever receive such unkind remarks about my art, I would simply close up my studio and never paint again.
Yet these artists persisted despite the criticism they received. How? Some, I suspect, were confident enough in themselves and their abilities to merely shrug off these thoughtless comments. Maybe some used the remarks to push themselves a bit harder or to refine their skills. Maybe some became angry. Maybe some experienced moments of doubt. We each respond differently to criticism.
For me, there are several important lessons to be learned here:
- Criticism comes easily, but critics are not always qualified to offer opinions. In fact, I suspect that the less a critic actually knows, the louder and harsher his words may be.
- Criticism should never stop us. Even if it’s unkind, we should not allow a critic’s opinion to hold us back. If there is something useful we can learn from the critique, we can take that with us as we move on. The important thing is that we do move on.
- When we are asked to offer critiques for our fellow artists, we should look more for the good in the work than for the bad. We should build our critiques upon the strengths of the artist before offering constructive suggestions for any weakness we see.
All in all, I found this morning’s reading very interesting and thought-provoking. I’d love to know your opinions of the works shown here. Do any of the artists whose works I’ve displayed deserve the criticism they received?