The Wolverhampton School of Art Fine Art Degree Show is in full swing as I type. I am writing this blog while sitting on the floor supposedly ‘manning’ the exhibition (doing a stint of manning the exhibition, I should say). There’s a lot of scope for thinking when you are manning an exhibition for six hours. There’s a lot of silence, interspersed now and then with the sounds of children and grown-up pondering. There’s a lot of time to fill, with thoughts and doubts.
Today I’m thinking about criticism and how to deal with it. Three days ago the Wolverhampton Express and Star posted a review article about the degree show. Here it is.
I’m going to put aside how badly written this article is (which it is, by the way, and the photographs are especially appalling) for fear of being accused of bitterness (I am a little). My main reason for writing about this article is that I get a mention, albeit a negative one. Here is the paragraph which refers to my work:
One student’s inspiration for the work displayed came just three weeks ago and is an interactive work to help viewers engage with their ideas on repetition. Clearly a lot of thought and effort has gone into its creation but there is just too much information so that it is difficult to absorb what the work has set out to achieve. Perhaps a case of less is more.
When I first read this comment my reaction was one of shock and then devastation. I wasn’t feeling too chirpy before I read it and reading it sent me over the edge and firmly into the abyss of self-pity. I remained there for the rest of the evening and into the night. While down there, I catastrophized into the stratosphere. I was due to give a presentation the following day on my work. I decided that evening, while sat there in my wallowy abyss, that presenting would now be impossible. I also decided not to do the MA in September and I was probably never going to draw anything ever again.
Eventually I dragged myself into bed to sleep. At about 3am I woke up and while I tried to settle back to sleep again my mind returned to the article and my response to it. Of course the content of the article hadn’t changed but I decided at that point in the darkness that I needed to change my response to it.
Firstly, I needed to be flattered that the person who wrote it had gone out of his way to mention my work. He hadn’t mentioned everyone’s work, he’d been selective. So this meant that he had had a response to my work which he thought worth talking about. That in itself is A Good Thing.
Secondly, I needed to consider the possibility that the person who wrote it might actually be ever so slightly wrong in his judgement. Realising this made me see that we shouldn’t always assume that everyone else is ‘right’ and we are ‘wrong’. In fact, he had completely missed the point about what my artwork was about – ‘less is more’ was meant to be a criticism, but it was in fact a complement. ‘Less is more’ is my point (damn that would have made a good title). The whole point of it being ‘more’ than ‘less’ was to illustrate how everything in our lives, overshadowed so extensively with imagery and text, both in the real and virtual worlds, is much more of the ‘more’ and not of the ‘less’. In fact, he had successfully illustrated my message by his aversion to the overloading of information and colour and images in the artwork. He had got the point without getting the point. He was being accidentally ironic. This realisation completely changed my mood and I decided that I should in fact seek him out and shake his hand.
Finally, I spotted an irony of the article as a whole. This article, presumably (I don’t know for sure as I haven’t seen the physical paper in which this article appeared) has been mass produced hundreds of times over. It has also appeared online. It is possible that it will also appear elsewhere online. It will also be shared, tweeted, forwarded, emailed by various people. In other words, it will be repeated and spread. It will become part of that overload of information, part of that ‘more which should be less’ to which he is adverse to. So well done to Mr Jerald Smith for being repetitive!
So at 3am I decided that I was able to continue with the presentation and I was also going to do the MA next year. In fact, I decided to include the quote in my presentation to illustrate an important aspect of being an artist: coping with criticism.
Not everybody is going to ‘get’ art. In fact, in a way it is good that not everybody gets it. I don’t think I want to be the sort of artist that everyone ‘gets’ or ‘likes’. That actually seems a rather dull existence. Not everybody ‘gets’ everybody so why should it bet the same with art?
Kandinsky, this article states, claimed that: ‘…true artists should be prepared to be misunderstood throughout their lifetimes.’ I think that is a valid point. There are some very well known artists who spent years being misunderstood before they were given the kudos they deserved.
Umberto Eco once argued (although I can’t now find the reference) that if the people like it, then the art work fails. That might sound a little extreme. However, I don’t think he means that a successful artwork won’t provoke a response. A response is crucial. I think he is referring to total understanding or total ‘liking’ of an artwork. A successful artwork should definitely provoke something and sometimes confusion, distaste or dislike.
A lack of complete understanding or appreciation to me implies to me that there might be a level of depth that is beyond that initial impact the viewer has on coming across a piece of art. That means that they need to spend more time getting to know the artwork, or retrospectively thinking about it, considering what it might mean to them.
So I will take this criticism on board, respect his response, and use it in the sense of irony that it wasn’t intended.
Thank you Jerald Smith!