The art of criticism
Local artists weigh in on the impact of the reviewer

“I have become hardened by criticism and now sleep on a bed of nails.”Quote by anonymous local artist who inspired this collage./Collage by Jules Masterjohn

by Jules Masterjohn

I read the art reviewer’s words, and I felt my heart begin to beat quickly as a barrage of emotions blasted to the surface of my consciousness. Those words, like little incendiary devices, created an impact field far beyond my eye’s reading or my mind’s understanding. My heart was momentarily jolted by the writer’s thoughtless phrase.

The review began with the writer describing, in depth, one artist’s sculpture and eventually praising it. Near the end of the review, another artist was debased for her “boring” sculpture that “let the show down.”

The artist in me went, empathetically, to the aesthetic doghouse with this second artist, sharing the humiliation that she might feel from this public shaming. As a writer, I wondered why there was no explanation given for the “boring” assessment? As a human being, I was reminded of the careless ways in which we can speak or write that may cause harm to others.

Art criticism is the task of describing, interpreting and judging an artwork. I asked artists in the community to share their thoughts about this sensitive and often broiling topic. Here are their condensed responses.

Chyako Hashimoto: Critics play a crucial role. They often articulate and validate what an artist cannot. Most artists aren’t writers. They work in nonverbal media, so a good critic is able to take something mysterious, put it into context and meaning, and yet not lose the mystery of the art. They give credibility to the art, add insight and interest.

Rebecca Barfoot: I am ever hungry for useful feedback, in either public or private forum. I want to know what elements draw people to my work as well as what others find disconcerting, in either subject matter or aesthetic composition. I’m not disturbed by unfavorable critique of my work; as in life, I find it less and less important to please others.

Sandra Butler: An art critique usually gives an artist the unique opportunity to see his or her work from a different perspective. Sometimes a good critic will put art, especially contemporary art, in a context for the viewers to better understand. I’ve been able to reflect and mature as an artist from these thoughtful observations.

Karina Hean: I interact with any form of critique by taking it all in, entertaining it, seeing if there is anything to be gained from it, questioning whether or not I agree with it, acting in response to it if I think it will improve work, and discarding it if I think it will not. As a result, critical reviews of my work serve as a chance to be continually educated and to engage in a dialogue with the potential of my work. Critiques also require an artist to examine the source of the critique. One must develop a valuable yet mutable layer of ‘tough’ skin and learn when to stick to your guns‚ and when to be influenced.

Debra Greenblatt: I appreciate how someone else sees what I do: making art is sometimes like hiding in a cocoon, it is healthy getting a perspective from a third party. Accepting and using criticism is something I’ve gained with maturity.

Heather Leavitt: Positive reviews and profiles can be helpful tools for artists to share with prospective galleries and collectors. However, public reviews and critiques in a community this size and in this market can be more harmful than good.

Marie McCallum: If someone is going to critique my work, I appreciate it if they substantiate their opinion as to why they feel the way they do. What is it specifically about the work that is good, bad, or indifferent? Even if the critique is all praise, I’d like to know why. It still is hard to take if someone just doesn’t like my work, especially if I don’t agree with why.

Louise Grunewald: A positive written review feels great, like a reward for my efforts, a validation. A clearly stated, legitimate, “negative” critique can be a good growing experience. My response to criticism or praise is colored by who gives it and whether or not I respect the critic and his or her delivery. I try to learn from what is said but remember it is only one opinion and not let it be the last word.

Dave Claussen: It’s been my feeling for a long time that a positive critique is always better than a negative one. My creativity is always boosted by positive gestures from outside. I get high on the possibilities and don’t need someone’s negative opinions to get in the way. “WOW!! Way to go! Keep up the good work,” works for me.

Mary Ellen Long: I appreciate a thoughtful and intelligent review of my work ... especially when the reviewer does his or her homework in relationship to the history of the art form that informs my work. Positive and negative criticism from an educated art reviewer are always helpful in giving me feedback.

Joan Levine Russell: Any publicity is better than no publicity. I’m OK with negative criticism if it’s an intelligent response to the work. I don’t have to agree and neither does the audience, but emotional jabs littered with sarcasm are irresponsible and doing a disservice to the art culture. The best criticism is an educational response to the subject matter. A critic’s responsibility is to teach the public, be objective, expose the public to relationships the art has to art history.

Tirzah Camacho: I believe it is true that bad criticism is just as powerful as good criticism. If an art show gets a “bad” review more people will rush to the scene to make a judgment for themselves. I hope that the public reads reviews objectively, taking into consideration who is writing them and the reviewer’s background.

Ron Fundingsland: With regard to impersonal, published critiques and reviews, all an artist can hope for is experienced judgment and intelligent, informed interpretation. The artist is always vulnerable to ignorance, mean-spiritedness and those who neglect the basic tenets of creating art. I’m OK with guessing, and I’m OK with critical analysis. I’m not OK with including the price of the work.

Krista Harris: A bad review would have some effect, I suppose, depending upon what is said and who it is coming from. You’d have to respect the reviewer’s opinion for it to matter much. We’re more likely to believe a good review than a bad, I expect it’s human nature. The bottom line is: take them all in stride and keep making your art!

Thanks to all who shared their perspectives! Comments or criticism can be sent to



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