Constructive Criticism and Constructive Interpretation

 

Any artist who has ever had their work displayed in public would probably be familiar with the importance of "Constructive Criticism," a term that differs widely from person to person and often boils down to "criticism I'm fine with." Not that the definition is totally irrelevant though: criticism is essential for an artists growth and the way criticism is delivered can spell the difference between motivating an artist to work harder and motivating an artist to switch to the equally exciting world of Chartered Accountancy. It's difficult enough to come across in the open and often anonymous maelstrom of social media, you'd be lucky to have feedback that's actually about the work itself, but it's even trickier in the professional setting. When your career and livelihood hangs on the approval of clients or art directors - and when the success of their product rests in turn on what they approve - it's much more difficult to preface your emails with the caveat "Constructive Criticism Only Please." One badly-worded email, we've seen among many younger freelances, can bring down major projects already 90% in.

These problems, we're skewed to believe though, come from a misconception over how criticism becomes constructive in the first place. When an artist asks specifically for Constructive Criticism, it purports that the power to make criticism constructive is on the hands of the critic. It is a passive model of communication wherein the artist requests a vague preference for useful, ultimately encouraging words over hurtful, scathing criticism. The problem here isn't that artists prefer encouragement over insults - that comes with the human condition - but it's in the notion of "constructive criticism" as something someone else is wholly responsible for. The only agency the artist has in the end is the reaction: inspiration, motivation, defensiveness or despair. 

While we at GR are encouraged to be mindful in how we communicate criticism and art direction, we believe that artists - especially professional artists - must take a more active approach when it comes to Constructive Criticism. We call this approach Constructive Interpretation: the art of extracting constructive criticism out of most any feedback. Here's our step-by-step process:

Here to shoot down your self esteem. Art by Kriss Sison.

Here to shoot down your self esteem. Art by Kriss Sison.

I. BE HUMBLE

Humility, alongside its dark reflection Pride, is among the most misunderstood virtues. Just as Artistic Pride isn't so much about being happy with your own accomplishments or abilities, Artistic Humility isn't about putting yourself or your work down whenever someone praises you. Artistic Humility is more about being grounded on the virtues that go into making good art- patience, rigor, thoroughness, the desire to put more into the art than one is expecting to take from it - instead of establishing one's identity from the praise and special treatment that comes out of having made good art. 

No one owes anyone praise and there is always room for improvement: this is a cardinal rule for anticipating feedback. When someone chooses to laud our efforts and encourage us to continue, we're sincere in our gratitude: it's not a critic's responsibility to motivate but we were motivated anyway. On the other hand, while negative feedback may be less than pleasant, it's not like any artist has ever been above reproach anyway.

II. MIND THE GAP

Just because two people are conversing in the same language, doesn't mean they're understanding the conversation the same way. When the language they share isn't even native to either of them, you can expect that something somewhere will be lost in translation. Cultural distinctions, regional dialects, unfamiliar idioms - even differences in time zone or emotional temperament can color messages in unintended ways. Giving a thumbs-up is rude in some parts of the Middle East for example, and can take people aback even when given context.

By being mindful of these communication gaps, we are opening ourselves to other possible interpretations of the same sets of words. Instead of imposing the offense or hurt we might feel over our initial reading of the message, we can give the critic the benefit of the doubt and consider intent. That split-second consideration may spell the difference between calmly addressing a slanderous online comment and angrily chewing out a prospective client over a typo. If in doubt, re-read the message in Morgan Freeman's voice.

Stop criticizing me! I'm an Abomination, my anatomy is supposed to be like this! Art by Hinchel Or.

Stop criticizing me! I'm an Abomination, my anatomy is supposed to be like this! Art by Hinchel Or.

III. DISSECT FOR DETAILS

One benefit of minding communication gaps is realizing which parts of the message actually matter. After the initial shock of an angry email (and providing the email isn't a notice of termination or something like that), you DO have some work left to do. This is when you get down to dissecting the message for primary details like the art director's key instructions or new deadlines from the client. Some of these details may be buried in strikingly blunt or borderline hostile terms (your choice where that border actually is) but you NEED these details and you're going to have to extract these for the good of the project. If the message expresses outright dissatisfaction, this may be an important detail to note but remember to deal with it by addressing the pertinent problems instead of agonizing over it over social media.
The same goes for online comments: just because the detail is buried under eight lines of a badly written tirade, doesn't mean it's forfeit. You'll just have to ignore the "decorative" language around it.

IV. RECONSTRUCT THE CRITICISM

When you have your details, this is where the "constructive" bit comes in. Once you manage to take a critique for its raw details, you not only make it useful, you also get to intend how to use it. Is the instruction only for the project at hand or will it be useful to adopt it further? Is this correction consistent with other corrections I've had in the past? Is the comment a a critique on my style or the substance that should under-gird my style: anatomy, perspective, proportion, that sort of thing. These details are all meant to be consciously examined outside the euphoria of a supportive comment or the bruised ego of a negative one.

Assembled three hundred angry Star Wars comments. Art by Justine Cruz.

Assembled three hundred angry Star Wars comments. Art by Justine Cruz.

V. REPLY ACCORDINGLY

Not that you should reply to every comment but you'll have to if it comes from a client or art director. The secret is focusing the reply on the details and what you intend to do about them. If you're aware of the communication gaps from your last exchanges, anticipate them and adapt accordingly. The more you understand, the more you can do to be understood the way you need to.