Our Worst Critic

Art installation exhibits are my favorite cultural experience. I love experiencing the imagination of artists on such a huge scale. The imagery is tangible, involving practically every sensory input. Even though I enjoy installation work, it doesn’t stop me from having an opinion and picking my favorite to least favorite. Like any consumer of culture, I judge the art based on my personal opinion.

The hard truth about being an artist is that there will always be people who don’t like or appreciate our work. But as artists, we are often the harshest critics. Artists have developed a keen eye for detail because we understand the artistic process. We know how difficult it can be to innovate all the way through concept to completion. This morphs practically everything - from pieces of art to events and culinary experiences to body language - into something we appraise.

As a trained live-event producer, I’ve noticed that my training - while making me excellent at my job - has turned me into a critic in situations that don’t require one. It’s difficult for me to step into any venue or event and not note every aspect of my environment that I disapprove. I automatically assess the temperature, the smells, the quality of lighting, how functional the space is and the logistics of the acoustics. But this became so all consuming that I was no longer able to enjoy an environment for what it is. I wasn’t in the moment, I wasn’t enjoying my experiences as someone who could benefit from art - only as someone who was required to judge it.

I think that the extreme scenario in this is when that judgement turns inward. It’s difficult to have an artist’s eye, full of critique and deep inspection and not be the same harsh critic to yourself. Physical appearance, personality characteristics, and even identity can all be scrutinized. So how do we maintain our edge as artists and remember to 1) benefit from the art we experience and 2) keep self-awareness in a healthy state?

As hard as it is, there needs to be some self-regulation in determining which mode we are operating in as artists. There’s a mode for creating art and a mode for consuming art. Now, I want to preface, that I do believe that observing others’ art is a part of developing personal artistry. The mode for creating is when we as artists are ‘on’ - keen eye, critique, and sculpting all flow in conjunction with the creative process. This mode is when we ask of ourselves, ‘how will what I am creating benefit others?’ We must ask ourselves this even if we are creating the art for ourselves; out of a place of deep internal expression. We must ask how our art benefits others because once it is birthed, once it is out in the world it is open to others’ opinions. Your work is then theirs to consume.

When it’s your turn to consume, you have switched modes. This must be a conscious effort. In this mode it’s not your job to be the artist, judging the work based on your own creative process. It’s your job to ask, ‘how does this art benefit me?’ Like I mentioned earlier, observing others’ art is a part of developing personal artistry. You will benefit more from your observations if you open yourself up to receive from the art rather than automatically assessing it through the lense of your own process. This is because observing art through the established construct of your own process doesn’t enable your brain to access its default mode network - the same neuro-process that is initiated by day-dreaming.

Switching to the second question posed: I won’t lie, as someone who is trained to hyper-analyze every detail to eliminate distractions, it’s hard for me to look in the mirror and not hyper-focus on every flaw I see. Maybe this isn’t a problem for all artists but if it is an issue at all, it’s a pretty big one. So how do we keep our self-awareness in a healthy state? Are we unfairly critiquing ourselves? From personal experience I can answer, yes, we are being unfair. Self-evaluation requires regulation as well. Similarly to the first point, we must ask ‘how does this benefit me?’ The difference is, we must ask that question in response to our own inner-critic. You think I’m so stupid, how does that line of thinking benefit you? Thinking of yourself as plain or ugly brings you absolutely no benefit, so stop thinking that way.

Really, I think the conclusion to this line of questioning results in the observation that great artists must also be great self-regulators. Artists and consumers alike will continue to let personal taste drive their opinion. It’s important to realize that those opinions shouldn’t grow to a point where we are no longer able to step back and ask the very questions that will keep us healthy. These are questions that will keep us creating.

Ashlee Wright