Responding to Negative Feedback About Your Art

I recently had an email conversation with an artist who had just been through battle on her blog. After years of extensive blogging, she received her first negative comment, an inflammatory comment about a post she had written with some derogatory  comments about her art thrown in for good measure. The level of vitriol in the comment was a bit dumbfounding, especially since it didn’t seem to be coming from a dissatisfied customer, rather from a random visitor to the site who wouldn’t seem to have any good reason to be so  . . . blunt.

After the shock and pain wore off, they were replaced by outrage. The artist dashed off a heartfelt response, countering point by point each of the charges  in the comment. And thus began an epic battle in the comments section of her blog, with fiery comments flying back and forth over several days. I’m not going to post the comments here – I don’t wish to draw any more attention to them, but I’m sure that many of you who blog, have a website with a guest book, or participate in social media can sympathize with this situation. There’s nothing more disheartening than a brutal criticism of you or your work.

I’ve been blogging for about five years now, and I’ve certainly run into my share of negativity online. Really, this kind of behavior can happen anywhere – on a blog, one a third-party website, via email, and even in person. There are people out there who have a chip on their shoulder and like nothing more than to stir up a fight.

In the online world, this kind of person is called a “troll”, and they pop up all over the web. Rarely do they add anything of value to a conversation; they are usually composing their comments with the sole intent of stirring up an argument.

Dealing with Trolls

So what should you do if a Troll sets his sights on you? My advice, coming from experience, is to ignore them. Responding only feeds the fire. If you have control over the forum (if they’ve posted on your blog, for example) I recommend removing the post. Your website or blog is your personal and private property, not a public forum, and you should feel no obligation to give their comments an audience, especially when it comes at your expense. I go a step further and moderate comments before they are posted on the blog – allowing me to prevent any inflammatory comments from ever seeing the light of day.

Try not to dwell on anything said in the comments. It’s easy to let a negative post ruin your whole day. Don’t.

Trolling is a widespread problem on the internet – NPR recently had to change their entire commenting system to deal with the issue (read about that here).

Responding to Dissatisfied  Customers

But what if the comment or email comes from a real customer? It’s one thing to dismiss the rantings of a troll, but handling the negative feedback of an actual customer is another thing altogether. I’ve been fortunate to have very few unhappy customers over the years. We’re celebrating our 12th anniversary in business this month, and I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve had a customer unhappy with a purchase or with the service they received. On the rare occasion where I do have to respond to a dissatisfied customer, I try to keep the following in mind:

  1. My goal is to get the customer back to a happy state – I will go to extremes to make that happen (although there are limits)
  2. I don’t argue with customers (or anyone else for that matter). I believe that as soon as an argument has started, the battle is already lost. Let’s be honest, it’s pretty rare that someone will change their views because of a persuasive argument. I prefer to take the diplomatic approach and try and find a common ground.
  3. Ignore the harsh stuff. If a client has used foul language or leveled strong criticism against you or your art, don’t feel compelled to respond to those parts of the communication. By responding in a civil, professional manner, you’ll likely calm things down, or, at the very least, you’ll feel better about the whole ordeal.
  4. Provide a liberal return/refund policy. Because returns are so rare in the gallery, I’ve found I can afford to be very liberal about my return policy. On the occasion when it needs to be invoked, I’ve found I can smooth over almost any situation by being generous in the return policy (paying for the return shipping on a piece of art, for example, as well as refunding the purchase price). There may be a cost involved in being liberal in this way, but in the long run, it’s worth it.
  5. Move any negative comments from a public forum to a private one. If you have a customer post a complaint or criticism on your blog or other public venue, try to get in touch with the customer privately – via phone or email to resolve the issue. Even though you are going to try to smooth the situation over, there’s no point in broadcasting the interactions to your other customers.

Responding to Critics in Public Forums

What if you don’t have control over the forum where a negative comment is posted? Several years ago I watched two artists battle it out on an artists group’s website. Apparently the two artists had a long-running rivalry in real life that moved into the comments section of this website. One artist would post an image of a new painting, and the other would jump into the comments and write what was wrong with it. The first artist would respond, and they were off – thousands of words flying back and forth. In the few posts I read, I felt like I should have a bag of popcorn since the comments had become so absurd that they were almost entertaining.

This is an extreme example, but you may have run into a negative comment about your work in a public forum and been unsure how to respond.

I’ve had this experience with the two books I have written selling on Amazon.com. Though both have been largely well received, if you look in the reviews you’ll see a few comments that aren’t 5-star, and a few that are downright negative (if you’re curious you can read them on Amazon.com)

Since you can’t delete the comments in a forum you don’t control, you’re going to be even more tempted to respond. Again, I would urge caution. It’s even worse to feed the fire in a public forum.

Keep the following in mind:

  1. Try not to take it personally. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and for everyone that has a negative opinion of what you’re doing, a dozen will have a positive one. 
  2. Try not to get emotional. It’s hard not to take it personally, and even harder not to let your emotions take over. The problem is that your heart is far more likely to get you into trouble than your head is. If you feel compelled to respond, I recommend waiting a day or two so that you have time to calm down. This has the added benefit of allowing your tormentor to calm down as well.
  3. Let your fans respond. Often, if you wait, your friends and fans will take care of responding for you, and it looks a lot better to have a third party responding than replying yourself. You might even alert your friends or fans to the comment via email. If you do, ask them to step up for you, but to keep it civil and avoid combat.

Responding to Critics in Person

Dealing with online negativity is hard enough, but it’s even more challenging  if the critique comes in person – say at a gallery opening or other public event. So what do you do if someone makes a derogatory comment to your face? Basically, all of the principles above apply – try not to get emotional or take it personally.  Depending on the situation, I will try to laugh it off “I’m sure glad not everyone agrees with that opinion!” or I will ask for further explanation “I’m curious about your opinion – tell my why you say that?”

No matter what the situation – online or off, remember that your critics don’t define you. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I like to think that each critic is helping me thicken up my skin, and for that I should be grateful, I guess . . .

Have you Been the Subject of Criticism or Negativity?

Have you ever been the recipient of negative remarks or harsh criticism? How did you respond? What have you learned about dealing with negativity? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.

 

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

23 Comments

  1. I recently was having dinner with a couple of friends. One said that they had been to the gallery where my work is hanging and he thought I had better work hanging at my house. He
    Would ‘t be any more specific than that. He just repeated the phrase about the art at my house. The problem was the the gallery had specifically requested that painting, which was hanging with two others. I haven’t been able to get that off my mind and immediately wanted to take that painting down and replace it with some other smaller ones i have at home. Criticism is powerful, especially if it comes from friends.

    1. Annie, remember that your friend was only offering his opinion, not hard truth. My husband has said about some of my art, “That’s not your best”, or “That’s not my favorite”, which used to mess with my confidence. It was simply his opinion, and those pieces always sold, while ones that he really likes are just collecting dust.

      So, remember to differentiate between opinions and truth! You can’t please all the people all the time.

  2. I’ve never had negative comments or reviews on my own website, but I manage websites for a few customers. One of them is really awful at customer relations at his brick & mortar location, and so his online properties are peppered with negative comments. It’s really difficult for me to provide much in the way of customer satisfaction because the owner is unwilling to concede any responsibility for the sentiments. So when a comment like this comes to the website, I reply by email but don’t post the comment. All of the comments are moderated on his own site. After the first couple of these comments, I’d forwarded them to the owner hoping he’d allow me to make some sort of goodwill offers to appease the ruffled feathers. Quite the opposite. The owner became irate that the customer had done this, and irate that he (the owner) didn’t have access to the back end of the website so he could respond to his comments. I had already deleted it, so that one was safe. After that I gave ‘the keys’ to the owner and now he has access if he wants to interact with unapproved comments. So far he hasn’t, thankfully. I still forward the third party comments to the owner and let them do what they want with them. Their tactic has been to recruit friends to offer a positive comment, which offsets the negative one, but not as a reply to the negative comment. That’s actually probably a good move on sites where you have no control.

      1. LOL, I don’t see him staying in business much longer if he doesn’t find a way to step out of the customer interaction part of it.

  3. Jason, I enjoy your blog and read it faithfully. I had an experience about 20 years ago with some harsh criticism of my creative work. It’s too long of a story to share it but it involved a business I had started that was purely based on a creative and new concept in our area. My neighbor decided he would try to destroy me and tried to convince local authorities that my fascinating new concept would be detrimental to our community and went straight to the media so it became very public. It’s a little different than the art situation you describe but most of the things are the same. We made the decision not to directly confront the individual because he was irrational and confrontation was what he wanted. What we did do as you suggested was to let the community come to our defense. It was very effective. One of the most important things I learned: Painful as it was to experience, the publicity was eventually a good thing. People forgot the details, but they remembered my name. The polarization the controversy caused created great loyalty from my customers.

  4. I was recently published in a magazine and had posted it. An artist asked me What did I have to pay to be in the magazine. I wasnt sure if they were insulting me or just asking a question. I really wanted to say something but didn’t want a war started online, especially if it was just an innocent question phrased badly. So I just said, no, they asked me to be in the magazine for free and then removed it from the Post. No point having bad publicity and misinterpretation is very easy to do on social media. Be ultra careful.

  5. I ran an art related tourism business for seven years and in all that time only got one negative review out of hundreds. It was over a misunderstanding about booking dates. The person never actually came to my venue. She wrote a scathing review, and it did seem to cause a drop in bookings though the evidence is circumstantial. It was on a popular ratings platform that then posted only her negative review and hid the 24+ positive reviews that had been posted before. We wrestled with the company for days over that and were never able to get them to change how they posted reviews. (Interestingly enough we had turned down paying for advertising on that platform just a couple of weeks before this all happened. Again, circumstantial, but it was hard not to feel like it related).

    We learned a couple of important lessons: 1) We had rescheduled this angry customer once, and when she didn’t remember to come the second time, we stuck to our published refund policy. It would have been much less costly to simply refund her money rather than be “right” and hold to our rules. 2) Instead of fighting with the review platform, we should have redoubled our efforts to make things right with the customer. We never could get her to answer our emails later even after we offered to refund her money (no strings attached). After she flamed us, she seemed satisfied with the damage and didn’t want her money back. It was an odd situation, but it did change and improve our refund policy. We were much more flexible in the years after that incident and never had a problem like that again.

    Occasionally I’ve dealt with trolls over the years as well and your advice is sound—ignore them and delete their comments when possible. It’s hard not to take their comments to heart, but realizing that some people seem to get something from being anonymously mean is just part of running a business connected with the internet. I found it helpful to have a close friend let me rant about the injustice briefly and then put the indignation out of my mind. You can’t make a troll happy and what they write is not worth giving credence to.

  6. I consider myself to be more of a Minimalist, so I understand that not everyone will love my work. “Five thousand dollars for THAT? Anyone could do that!” I explain that art is a dialog, a communication between the work and the viewer, and that thoughts will arise and fall back into the work. “Good art communicates slowly.”

    Empty space is filled, until it becomes empty again.

    1. I don’t think communication has to do with style or type of artwork. I have seen incredibly meticulous work that is full of details, where the public can see the piece over and over and keep discovering and yet the art communicates slowly. I think the whole body of work of an artist is a language and communicates over time. this is why the work of Mark Rothko can’t be judge in one single painting and so it is the same for any artist. Shakespeare can’t be understood by reading just a page.

  7. Excellent advice–sometimes it is hard to keep a level head when in the midst of negative comments, but it never serves any purpose to get down in the dirt and fight it out. As you say, ignore, delete if you control the venue and try not to take it personally. Been there, thankfully, done that!

  8. I had a strange experience a few years ago . Someone saw my website and sent a very angry , aggressive email stating that I had his work on my website and demanding that I take it down . All of the Art on my website came from my own hand . It was very disconcerting . I chose to ignore it figuring that he had a mental health issue . A few weeks later , I got the same email and again chose not to respond . I have not heard from him since , fortunately .

  9. I feel that no artist should take any negative ‘feedback’ to heart – especially if it has no bearing on the work or anything else by the looks of it.
    We MUST understand that there are a great deal of unhappy and dissatisfied people in this world, and the reason for their unhappiness is manyfold and perhaps not in your remit to address or cure.
    These people have some form of shortcoming which they try to ‘legitimize’ via your website or blog in the same manner that many millions have done so during the recent political and Covid events.
    I have publicaly ‘owned’ a good few detractors on sites who found it prudent to vituperate against me in the only way possible – by good humor and by thanking them for their comic relief.

  10. I have had some cutting critiques in the past. I tried to listen with an open mind to get at the source of the critique. It was difficult to hear such harsh criticism of work for which I had given much thought and effort, but I chalked it up to a learning experience. That taught me much!

  11. I was at an invitational gathering many years ago. An artist I had met was also in attendance. Many of the people there knew us both even though our paths rarely crossed. A local upscale restaurant had his work on the walls. I asked about how one might go about being considered for having art work there. The owner talked with me briefly and asked to see my work. My work replaced this other artist’s work a week later.
    Fast forward to the invitational event. It was embarrassing for everyone because he loudly and expletively denounced my work, and accused me of purposely sabotaging his opportunities at sales, etc. (his work had been there for 3 months and the owner wanted a change,)
    He was loud and beside himself basically stopping the wonderful summer evening in its tracks. When nhe finished, he accused everyone of being too philistine for him and stormed out.
    Sometimes, as artists we can be the meanest people we know.
    That’s why your approach, Jason, is such a safe haven and such a great model for us.

  12. Jason, I love all of your blogs, but I must say this one was a lesson on how to handle criticism. I do not have a blog so I suppose that makes me less of a target. I avidly read all of the comments and yes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I read everything including the comments, but I do not comment. Thank you all for the pertinent information.

  13. Most people can see thru comments that have gone off the deep end. Yes they sting but why add fuel to the fire. Some people thrive on being contrary and negative. Viewers and followers for the most part are not going to feel comfortable if the blog etc becomes confrontational. If possible delete or block otherwise move on. I have a few negative comments and viewers have come to my defence which was a pleasant surprise.

  14. Thank you Jason for this blog topic.
    I’m still learning how to deal with everyday folks who are of a different mindset than me as an artist. Especially folks dealing with ADHD and various forms of these types of disorders. A deep inhale and count to a quick 10 seems to give me just enough time to get to an appropriate response.
    Your guidelines are worth printing out to keep close for review from time to time.

  15. I think if a customer posts a negative review about your product or service on a site that you do not control, you should respond rather than ignore it. I think it would be best to reply and say that you are sorry that the transaction was not to their satisfaction. Tell them you will contact them to find a suitable solution. When I see no response on a complaint, I feel like the customer was ignored. Most of us realize that nothing is perfect and things go wrong sometimes so I think responding in this situation is the better choice. Just my opinion 🙂

  16. I was once just about to close up the gallery, it was a dark night and one of my large paintings was in the window. From outside I heard this guy shouting “that’s rubbish my 5 year old could do better!” (He did not know I was there) frankly I laughed like a drain – wonderful to provoke such passion and controversy I thought!

  17. I have a personal blog and FB page. The first thing I’ve learned to do is everyone’s comment has to be reviewed by me before it’s posted. This helps two ways. 1. It eliminates any trolls just being jerks and wanting to make someone’s day miserable and I don’t approve it. 2. It gives me an opportunity to review any comments from customers or potential customers, figure out how I’m going to respond so they are happy, and it also gives me time to calm down before responding. This has been a win-win.

    People say mean stuff on line that they would normally never do to one’s face. I found also that most people are angry over something else and they are looking to take it out on someone. You just happened to be in the line of fire.

    I have had a few people say terrible things when I’ve been at a gallery, doing demos. Mostly – “I could do that” or better yet, “my kid does better than that.” I politely say, “that’s wonderful! You should show their art work if it’s that good! I’m sure people will love it!” That shuts them up and they walk away.

    No matter what you do, there will always be someone to criticize you. Some do it out of meanness and others do it out of jealousy. The fact remains that you have the courage to let the world see your art and enjoy it. Not many people will do that. Pat yourself on the back. My professor at college once told me, “You will appeal to many, but not everyone. If you understand that, life will be much happier.”

  18. I once was having a discussion in a message board, a political discussion, and one of the sort of “established trolls” of that board chimed in with the equivalent of “so’s yer mother” and a nasty comment about how my artwork, which I’d posted elsewhere in the board, far from the discussion at hand, “sucks”.
    I said to him, “Omigod, you don’t like my work? This is terrible. Omigod. Tell me, are you a Master Painter?”
    He said, “noooo?”
    I said, “Oh, thank GOD. I was so worried there for a second. Because I’ve had two [count ’em] actual acknowledged American Masters [stuff in museums, etc] tell me in formal critiques that my work’s excellent, and so basically your opinion doesn’t rate.”
    We had many fiery discussions about politics after that, but he never tried that again.

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