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.

 

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36 Comments

  1. Great article! Many of my images empower women but they also have the contrary effect on highly conservative religious people (that fear free women). I’ve been told quite a few times that my art comes from the devil and that I need to cleanse my sins. At first I was really disturbed until I realized that I was strongly emotionally reacting (just inside) because they were acting out my ‘daddy issues’ (sadly my dad accused me of the same). I now see these encounters as blessings on the way since they helped me become a stronger confident woman. If they only knew!!! Curiously these people have not showed up in years now that I have taken care of this file folder 🙂

    1. This is the type of comment I’d have said. I’ve said it in other situations to people coming at me with negative comments. It puts the fire out because they have no fuel to continue fighting with. I’m the child of abusive parents and have learned much from my past that negativity does not need fuel or need to continue.

  2. yes, i had a customer for my prototype rug designs complain about my prices, and she made it into a character flaw, and ranted about how she used to think i was so great, but seeing my prices told her i had an over-inflated view of myself and further that she would never want to buy anything from me. i deleted her mean-spirited comment, emailed her personally to say that i thought she was being mean spirited and that such comments are not for my blog. i thought about doing a blog post about her comment and let my followers give their insights.

  3. It amazes me how the public seems to feel entitled to criticize an artist’s work publicly. Art is a very personal thing, and should be respected for what it is,( no matter if you like it or not). I have always found that the individuals critical of an artist’s work are generally not buyers to begin with. They are usually trying to impress someone they are with, or feel important be expressing something negative. At other times it is simply jealousy. Always keep in mind that the issue is something deep within themselves. Polite and secure people don’t need to express themselves in that sort of manner. When someone makes a critical remark on one of my artist’s work, I say something like: “He/ she is a wonderful artist, and has a great following of collectors…however just as every other artist in the world, he/ she is naturally not going to appeal to every individual.” Then I add something like: “I personally love their work!” and leave it at that. Don’t let the criticism ( both negative or positive) of others dictate who you are as an artist. No other person can create a work of art exactly like you. They don’t have your eye, your hand, or the should which makes you unique.

  4. Trolls are, unfortunately, a real part of life today.

    If one doesn’t like someone else’s art, why would they ever comment? It makes no sense to me. Didn’t their mommas tell them, “if you don’t have something good to say, say nothing”?

    Hard to know how a customer of art could have a legitimate complaint about the art — unless it is beginning to fall apart because of a failure to use good archival materials and processes, or it turns out to be copied from someone else’s art. If your taste has changed, that’s on you.

    I guess to me the bottom line is do not engage in people who have no rational reason to make a complaint because you already know that they are not rational.

  5. I normally have no issues. I have spent years in customer service industry and have always given excellent customer service and strive for excellence in everything I do.
    However, I now have a customer who is not happy with a commission. They agreed to my style, but then wanted me to change the style. A portion of it has already been agreed upon as non-refundable. I do not openly offer refunds in my contract. Do I refund them the rest anyway? I have never had anyone not like my work before. I put way more work into the piece then I charged for to try to get the art to the person’s liking, but they are still unhappy with it. They are not being mean. My concern is about them spreading around that I do not get it right so don’t hire me. We may simply have not been a good match up.

    1. It would probably be worth it to just refund at least half of the amount that was “nonrefundable” and explain to them that you are just unable to put on canvas what they have in mind. Hopefully they will understand that you need a little for supplies.

      After that, research online what various people have to say about doing commissions. I hope no one ever asks me to do one! I’ve heard so many horror stories.

  6. This is a great topic. Over the last 10 yrs I’ve had two trolls on my Facebook page, who weren’t clients and they were just being extremely nasty. I had the luxury of not responding and just deleting their comment. I never heard from them again.

    Occasionally when I’ve been at a gallery painting, I’ve had a handful of people who have been really critical (walking trolls), and have proclaimed out loud that “they could paint like I do, there’s nothing special about it.” I’m an abstract artist. I just respond in a cheerful way and say, “that’s wonderful! I encourage you to do it because I think you will find some joy in painting. I would love to see your work also, if you don’t mind sharing it with me.” That usually kills the conversation right then and they walk away.

    There are always negative people that want to try and make you as unhappy as they are. My mother always told me to not play into their game.

  7. Another very incisive blog, Jason.
    I just responded to a “Quora” question on the general topic of artist-viewer (audience) interactions. I won’t bother to repost here nor make any of the points except to say, that opinions are emotional and insubstantial. They ultimately help no-one nor the understanding of art.
    I had a rather nasty public encounter with a fellow local artist I barely knew. We both had “shows” at a local upscale restaurant, him first me next. We went to the restaurant for a meal and got in to conversation about art with the owner. He basically asked me to show him my work. I brought it down for the appointment in the next few days. ” When can you hang it?” he asked. I said, “as soon as the S___’s show is over.” He said, “It’s been ‘over’ for quite awhile.” So we hung the show, had an “opening”. Awhile later at an event a mutual friend was holding, he accosted me with loud insults and name calling, basically accusing me of invading his turf (the restaurant), and accusing me of hiding his work in a closet. (none of which was true as far as I could discern). I stood dumbfounded which was the perfect response as the other guests were silenced and the music that was the subject of the event stopped. After his salvo, with great flourish, announced and executed his departure insulting the hostess on the way. It was awful. I was answering questions for the rest of the evening as best I could as my friends wanted to know what I had done.

  8. I personally try to be very sensitive to the work of other artists. I put my heart and soul into everything I do, especially my art, and sometimes many months of effort go into one painting. I am very thin-skinned and easily wounded by criticism, so I try to avoid to doing that to others and so far I’ve been fortunate not to experience it publicly myself. It took a great deal of courage to show my work publicly the first time and still leaves me holding my breath sometimes. I recently submitted a work to the BoldBrush competition and a few people got behind it and took me up to second place in number of votes (I didn’t even get mentioned in the FAV15 though) – one person made an interesting comment that it had gotten to be about the artist and not the artwork. You would think getting over 100 votes would be thrilling – and it was – but the whole experience left me with a slightly lowered self-confidence and caused me to wonder if I am doing something wrong/or could I be doing something better? I do appreciate gentle feedback if I make myself vulnerable to showing my work to someone in private and asking their opinion. As far as trolls go, unfortunately, we live in a mean world these days and it’s good advice to ignore them and keep things private when you can’t.

    1. You are not “doing something wrong”.

      You are doing art your way, and although it feels nice to get votes and sell your work, the bottom line is if you are doing it for the votes and not for your own satisfaction, you are missing out on the joy.

      So what if you got fewer votes than you wanted or “didn’t even get mentioned in the FAV15” (whatever that is – I’m a successful artist and I never even heard of it). Thousands of artists enter competitions every year and never even get any votes, so there’s no reason for you to have “slightly lowered self confidence”.

      Keep learning, making art, and focus on the positives. Like most things in life, you can look at your glass as half empty or half full. Seems to me that if you got 100 votes that took you up to second place your glass is pretty close to overflowing.

      1. Response for Cynthia: Thank you for your comments. I am always a glass half-full kind of person, it’s just that putting my work out there for viewing is still a relatively new world for me.
        I responded to another query recently about what drives me to show my work to the public: is it fame, fortune or recognition? For me, it’s more about the validation that I’m achieving my goal of creating art with a level of technical competence and eliciting a visceral response from the viewer. If I do that, I’m satisfied.
        So, to clarify, I really don’t create my art for votes, contests, or anyone else – it’s a personal challenge for me that I take on with each piece. If I can sell a piece, that’s great and I can use the income, but I’d also be happy keeping a work I spent months painting that I know is ‘good’ according to my own standards.
        I just happened to give this particular contest a try and see what happened. Contests and juried exhibits aren’t why I create my art. A solo show on the other hand would be a nice accomplishment and I have a goal in mind for how to achieve that one. Best wishes

    2. I suggest you try to find a “critique group” that you can join. Try for a group no larger than 12 (one artist shares their art per month). Agree on the rules beforehand. Best if the presenting artist just listen to the constructive critiques of group members as each group member takes a turn sharing their views with the presenting artist. After all who want to comment have done so, the presenting artist responds, answers questions asked and comments on the groups’ comments. Then all in the group can take some time to share their knowledge about various art-related topics, up-coming shows and helpful thoughts about comments, festivals and competitions, etc. This group is similar to a “mastermind” group sometimes used in other non-art-related groups. If you can’t find a group to join, start one of your own. Participation in a group of this kind will help you meet other artists, learn to share your art-related critical assessments and learn from how other people think about what they see and think about other people’s art. This will also help you to present your own art and respond to how other people respond to you work (within a small sheltered group of your peers).

  9. I have not had too much negativity about my art or my blog but while I was an art teacher I had one very unfortunate incident. I had presented a unit to the students on Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of souls that have passed on. We were required, by educational standards , to present cultural observations about art and this served nicely. I explained it was a celebration of a person’s life but one parent became unglued and publicly flayed me on a citywide public forum and basically accused me of witchcraft. I tried to explain to no avail. Finally , several parents jumped in to my rescue and told her she was totally off base. She had complained without EVER asking me about it first, or the principal. Instead she went right to the nuclear option. The superintendent finally told her that I was doing my job. She withdrew her kid from school. The odd thing was, she herself dressed like a Goth.

  10. I had someone(a troll) leave really disgusting remarks about a piece I posted on a social media site-this person was a “friend of a friend” of mine, so I took it on a more personal level knowing now I shouldn’t have. This person then continued their “rant” & very negative comments on the website that I was on to sell my art(not a personal site, but a widely used site). They(the website) shut this person down & removed the comments(after I complained to them). I left them in total silence & never heard from them again.

  11. Back in the day when I was lifting regularly, a man at my gym came over to “explain” to me “what I was doing wrong” (his nickname in the group I lifted with was “whiplash man” for the funky way he whipped his weights around.) My response was “Thanks! I have a coach” and a turned back. Haven’t had to use it at a show, but I have one this weekend, so we’ll see….

  12. happened to me about 6 months ago. The gentleman was very critical…first time ever for me..I just left it sit for awhile, and you are so right, my regular clients and folks that follow my blogs answered for me. they burned him so badly for being rude and ugly The final result..I sold the piece of art to a new client as a result of just sitting quietly..Thanks for sharing.. your info is so helpful.

  13. A wise person once told me, “Never get in a spraying contest with a skunk”. Those are words to live by. Thank critics for their input and move on.

    1. I love your comment Robert. I think I would say, “Don’t take it so serious.” I have had this happen to me only once and I was so surprised by it that I said nothing. A friend jumped in and chewed him out. Actually I was amused by the whole thing. Someone who would be rudely critical deserves to be ignored.

  14. I have had this happen in person years ago at an art group demonstration. The demonstrating artists was to give prizes at the end for groups of three levels of skill and style. I put in a painting I was doing for a client to get some feedback as there were a couple of areas I wasn’t happy with, and needed some fresh eyes on the painting. I got a lot of attention from members who loved the work, but was not awarded any prize at all by the demosntratng artist.
    I went to him to ask his opinion, and he jumped in sying i suppose youu want to know why I didnt give you a prize. I said I actually wanted some feedback on how to improve the work. He and a friend then spent ten mintues tearing my work to bits in front of everyone, and insulting me as well.
    People around me were shocked and I could hear them drawing breaths and murmuring.
    After they were finished I thanked him for him comments and took the paintign to the car, gatheringmy emotions and thoughts. Did he have ANY valid points in all of that I asked myself. A couple. OK that helps me to finsih the painting for my client. That’s all I need. Throw the rest out and move on.
    I put the painting into the car, and went back inside and thanksed him for his help. People asked me how did I manage to cope with allhis insults and remain so calm and polite.
    Fairly easy, I was not his student, I didn’t have to see him again, he meant nothing to me personally, I needed those couple of valuable pointers, I was in a group of peers and I wanted to respect the space and them, I also wanted to come out of it looking far more professional than him to maintan my professional integrity. Which I did.
    A few years later he died suddenly, so I really never have to encounter him again. His bad manners, insults, diregard for where he was, and all that went with him… went with him.
    and… when I fixed the painting, my client loved it.

  15. Years ago someone said rude things about my art in the comments of an art site where I had a portfolio, and I just deleted their comment. End of story!

  16. Years ago, a young woman asked me to do a painting of her child from a photo she had. I told her that I usually didn’t do portraits since my style wasn’t “realistic” and the painting wouldn’t look like the photo but she insisted anyway. Since I was in the US and she was in Canada, I thought it would be nice to expand my clientele. I asked for half of the amount upfront and the rest on delivery.

    When she received the painting, which was mailed at my expense, she sent several emails expressing her disappointment claiming it didn’t look anything like her child. So, I told her I was sorry the she wasn’t satisfied with my work, that she could keep the painting and that I would comp the remainder she owed.

    She responded by saying she “loved” the painting and my style, and that she would recommend me to all her friends. Sure enough, I had several of her friends contact me for commissions but I turned each of them down. Even though I was seething and I had proof that she was warned before hand, I never once let her know how I truly felt.

    Perhaps I might’ve expanded my clientele base, but getting burned by someone who didn’t want to pay full price told me she was not trustworthy enough to recommend my work.

    That was my first and last commission work.

  17. Excellent column.
    A few years ago at an outside art show where I was exhibiting, my paintings drew an insulting comment and a rather pompous remark about my prices being too high.
    It quickly became obvious that the critic wasn’t there to buy but to be controversial and look like an art expert.
    I smiled and responded in a friendly manner “The prices aren’t for everybody.”

  18. Great column, Jason. This reminds me of a technique to handle conflict I learned years ago and that I remember through its acronym: LAER
    – Listen
    – Acknowledge
    – Explore
    – Respond

    Listen rather than focusing on your objections or how you will respond.

    Acknowledge what you heard (repeat it back). This avoids misunderstandings and starts to build trust.

    Explore the issues raised. There is an opportunity to learn even if you don’t agree with all of the criticism.
    In the process areas of agreement will often surface that turn the conversation in a constructive direction. This process also helps you get past any emotional response you may have that gets in the way of a helpful response.

    Respond to the opportunities you’ve uncovered by taking this approach.

  19. I was acquaintances with an artist who said this to or about people who were nasty or rude to her about her work: “I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t like my work.” I have tried to emulate her attitude.

  20. No one online has made any negative comments to me. But, people I know, in person, say extremely rude (actually hateful) things about my art. I just blow it off. After the insult my art, they always finish with a statement about how they could do better. I just encourage them to make their own art and share it. That usually ends the insults. I think they expect me to get angry. But, when I tell them they should make art, and I start recommending places to show it online they seem to realize I am not trying to compete, I’m just trying to make money doing something I enjoy, they stop being as rude.

  21. I state openly that my work is Magical Realism and that there is a shamanic foundation to everything that I do. The people who follow my work love it for that very reason. I got a post on my studio Facebook page from someone who claimed to have found my business card on the ground in a parking lot and looked up my work. They launched into a hyper-conservative religious rant warning people “not to be fooled by the beautiful images” because everything I was doing was obviously the work of the devil. I just left it up. I thought, “You can’t buy advertising like that!”

  22. Truly salient advice here. It is best to just settle within yourself that you will never please everyone with your art. This will lead to a joy and thankfulness that there ARE those who appreciate and love your work even though not everyone does. I have had people tell me that I don’t do “real art” because I am basically drawing and painting what I see, whether a photo or en plein air. (Realism is so passe these days.) But, every time I get a commission for a new piece (over 200 times now), I realize that each one of those instances is an affirmation and validation of the previous pieces. So, I try to dwell on those affirmations, rather than the few negative ones. Sometimes, it is hard to do that because the negativity hits us so hard. But, to keep sanity in the art world it is very, very necessary. 😉

  23. As an artist and a gallery owner, I find it refreshing when people are negative about my work or another artist’s works, as I like that everyone is free to have an opinion and to be able to express it. As long as it is not done in a rude or nasty manner, I think it is very healthy. And in this day and age of everyone being “offended” all the time, it brings in some balance.

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