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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38 Comments

  1. I do a lot of shows. I do fine art photography and people come to my booth and ask if I use photo editing programs in order to prepare my files for printing. Of course I do. Some of these people want to pick a fight with me. I realize I don’t want to engage with them. I figure that these people are probably having a bad life and want to share the misery. Another exhibitor has the perfect response for those people. He offers them a cookie. For me, the primary goal needs to be to either convert these people into customers or get them out of my booth as quickly as possible in order to create room for people who might buy from me. I try to think of ways to respond before I get in the situation, so that I can diffuse it. I think the right thing to do is to ask why they are asking a particular question so that I can figure out where they are coming from. If they want to pick a fight, I don’t want to expend resources on them. Some of them are asking because they do photography also. It is okay to talk to them if there are no other customers around and they may end up buying something from me. I try to give them my contact information and let them talk to me outside of the show. That way I can focus my precious show time on customers. For other people, if they ask me if I do editing, it may be a conversation starter where they may be interested in my art. If I get a feel for why someone is asking me the question, I can address the real question.

  2. Ten years ago, my first artwork was a tarot deck. It somehow got discovered right away and someone posted a thread about it in a forum. It immediately attracted a group of bitter old women outraged by nudity and the fact that I’d actually done the prerequisite rite before designing the deck. Before I realized it, I was at war with these trolls, wasting time responding when their comments didn’t really even say anything. They just seemed to get off on getting me going.

    Later I discovered that it was a group of friends who routinely ganged up on new artists, running them off “their” forum. Long story short, I learned a lot from that experience. Tons of fans are created by a genre only after the genre has become popular. The popularity of the genre leads to its reinvention, a hijacking of the genre to the point where it almost loses all contact with its roots, like Marilyn Manson is to goth culture. Seeing how these tarot “fans” also got off on insulting Crowley, the most talented and influential individual who’d ever designed a deck, I realized I was in good company. I ended up deleting every post in that thread and never visiting that forum again – nor engaging any other trolls anywhere else.

    1. Jeremy, I’ve been a figurative artist for a long, long time. When we lived in Florida (accidentally for four years) I did a number of shows. I’ll never forget the day I was minding my booth and a woman came along with her young son in tow. She actually covered his eyes and harummphed away, like my nudes were going to cause the poor kid to turn to a life of degeneracy. She was apoplectic. That put me into a funk for quite a while. In the last few years I’ve come to realize that people are going to think what they want and there’s not much to do about it but keep on working.

  3. I’ve dealt with the occasional troll on all of my blogs. My advice (which I posted in an article on my professional blog) to others was this: “[The troll has] already proven what kind of person he is. Once that’s known, the strawman arguments, ad hominem attacks, and circular reasoning falls on deaf ears.”

    Trust that your audience can tell the difference between a troll trying to up-end other people’s happiness and valid criticism, and you won’t be disappointed.

  4. I’ll never forget the harsh criticism of an art tutor while at college. He did say positive things about another work but it’s always the negative things we remember for some reason!
    There’s also ‘being damned with faint praise’. One woman rang to ask if she could buy one of my paintings, she then went on to say her family knew much more about art than her, and they’d be very angry with her if she bought my painting but she loved it anyway. ‘Er..thanks’ I said.
    Today my collaborator (a musician) said I could do better than my most recent paintings. That was good though, it fired me up with enthusiasm since I know he loves a lot of my work. ‘Go away and paint something beautiful’ he said. A few years ago I’d have cried, this time I laughed and said ‘ok. I’m on it’.

  5. If its vis-a-vis I’ll usually say something like: “That’s an interesting perspective; I’ll give it some thought”, then I’ll politely excuse myself and go the restroom, or the kitchen or lose
    myself in the crowd.
    If it’s in blog or email (and NOT a customer) I’ll simply ignore it and remove it quickly from the blog.

  6. A negative comment is hard to hear, and I do try to assess whether I can learn something from it. Sometimes though, I respond with some variation of: “It’s not for everyone.” It’s good for me to remember that, even if I don’t say it, because it keeps me from taking it personally. Occasionally, it seems to have a paradoxical effect of having them take a second look and decide that maybe it is for them!

  7. Since I made the decision 2 years ago to try to sell my paintings (and most of that time was spent floundering), I’ve not had much experience with negative commentary. NOT YET. I had several rejects from galleries, but comments were BUSINESS ORIENTED.
    However I did receive a REJECT from a group whose members specifically paint animal and bird life. The LENGTHY email gave a lengthy dissertation on WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR IN THE MEMBERS OF THEIR ART GROUP.
    Would have been very helpful to TELL ME EXACTLY WHICH QUALITIES MY WORK WAS LACKING so as to give me some idea of the reason. As it is, my mind has run amok, delving into the darkest thoughts, OTHER ANIMAL/BIRD PAINTERS HAVE FOUND MY WORK LACKING (to the extreme).
    Gallery rejection says, “it’s unlikely we can sell your work here because our clientele buys southwestern landscapes, American Indian, or contemporary or whatever”. THAT’S NOT PERSONAL.
    In spite of the laundry list of criteria of excellence to meet their standard, nothing was specifically pointed to, in other words, WHERE IS MY FAILURE IN THIS LIST. it felt REAL PERSONAL.
    Throwing salt into the wound, was an invitation of sorts, to REAPPLY AGAIN next April, and YOU MAY WAIT A BIT TO FIND OUT IF SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS CHANGE BETWEEN NOW AND APRIL AND PAY ANOTHER 40.00 JURY FEE.
    I went into a black hole for about 2 days and then thought about the absurdity of the “offer to reapply” .

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
    NOT IN THIS LIFETIME.

    1. Hi, Susanne–I’m sorry about the rejection notice, but you at least got something in writing. It seems to me, unless I missed something–that it was specific: your work didn’t depict southwestern landscapes.
      Keep painting and doing your best, and I hope you connect with someone who appreciates your non-southwestern landscapes very soon!

    2. Susanne, honestly, it sounds like they are in it for the jury fee. I would have some trepidation about the group on those grounds.

  8. Great commentary, Jason.
    The anonymity of the Internet lends itself to such nonsense. It is one reason I don’t have a blog, although I narrate my work in progress on a business Facebook page. There is little to debate … it just is.
    Nothing can be gained by defending a stance on public forums. Art is so subjective opinion is only opinion. Vague identities will take off on you about anything for any reason … and they pay no price whatsoever for their lack of civility. Ignore it like you would an aggressive driver – there, you avoid road rage. Online, you avoid unstable personalities. Honestly, does it matter if he thinks Picasso was a hack?
    A dissatisfied customer is entirely different. With a commission there commonly is a misunderstanding. Be absolutely sure artist/patron have a thorough understanding of what is expected. Go over the agreement point by point. If both parties agree on specifics you reduce the likelihood of problems later. I’ve never had a commission refused. Also remember a customer may bring up an “issue” purposely to try and get a concession on price. If the party admits a particular point there is no reason to relinquish the financial part of the commission. I require half nonrefundable deposit, and if they don’t want it, fine. I’ll alter the painting to make it marketable elsewhere.
    I’ve had a few people fuss about price with an existing piece. I try to make my work affordable and give discounts on occasion. I want a patron to love my work. I offer terms. Equally, I understand someone may not want to invest that much in original art … that’s why I do an occasional giclee.
    There is a rare “buyer’s remorse” situation. Normally it has nothing to do with the piece. Maybe the air conditioner needs replacing … now. I’ve only taken back one painting in a decade. The patron was apologetic but she was relieved I was willing to give her money back. Repeat; I want a patron to love my work. It’s not about you … don’t take it personal.

  9. Actually, I feed on negative feedback. I have been collecting all the negative feedbacks and rejection letters have been getting from curators, art institutions, etc., to one day include them in an art show.

    1. Reginald, I agree wholeheartedly regarding feeding on negative feedback. For me, though, I have tossed the word ‘negative’ in favour of the phrase and words ‘points for improvement’. Doesn’t it just even sound happier? When I was a member of Toastmasters International, I thrived on (and saved) the little PFI’s handwritten by the members. I loved the kudos but it was through the PFI’s that I truly learned to improve the craft of public speaking in a positive way. This also allowed me the freedom to not take comments personally, but rather to look forward to them. Same with the words ‘critique’ and ‘failure’. They are simply not a part of my vocabulary. Seriously. Words make such a difference when registering in our psyches with respect to how we interpret and navigate through the progress of our art and life in general. But then, I’m 70, so life IS but a dream and I believe I finally get it…………

  10. Just had this happen on my social media feed. Decided to create bird watercolors for the primary purpose of the holiday greeting card market. Just fanciful little budgies, videos while creating them , impromptu on a blank paper, nothing serious. Wow, did one of the local bird realist painters start cutting me down and grilling me, as in “what kind of bird is that?” “we really need to talk about birds” I was polite, but deleted her comment string as soon as I had enough. Worried about luring customers away, as I already had 24 cards and two originals sold. Sure enough, at the next shared venue, she had hung the four species of birds that were in question, as though to say, “this is how they are done. My way or the highway.” I prefer fantasy to reality. She sells more art than I ever have, so why not leave well enough alone. I dread the thought of opening my blog to comments.

  11. A lot of my painting is done digitally (Corel Painter/Adobe Photoshop) and therefore only available as prints. I have my work, including some traditional media works at a local gallery. At one “first Friday” event a few years ago, I was introduced to an established artist who had recently moved to our area, and who was to be working in this gallery. Barely past “nice to meet you”, when she realized I was working digitally, she blurted out, “I would never advise someone to buy that kind of work!”. I just kept my response to a nod, perhaps a rueful grimace before turning away. She was gone again a few months later, but I had another actually ruder response a year ago from another artist (ceramic) who exhibits in this gallery at another Friday event. This was a “harrumph!” and a turn on her heel. I have exhibited in a number of gallery and museum shows elsewhere over the last several years where digital art is not a pariah, but a lot of places still view it with suspicion. (For a bit of history from the illustration side of things, specifically medical illustration (I’m a retired certified medical illustrator), in the early 90s when Photoshop arrived, many figured the sky was falling, but most if not all either worked alongside, or adapted and accepted another new medium.) Media aside, I surmise that “established artist”, was at a stressful point in her life, and actually did not have the temperament for gallery sales. At least the gallery owner and manager are professionals.

  12. Sound advice, Jason. So far I’ve not had to deal with negativity/trolls. Have had some gallery rejections, but always polite, one with constructive comments on what she didn’t like in one of the works I submitted, which I appreciated. Eventually I expect to deal with what feels more personal – and with this blog post in mind I’ll be ready!

  13. Jason, I once had a newspaper review of my gallery show that was so horrid–like a personal attack–that I burst into tears upon reading it. I called my Dealer who was so sympathetic.
    The next day, to my astonishment, my Dealer called. She exclaimed, The Gallery is filled with people!”
    She said they remembered the Impressionists.
    This was a positive ending and many sales resulted.

  14. Jason, your blog posts help me to feel valued and appreciated . You always talk to (and about) artists as the professionals that they are. Often your posts arrive at the moment that I am having issue with your topic of discussion. Amazing! Thanks!!

  15. Amazing how little it takes to try to take an artist (me) down. First I attempt to find out specifically what about my work doesn’t work for them, then if need be I ignore them, unfriend or block. Not that I mind critical comments, just the ones whose sole intent is to cause hurt. There is always a nice way to say or discuss something. Thanks for your clear head and sharing your experiences. It helps us all.

  16. An old friend on Facebook began to criticize my work. A lot. He knew me over 30 years ago when my work was much different than it is today. He is also an artist and his work has not changed at all in all that time. I got tired of his rants so I unfriended him. I didn’t need the aggravation.

  17. I had some negative feedback, mostly on Facebook forums and I fumed and took the very personally..I am a very sensitive person and can be easily hurt.. I get to be really thick-skinned and learn to ignore them.. they ruin my day and leave a hard feeling for days! When I see bad art on Facebook I never criticise it as I fear that I may hurt the artist.. I don’t know why these trolls believe they are entitled to pick on my work.. many times their remarks didn’t make any sense… only once the critique was very helpful and I thanked the guy for the help..well, I need to be calm and not allow these people to involve me in fiery disputes

  18. I agree w/ you 100 percent. Where is the percent mark?! 😳Your solutions are always right on. Congrats on your 11 years. Keep up the good work

  19. A few years ago, my work was censored. I was showing a series of nude drawings of women in active poses, such as Jumping and Leaping. The show was installed in a theater at the college where I teach. The show was in conjunction with a production of The Vagina Monologues. A frightened college administrator tore down a drawing of a 70+ year old triathlete in mid-leap and closed the show down. The director was denied tenure and later fired. The union urged me to fight the outrage. I found myself in the center of a storm, but kept to myself.
    It was pretty traumatic and changed my exhibition and studio practices profoundly. I emerged from the ordeal understanding that all art has a profound power to evoke strong emotions, not all of these may be welcome. At least no one threw rotten vegetables at me or burnt my effigy in protest, like they did for Stravinsky’s premier of The Rites of Spring!
    In retrospect I’m not sure taking the high road was the best response, but as it happens, the administrator was forced to retire and I’m still cultivating a stable income stream that supports my current art practice.

  20. Good advice! “… to think that each critic is helping me thicken up my skin…”
    It is hard to take bad critics with a smile, but I think we should try. Thank you.

  21. I listened as a visitor in my little gallery began, not a criticism, but a descriptive interpretation of a painting that was completely off and they were talking with the artist. The artist kept countering with his own description of his work and the visitor was disagreeing. I kept wondering if the artist should say something like, –‘Oh, that’s a unique perspective’. I think, however, that he didn’t want his work to be so misunderstood.

  22. Thank you, your advice to wait a bit until you calm down before deciding what to do, I think I need that tattooed on my forehead. It is too easy to let emotion roar. I do delete or remove online ugly as it is simply too easy for people to hide behind a monitor and spew nasty stuff thinking they are safe from retribution. The harder is the comments made in public at a show. My response is usually to ask if I can tell them a little more about the piece and then ask if they have questions. So far, it has softened people up and they leave with a little more positive response.

  23. HI! I had an interesting lesson years ago that I always remembered. This lesson came from an art instructor. He related an experience he had with a woman he knew who liked very conservative artwork. He said that she was looking at one of his paintings on display and said that she really liked it. My art instructor said said he knew something must be “off” on this painting because her taste in art did not match with his style. He told us there are people that you may not want to like your art and if they do like a piece of your artwork, you may want to take a second look at it to see what may be wrong with it that such a person would like it!!! It was a great comment I never forgot. Kind of a fun perspective to remember…there are people with certain personalties who probably shouldn’t like your work!!

  24. I am an abstract artist, and one day, a grandmother with her grandson came into my booth at an art show. She walked to the middle of the booth, looked around confused and asked, “What the hell is this?” Her grandson was mortified (he was only about 12 too). I actually laughed and told her that it was abstract art and that it clearly wasn’t her cup of tea. I thanked her for stopping and suggested that she continue down the row and find an artist that is more her cup of tea.

  25. Nice article. I have leaned in the years that I have been in art to grow a thicker skin. I get ribbons sometimes and sometimes I know when my work was better when I they do not.
    If it sells to me, I really do not care about unsolicited comments. I will add,.. do not put your work in social media if you are only looking for good comments.
    Sometimes, I do not reply to a person’s work on social media
    because I do not like it .
    .

  26. Something I learned years ago, from a “successful” artist whose work I respected (and she showed in a big NYC gallery.) was this . She said, “Some people will always love your work and others will not.” This straight forward reminder helps me handle rejection and handle the sometimes blunt critiques from people who visit the cooperative gallery where I am a member. The crazy accusations or absurd comments from people who try to put a spin on everything you paint have a bigger agenda and you can’t get involved in their craziness.

  27. When your work reaches more and more people negative feedback is just inevitable. I have developed thick skin through sincerely loving what I do. Ars gratia artis. However, sometimes people just want to pick a fight. My first response is to listen and politely defer or try to present alternatives. If it does not work I usually step back. Our time is just to precious to spend it on trolls.
    Great points there.

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