by David Greene

David Greene

David Greene
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
September 08
David Greene is the author of Unmentionables. David spent many years as a photographer. His photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. David is the spouse of painter James Stephens.


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AUGUST 3, 2010 12:48PM

Overcoming Criticism

Rate: 8 Flag
Bobo in furs, October, 1974, San Francisco, from the show
In my 20's, I had a vision of myself becoming an Artist with a capital A.  In this vision, I saw myself exhibiting my photographs at galleries around the globe, getting glowing reviews in the major art media, and achieving fame and success.  It’s a fairly common dream for those who are young and ambitious, and who aspire to make their lives momentous.
Then one day in 1978, I had a big exhibit of my work.  I got a negative review in a major art journal.  In her review, the critic wrote very little about my photography itself.  She had nothing to say about the composition of the photographs, or their lighting or tonal range.  Instead, she focused on the people in the photographs.  She characterized the subjects of my photographs as inhuman, lisping, exaggerated, stereotyped posers.

I was so incensed by the review that I wrote an essay and sent it to the editor of the art journal.  In the essay, I questioned the purpose of critics lambasting artists.  I wrote about how much courage it takes to create something and how unhelpful it is to the world of creativity in general to have critics lambaste anyone.

The art journal published my essay, which elicited the largest number of letters to the editor in the art journal's history.  There were strong opinions on both sides.  There were supportive letters from famous artists, and there were letters from a raft of art critics, who wrote personal defenses of their trade, and laid on additional criticisms of me to boot. 

There were also letters from ordinary people—some encouraging me, others not.  One letter writer called me a “nasty bitch,” “ego-posing,” “sinister,” “decadent,” and a “sickie.”  He referred to my work as “photographic garbage.”  Ironically, the essay I wrote was nominated for an award for best art criticism of the year.  My photographs, however, won no award, and that was my real disappointment.

Tanye at his breakfast table, August, 1974, San Francisco, from the show

After that experience, I felt quite vulnerable.  I saw that if I put my work out people could and would say anything, not just about my work, but also about me and about my subjects, and some of it might be cruel.  I realized that I couldn't handle criticism very well.  I realized how insecure I was.  Soon afterwards, I stopped exhibiting my photography.

Over the years, I’ve worked up the nerve to continue to take risks.  I’ve grown more accustomed to reaping both positive and negative consequences.  Experience has shown me that when I put my work out, I have to be prepared for all kinds of things.  Because my work is culturally controversial, even if I get praise, I am likely to get some condemnation as well.  Some of the condemnation has been about the work I’ve created, but I’ve also received reprimands directed at me myself—as if I were loathsome for having tried something and failed at it.

The truth is, each person who takes a creative leap and puts his or her work out, makes it easier for others to follow.

I was young when I wrote my essay questioning the role of criticism.  As much as anything, I was engaging in my own kind of critical revenge.  But there was one truth that I hit upon in the essay that has stuck with me: "all creativity is risk".  Everyone who creates a work of art takes a risk, expresses a hope and a dream.  It hardly matters what the person's level of skill is.  It hardly matters if the end product is timeless.  I believe that it is always beneficial to society that the risk is taken.  Everyone who takes the risk and creates something, nourishes creativity for all.

Nowadays, no matter how I feel about someone’s work, I try never to lose sight of the fact that the person’s creativity rises from the same impulses that motivate my own work.  The artist or writer may have a different vision than mine—but the underlying urge to create and share a vision with the world—is at root no different than my impulse to share my own imagination.

To other creators, I say, keep going, keep taking risks—even in the face of criticism.  Persistence, despite being criticized or ignored, gives you the opportunity to build self-confidence.  It takes practice to realize that what others say about you or your work has little to do with you.  It certainly says nothing about what you may ultimately achieve in life.  The people who love you will still love you.  And if you can love yourself, even in the face of criticism, you will have mastered one of life’s most difficult lessons.

Sometimes people assume that a given creation is either good or bad—that it either has merit or is without merit.  Sometimes they project this absolute judgment out to the rest of the world, as though aesthetic judgments were a science.  In fact, the world has billions of people.  Those billions of people do not all share the same taste.  Less obvious is that world has a huge number of sub-groups of people who share distinctive tastes.

If you put your work out, it may well be that someone will appreciate your creation, even if many others do not.  You may find a large number of fans, or your admirers may be just a few people.  But the wider you are able to cast your net, the more likely it is that somewhere someone will appreciate what you’ve made. 

 --David Greene is the author of Unmentionables: A Novel, a gay "Gone With the Wind" for everyone.

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A smart and illuminating explanation of creativity and a vigorous manifesto for pursuing one's creative vision despite the inevitable criticism. Perhaps jealousy motivates the criticism, or some smug desire to appear superior; I don't know. But I know you're right: creativity comes in as many forms as there are people, and, seeing as how judging it is not likely to cease any time soon, not one coin in tribute should be paid to any one set of criteria for making that judgment. It's the act that counts, not its reception.
Jerry, I agree with your added point, in effect, that creativity is it's own reward. Thanks for the comment.
Based on the two examples you posted here, my guess is that the adjectives employed by the critics you cited were born out of homophobia, plain and simple. I believe that part of the syndrome of bigotry is the inability to compartmentalize; i.e., to critique the photograph on its technical and artistic merits alone. They see through bigot-colored lenses. Great writing!
great post and wonderful points. receiving criticism without getting upset is something i've been working on. the problem comes with the type of criticism lezlie mentions. i can't help but feel defensive in those cases and automatically want to lash out.
Lezlie, thanks for the note. I continue to get lift off from your encouragement. :)

Lemonpulp, ditto....I'm still looking for the best way to respond to criticism. It takes all kinda self control to not be defensive. I've recently been taking inspiration from an Oscar Wilde quote: ""Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

Amanda G: THANKyou. I'm grooving on your space bar jokes over at noodle soup.
"Everyone who creates a work of art takes a risk, expresses a hope and a dream." Your post touched me on a personal level; I thought I would be a painter, when I was young. At the annual university exhibition, I was the only woman student whose paintings were chosen to exhibit, although there were more women that men in the program. When I discovered it, I left the program. Painting was so important to me, and I instinctively realized what you have described above. I did not have the courage to face whatever hurt might come, and I didn't have the sense to realize it didn't matter. Interesting, reading your post all these years later, how clear that moment is. Since then, I learned many things, like you, and one of them is that I can create for myself, and it is enough. Thanks for this: keep taking risks.
Thank you David. As you know, to create as we must, is to live! Who gives a rats ass what the critics. My mirror is smiling back so Rock on.
I came upon this by chance and I have to say, thank you. It's good to read something so intelligent, reasonable, and comforting. I'm sorry you had a bad critique. As someone who does film criticism from time to time, I have to say that often critiques completely forget there's an artist behind the work: it's easy to just pick something apart when you don't know the person or people who created it. I try to see things as you've written them, and I don't think any of my reviews are needlessly cruel or completely biased against a film - even one I didn't like. As an artist, I'm trying to see things as you see them. On another note, I, personally, love these two photos you've shown, especially the first one. Weirdly enough, they go with a writing project I'm currently in the middle of, so thanks for that unexpected surprise, as well. Continued luck in your creative endeavors, and I look forward to reading - and hopefully seeing - more of your work.
Sorry for all the misspellings -fighting the flu.
Your photos are weird and risky. And I could see why it would be a safer haven for the critic to lambast you than confront the uncomfortable. Good stuff. I remember years ago when a man friend talked about how jealous he was of little girls when he was young, they would get the pretty dresses and the bows and be the center of attention. He didn't want to be a girl, he wanted to feel like a princess too. It's bad enough girls spend their lives revolving around this form of praise, and sad enough that men are so often denied it altogether.
Wonderful, well done, thank you. This was a real blessing to me and the insights feel solid, truthful, compassionate, and hard-won. Bravo and thank you for sharing them.

It strikes me that the act of creation as you describe it seems essentially about the act of offering -- communication of the soulful and spirit-ful communion (our experience of the meaningful, the impact-ful, the challenging, the conflicted, and the important) in our own lives.

That the spirit-ful communication, communion, comes *through* art (and through our willingness to engage deeply enough with the feelings, issues, and medium to be able to share across these different kaleidoscopic experiences of being human) makes it seem even more sacred to me than before. Thanks!!
I found this at the perfect time in my life.I am a self taught photographer,and I don't have the "ideal"camera or lighting or studio space,and I cant afford a lot of upgrades or to hire other artists to create art so I do a lot of it on my own.I get a ton of critiques on my work because its weird to people I guess.I don't believe there are limits to how you can create/express yourself artistically as long as nobody is being hurt by your that I mean physically or being attacked personally with a piece of art intended to insult a specific person.I believe Art should be beautiful,free,and that we should all support one another..not put each other down..unfortunately I have dealt with a lot of negative people where I currently live because they have their "IDEA" of what photography should be,or they have created a certain standard of what our art should meet..which I don't understand at all.I see a child's drawing as a piece of art especially when they sit there for hours in excitement creating a picture to show mommy & daddy how much they love them...should we tell that child it isn't up to par compared to other children their age?It isn't what other children are creating?whether a child or an adult,art is art..and the heart and soul of the matter are the same.We sit there pouring our hearts into our work because we want to connect with the world..we want to express our point of view because our choice of art is our chosen language.Even though it hurts to receive the comments I receive..I will keep on keeping on because photography is my passion..its in my blood.Thank you for this piece.Touched my heart.-Krystle