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feedback and emotional attachment – A Handbook for Emerging Artists
Even though your work will be discussed by someone else, this doesn’t mean that you should be passive. Strive to create agency in feedback situations: by preparing for the situation (the previous point), by anticipating the course of the discussion, and by knowing that in the end it will be you who will analyze, and thus judge the feedback’s quality. Consider the following steps:
Record the conversation: Recording the conversation lets you relive and review it at your convenience. This is easily done with your smartphone or tablet, and doesn’t require dedicated equipment or microphones. Before you record anything, make sure to ask for permission; be prepared to explain your intention: to review the feedback, and to more efficiently progress forward. You can even mention your nervousness, which sometimes results in you forgetting what was said. If you can’t record, consider writing down your thoughts during the feedback session – this is something that is always possible, and doesn’t need anyone’s permission. You can even announce it upfront. If you feel embarrassed, or simply aren’t good at writing while listening, ask someone else to take notes for you. Instruct them what to look out for, so that they can focus on what you’re curious about. If you can’t record and don’t have anyone who can take notes for you, then write down your memories right after the feedback session is over.
Understand that recording and note-taking can also act as potent filter to proactively shield you from weird, imbalanced behaviors: awareness of being recorded can create a sort of “invisible authority”, a supporting power that might otherwise not be present.
Explain yourself: Use your prior preparations to now give a quick intro and overview on what you do, and how you understand your work. Explain your references, preferences and frustrations; and ask any specific questions that you might have. How you present your work has the power to influence the feedbacker’s focus. Use this to get feedback on what you most want.
Listen: After having done your preparations and introductions, it’s time to let your work speak for itself, to see where it takes the feedbacker. This is an exciting moment that might have seen you worried, giddy, and maybe even sleepless the previous night. Now listen as your work becomes a platform for someone’s thoughts. Learn to listen neutrally, without taking offense or pride. Don’t antedate the feedbacker’s opinion by interrupting them. Refrain from being dominant or shy; let there be space for the work to speak. This can be especially hard when the feedbacker takes a lot of time without saying anything, or if the work demands a lot of time (as in a performance or video work). Trust in the work you created, and listen.
Expect misunderstandings: Since everyone is and interprets differently, your work often won’t immediately be seen according to your intentions. That’s normal, and the reason why you want external feedback: to increase your knowledge on how to create work that’s concise enough to evoke what you want it to, without requiring your contextualization. It’s OK if, in your apprenticeship phase, your work is deemed to be plagiative, lacking art historical knowledge, etc. Don’t worry about these things – they are the reason why you wanted feedback.
Expect harshness: Even though art is a forum for highly individual content, the art world’s protagonists aren’t free of being judgemental. Even mellow, kind people can misunderstand your intentions, or might have an extremely bad day. In the worst case, you might receive feedback from someone intending to hurt you; for all these reasons, consider shielding yourself mentally from abuse: don’t believe everything that’s said. Don’t transfer authority over your work in general, and specifically not to someone who discusses it insensitively.
If worse comes to worse, consider asking questions like these: “How can you know so surely that the work isn’t good? Who defines what’s ‘good’? How can I know that I should listen to you? What would happen if I don’t? Couldn’t worthwhile work emerge from pursuing my voice further? If I would pursue your path only, wouldn’t this create a copy of your work?“
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Artists constantly receive feedback for their work, entirely independently of whether they’re looking for it. Feedback comes in many forms and attitudes, and for all sorts of reasons. It’s most often thought about as a tool to increase insights into one’s work practice: a feedbacker offers thoughts about your creation. Depending on the feedbacker’s knowledge about art history, politics, symbols, metaphors etc, your understanding about your work might increase – which ideally leads to you creating stronger, deeper, more focussed and simply “better” work.
The challenge with feedback lies in the multiplicity of art: because art isn’t monolithic, there can be no clear definitions of what creates a “good” artwork. Resultantly, the feedbacker’s knowledge might simply not be relevant to your aesthetics or vision. In the worst case, their opinions and preferences don’t match yours at all. In case of the feedbacker being in a position of power (eg. an art school teacher), you (a student) might be strongly inclined to favor their comments over your own opinion. This can also happen if you feel insecure about your creation: you might be on to something, but might not yet be strong enough to see or believe in it.
That’s why feedback benefits from people who are radically open-minded, and transparent about their intentions; an ideal feedbacker won’t have their advice be formed by their specific aesthetic and semantic opinions and preferences, but will be able to offer meta advice: if that is the direction you want to head towards, this might be able to get you there. This includes knowledge about the creator’s progress: the better a feedbacker understands the creator’s intentions and history, the better they might be able to offer advice on how to improve their work, according to its (and not theirs) inner logic – aesthetics, semantics, materials, etc. In contemporary art, the worst feedback is one that aims towards specific aesthetical goals, and wants to transfer them to a creator.
The ideal feedback setting is similar to a therapeutic safe space: both parties can rely on openness and transparency, aimed to increase enlightenment.
Feedback benefits from understanding the intentions of both the feedbacker and the person seeking feedback:
Ideally, a feedbacker would want to help you get deeper into your work, and would be able to do so in a respectful way that considers you, your condition and previous progress. Realistically though, feedbacker’s can have all sorts of intentions; some feedback isn’t given to help but to vent (maybe your work rubbed someone the wrong way). Some feedback is given in order for you to adapt someone else’s artistic principles. Understanding the feedbacker’s intentions will help you in judging whether it might really help you in deepening your own way, and strengthening your voice.
Ideally, a person receiving feedback would want to deepen their understanding about their work; to expand knowledge of its semantics, get insights about the history of the chosen aesthetics, etc. In reality, some people look for feedback simply because they want the feedbacker’s attention and appreciation; they might not actually be interested in growth.
Implicit and explicit Feedback
Feedback can happen explicitly or implicitly:
Explicit feedback is defined by a clear setting, enabling everyone to understand the context in which opinions are given (eg. at portfolio reviews, when talking to a curator, …).
Implicit feedback on the other hand happens without this kind of framing (eg. during a studio visit by a peer, or a chat over coffee). Since it usually happens without introduction, implicit feedback often emerges unexpected and unwanted, and can be harder to spot and digest – especially if it’s transgressive.
In educational settings (art schools, workshops, etc), feedback is used as a major tool to convey insights, and thus to help you learn about yourself and your work. But even in institutions, feedback isn’t always explicit (as in scheduled feedback sessions): it can appear in casual comments by colleagues, assistants, teachers or curators, and isn’t always based on the feedbacker’s preceding analyses or self-inquires. Quite often, feedback is given seemingly as instantaneously as the artwork hits the feedbacker’s nerves. Since implicit feedback surrounds artists a lot, it is good practice to look out for this sort of “impromptu feedback”, and to increase once competency in recognizing it. Some people can register and analyze new work extremely quickly and sensitively – but most don’t have this capacity.
Feedback and Transgression
Feedback doesn’t simply include the potential for transgressions; in extreme cases (depending on the power dynamics, individual sensitivity and empathy) the act of offering feedback can itself be transgressive, especially if it is “offered” in ways that are too offensive to you. Even though often unrealistic, it’s healthy to expect the upholding of safe space principles for any kind feedback, independently of whether it’s given in explicit or implicit settings – whether it’s a family member suddenly discussing your work on the phone (when you didn’t expect it), or your professor during a scheduled feedback session. Feedback should only happen when you are ready for it – a safe space can’t exist if there isn’t knowledge about mutual control and respect. When someone pushes to give you feedback, it can be smart to understand them as an aggressor, independently of their position and power.
Technically speaking, feedback returns information to the source of a signal: your work can be seen as the signal, and you as its source. As creator, you’re probably attached to your creations (your “signals”): you had specific reasons that led to their creation, and likely had to overcome obstacles during the creation process. This might have required all sorts of experiments and frustrations, but might also have shown potentials for further investigations. You might feel unsure about some of your choices, and happy about others. Creating an artwork is a complex, and often unstable process: quality ideals need to be established, knowledge of craft/materials/processes needs to be increased: at first, every artwork is a bold statement – potentially bolder than you. That’s why feedback situations are inherently challenging: your work, and thus your ideas, your intellect, your emotionality, your whole self, is put under the spotlight. Feedback can put you at a crossroads: do you believe in yourself and your work, or in the feedback that might want to see your work transformed?
Processing feedback requires you to balance trust in yourself with trust in someone else:
Purely believing in yourself likely results in ignoring the feedbacker’s potential valuable advice.
Purely believing in the feedbacker’s words risks disabling your voice – the sole reason why you initially wanted to make art.
How you navigate these topics is both deeply personal and philosophical, and always has tremendous consequences for your work. That’s why it can be a good practice to actually ask the feedbacker: Should I really listen to you? What if I don’t? Couldn’t worthwhile work emerge from pursuing my voice further?
Contemporary art thrives on diversity – your voice might be a relevant addition to it. For this reason, teaching and discussing contemporary art practices often differs from teaching traditional crafts, where quality ideals are predefined and often static. In the arts, quality is an extremely dynamic and personal attribute – it’s a multitude. Feedback and self-esteem are closely related. Feedback and luck are closely related as well: if you’re insecure about your work, and get to be a student of a highly successful, yet sadistic artist-teacher, a lot of your voice and ideas, your hopes and dreams can be erased or diminished before they ever got to exist.
Feedback can result in you feeling small and irrelevant – or praise your work to the heavens. Neither helps you to grow. To transcend this, establish a proactive attitude: judge what was offered.
Judge feedback according to its sensitivity to (and knowledge of) your goals, its sensitivity to the work you offered. Judge the feedbacker’s sensitivity towards you, your history and progress. Although feedback seems to imply the transfer of authority (from you to the feedbacker), this must never happen: as the work’s creator, you depend on your sensitivity towards (and authority over) it. Feedback should help you get closer to your ideals, not to subvert or change them.
Feedback can even be challenging when it’s positive: you might want ways to increase your game, but only received praise; understand that good feedback will always offer ways to increase your knowledge. Judge feedback according to the art historical references you received, and the amount of new information you can process.
Feedback and Autonomy
Some feedback settings will feel as if your work gets judged, stripping you of autonomy over it. Never lose this autonomy: judge the feedbacker and their advice’s quality and empathy, and ultimately work on setting up a network of trusted feedbackers: people on whose knowledge and advice you can rely on, and who care about safe space principles. Pursuing this search puts you in control (of the search, and ultimately of the setting and participants), even though you might still feel small and irrelevant.