How To Give and Receive Worthwhile Feedback

Stevie Wonder

“You’re amazing. I loved it. Wouldn’t change a thing!”

Unless you’re talking to Stevie Wonder, this is not legitimate feedback. It’s applause. We all need applause every now and again. BUT, without substance, your well-meaning commentary is the barking of a seal.

To paraphrase marketing guru, Seth Godin, if you want to improve, actively seek feedback that clearly and generously identifies ways you can more effectively delight your customers and create a more remarkable experience for them. Replace “customers” with lovers, bosses, parent or readers … and you get the picture.

The very first time I showed during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2003, my exhibition was attended by some heavyweight collectors (full disclosure – they were college friends of my father’s). The successful and stylish couple, late 60s, had been buying serious art for decades and had undeniable street cred: museum boards, art history education and an obvious aesthetic sense. I had no formal art training and had been painting for only three years, exhibiting just over a year.

Artist's Palette

My show was well attended. I had a beautiful woman on my arm and was feeling the love, when my father called me over to introduce me to his collector friends. The very first thing the handsome, goateed gent said to me was, “What’s with all the primary colors?”

His voice dripped disdain, as though I’d pissed on his favorite ascot. “It’s so amateurish,” he continued, while his silver haired wife nodded in agreement.
I stood flat-footed, marveling at his unmitigated audacity and thinking to myself, F*%k this asshole and his bobble head wife. “Picasso used primary colors,” I said.
“Picasso was a rare genius,” he said without hesitation.
“My work is stream of consciousness, and what you see is what I was feeling on that given day,” I replied, masking the hurt I felt.
“Well it doesn’t work. Get back in the studio and keep at it.”

He then went on to tell me that there were three ways to make good art: go to art school, be born a genius or suffer hideous pain and/or insanity. When he implied that my comfortable middle class upbringing greatly handicapped my ability to make powerful work, I’d had enough.

“What are you talking about? You don’t think my pain is as real as Basquiat’s?”
“He killed himself over his pain,” said the collector with a self-assured smile. I was speechless, as he looked over at his wife and said, “We need to hit our next event.” He reached out and shook my hand firmly and warmly.

I walked straight to the bar and ordered a bourbon for me and a vodka for my date. “This guy is a guest at my show and the first thing he does is tell me my work sucks? What’s that all about?” She shrugged.

That exchange hit home, because that collector had a bona fide eye for art. And once I moved past my bruised ego, I was glad that surly dog said everything he said. Because he was partially right.  

SF Skyline study from Brussels, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 24″x48″, 2003

My work was amateurish at the time. My palette had not yet matured into more nuanced tones. My style was still predominantly derivative. In fact, it took me five years till I landed on what I considered my own language. What that chap gave me was straight-up tough love. And his commentary compelled me to take many of the works in that early show and finish them, because, they were still in their infancy. One such piece (above) was an abstracted, mixed-media SF skyline I painted in Brussels in 2003.

Latitude, Acrylic, World Book Encyclopedia, sheet music, paper and mesh on panel, 48″x24″, 2005, Stuart Sheldon

By the time I finished it in 2005, it had morphed into Latitude, the piece above, of which I am quite proud.  You can still see remnants of the earlier iteration. Some young collectors snatched it up enthusiastically.

The next time you have a chance to offer feedback to an artist (or anyone), show some courage and insight. Don’t simply say you like it, tell them how it makes you feel. Why it worked or why it didn’t. Tell them one specific aspect that you feel soars or crashes. Even Stevie Wonder will appreciate that detail. Of course, be diplomatic. No needs to hit someone in the face with a hammer, as my critic did with me.

And when you’re on the receiving end, it’s your job to filter, chew, swallow and utilize the nutrients served to put meat on the bones of your life.


14 thoughts on “How To Give and Receive Worthwhile Feedback

  1. Constructive criticism is like a vaccine for the soul. Timing and dosage can make the difference between making the recipient stronger and totally destroying them. Love you-

    1. This is great. You’re the best Stuart!

      OK, playing on the subject there, of course. but, we were having a conversation on exactly the topic of wanting to sincerely help a friend in need who is having a hard time “chewing filtering & swallowing”. We were talking about how to deliver the message in a way that would allow her to hear us. Thanx for the encouragement to help us to put “meat on her bones”.

  2. Perhaps…. ultimately, the world is full of people, each of whom is full of him/herself… as they may well be having manufactured their own universe in the mortal brain in their head… so be it… but their opinions only matter to the degree that they matter… and so, the question for me is do they matter to my art… the answer is not so much… of the 7 billion people on this planet only a handful will ever see my art… some like it some do not… but i do it only because doing art is easier than not doing art… Bukowski said that writing was for him, a form of insanity… i believe that is true for me… for years, i made art compulsively with no idea that anybody would ever see it… now a few people see it… that does not seem to make much difference to me… the art is how it is and i do it the only way it can be done… if some big shot likes it or not well, that does not change the art because the art comes from someplace else… to truly be an intuitive artist, you must trust your intuition and simply be honest and let the art happen the way it seems to need to happen… if anybody likes it, then it will become ART which is art that has an audience, even if only a small one… if not, it will be simply personal crap (art-art without an audience… art therapy etc…) and so what… the world has plenty of art already and does not need mine… so why not make whatever i feel like making… a few people dig it… well good for me… i get an ego stroke… but almost 7 billion either do not like it or never heard of it… okay, i can live with that too…

    so, my advice is to count the collector who is worried about primary colors as one of the 7 billion – tell him to kiss off– and do whatever the fuck you want to do… unless your goal is to make saleable art, in which case, listen to everybody with money… otherwise, fuck em all… in a few million years we and our planet will all be stardust anyway… it does not matter unless you make it matter here and now… and that is a power you have in this chimera that we call mortal life… you make the decision…

    1. Norman, I loved your work when I made a special trip to Minnesota to see it way back when. And I still love it. You make things that matter. Deep, biting, sexual images that speak to your undeniable love and passion for your partner. And to your gratitude for being a sentient soul in a merciless world. Keep at it, brother. Keep that insanity flowing. I need it and the world needs it … even if they don’t know they need it. RESPECT!

  3. art is so subjective. i take issue with the way that gentleman delivered his message – even though you found value in it… possibly a testimonial to your strength of character. but others can be far more fragile.

    i DID attend art school, and one of the first things we learned on the first day of the each studio class is how to deliver feedback in a respectful manner. as people who create, we pour a part of ourselves into every piece, and to simply tear it down is inconsiderate.

    so here it is, because it’s valuable in every situation where one is giving feedback…

    first and always, start with the positive: “i like what you did with your lines and shapes. for me, it evokes …” and definitely elaborate, people like to hear that you like what they did and why, and this sets the stage for the rest of the critique.

    if you’d like, ask for more information: “share with me what you were thinking when you chose this color palette/cityscape/medium/etc. …” this opens the dialog in a friendlier and far less combative way.

    make your suggestion in a kind but direct manner: “if i were to make a recommendation, i would suggest that you broaden your palette… but that’s just me.” go on to explain why, but do include that nod to the subjective nature of art.

    our knee-jerk reaction to harsh criticism like that gentleman’s is to get angry, discredit them, shut them out. then no value can be taken from their feedback. of course you rose above that, but i don’t know that i would have. maybe. but if he could have delivered it with a little more compassion, well, who knows. maybe it would have spared you some angst. then again, maybe that angst is why his comments resonated with you.

    anyway, i’m glad it didn’t hold you back. keep creating 🙂

    1. THANKS Benay,
      It’s quite refreshing to hear the POV of one who did the academy route and learned the art of critique. I fully agree there is a way to provide valuable feedback without tearing someone down, even if you absolutely detest the work product. Clearly, you have that unique art form down pat. RESPECT!

  4. The art of giving feedback is different than the art or receiving feedback. Stu’s post highlights the art of receiving, which is to find what’s useful in every reception whether it’s delivered with grace or not, and Benay does a marvelous job of illustrating the art of giving feedback so that it is well received by as many as possible. Finally, Norman has us considering when and whether feedback should even be considered based on the goal of the feedbackee. A very broad exploration in a very small space! Bravo! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that word aloud . . .)

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