An artist friend of mine recently sold one of her paintings in a local gallery. Excited about the sale, she posted a photo of the painting on Facebook for her friends to see. Before long, she received several "likes" and soon another local artist offered his thoughts. The other artist was quite well known, and had recently received an award for artistic achievement in the community. Unfortunately he did not like the painting. He wrote that it lacked contrast, was poorly designed, and poorly executed. Without offering a response, my friend removed the image from Facebook, and refrained from posting for some time. According to a recent research study, this type of interaction is fast becoming the "new normal" in American society, and it is not good. Sustained negative criticism serves as a block to creativity, potentially doing significant harm to artists, and we are wise to learn ways for dealing with it.
We live in a time of increasing polarization in America. According to the study Civility in America 2012, sixty-three percent of the general population believes we have a major civility problem. Fifty-five percent expect it to get worse. The current political environment is certainly part of the problem -- but social media are major contributors as well. Cyberbulling has doubled in just the past year. If the "new normal" is incivility, what does that say for artists?
Traditionally, artists have sought out peer groups such as artist guilds, salons, and various artist associations. In these groups, there are commonly face-to-face "critiques" with other artists. There might be suggestions about possible changes and improvements, but any outright attack would be witnessed and tempered by the others present. This has changed for artists who use social media. The physical presence of the other person is gone. People's names may even be fictitious. Today, it is not at all uncommon for an artist to accumulate thousands of social networking "friends," in hopes of finding support, encouragement and exposure. The problem is that many, if not most, of those "friends" are really strangers, and if research is correct there is a good likelihood that someone will come along and post a completely uncivil negative comment. Forty-four percent of the American people say they experience social media as uncivil. Twenty-nine percent of Americans between the age of 18 and 34 have experienced full-blown cyberbullying.
So why might this be a problem for artists? Maybe we should just develop thick skins, and learn to live with it! Well, it turns out that artistic creativity is negatively affected by aggressive, critical feedback. David Bohm and F. David Peat have written extensively about creativity, particularly about the importance of healthy communication for creativity. Exploring blocks to creativity, they write, "it is necessary that people be able to face their disagreements without confrontation and be willing to explore points of view to which they do not personally subscribe" (Science, Order and Creativity, p. 242). Whenever creativity is impeded, "the ultimate result is not simply the absence of creativity, but an actual positive presence of destructiveness." Instead of freely expressing our artistic insights, we begin to look for praise from others, whether or not the comments are true, and we begin to lose the capacity for free expression.
Artists are often highly aware of the visual and cultural environments in which they live. As a child, they may be unusually sensitive. They may be gifted intellectually, creatively or emotionally, demonstrating genuine compassion at an early age. There are various educational categories, including "twice-exceptional," for children who excel in certain areas and have learning difficulties in others. But all children are sensitive to criticism, and are vulnerable to a loss of self-confidence. Creativity is something that must be protected, in children as well as adults.
What is needed of course is an environment where artists are able to see multiple diverse points of view, as well as diverse images and ideas, while treating others with the attention and understanding they wish for themselves. Realistically, this may happen some of the time, but with thousands of "friends" being part of our social network we no longer live in the intimate world of the guild, salon, or association. Social networking has clearly become an integral part of life as we know it. What I am suggesting is that when using social media, artists need to be aware, protect themselves, and protect the capacity for free exploration that energizes art in the first place.
What are positive approaches we can take to social networking? It is often suggested that a proper response to negative criticism might be to simply say "your comment is duly noted," or perhaps "you seem concerned about this," or sometimes it may be best to avoid any response at all. Another approach is to create a separate social media account for art only, and carefully regulate the "friends." Newer social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest emphasize images, are hugely popular, and seem to bring out a great deal of positive interaction among users. Another approach might be to find allies who will stick with you and support you. I know of one group of artists who intentionally meet together to create art collaboratively, even though they individually show their work in various galleries. The group is called the "Collaborationists." In any case, for the benefit of the individual as well as society, artists will do well to protect their creativity in these times of the "new normal."