Spread the love

Artists Manifesto- A Critique Of Art Critique- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Artists Manifesto- A Critique Of Art Critique- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD


For seven years now, we have drawn parallels between art, mathematics, and science.

We are careful when we bring up mathematics, because we know that equations can have a toxic effect and scare off artists.

But art critique can be even scarier than a few rhos, gammas, and deltas in an equation.

The late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said that his editor told him when he was writing A Brief History of Time,


Stephen Hawking- Creativity & Art-What Is Good Enough? Nancy Hillis MD and Bruce Sawhill PhD

Stephen Hawking


Each equation in a popular book decreases the readership by half.

-Stephen Hawking


The mathematician in me looks at that and does a quick calculation: Hmm, if you start with a million readers, twenty equations will get you down to one, probably your mother or spouse. So no equations today.

Last Tuesday, Nancy gave her first ever live webinar (she’s given many live talks but the tech is daunting and she has a special disruptive power that can kerfrabulate software and circuits created by the puny efforts of Homo Sapiens) a big milestone, going from zero to one as we like to say.

She spoke on the topic: 3 Massive Mistakes Even Professional Artists Make That Cause Them To Not Love Their Art.



3 Massive Mistakes Even Professional Artists Make

You can catch the replay here if you missed it. 


In the webinar, Bruce and Nancy made the observation:


In its essence, art is not technique, just as mathematics is not simply numbers and music is not merely notes.


Technique, numbers and notes are a means to an end, not the end itself.

It is easy to miss the forest for the trees, even by experienced practitioners of these fields.


Art, Mathematics & Patterns


Where math and art meet is in the study and creation of patterns.


Humans are particularly evolved for the recognition of patterns, and they serve to tie together knowledge and experience. They imbue it with meaning.

There are many different pattern languages that underlie culture–math and art and music being three of them that happen to be our favorites.


Differences In Art & Mathematics


But today will constitute a radical departure from our pattern of finding similarities between art and mathematics. Instead, we will highlight an important difference that has significant ramifications for artists.

Mathematics, especially when applied to the physical world, aims for objective truth, something that will be as true on the other end of the galaxy as it is in your own backyard.

Mathematics has right and wrong answers that people agree upon.


Art & Subjectivity


Art is not obsessed with objective truth in the same way. It is an expression of the individual artist and their life experience, often in a way that other people can relate to and be moved by.

Its subjectivity is an essential aspect. As software engineers say, “It’s a feature, not a bug!”


Art does not have right or wrong answers that are universally agreed upon like the solutions to mathematical equations.


This is not to say that there aren’t truths that pervade art.


Foundational Concepts & Principles


Yellow and blue paints mixed together create green no matter where you are.

Our eyes take in value contrast and movement, and our brain makes sense of it as well as decisions about it, perhaps because we are leveraging human capabilities that were honed in the rigorous forge of biological survival.

But as we said earlier,


Art is not at its roots about technique, not about the “how-to”, but rather, exploration and experimentation into the unknown, informed by foundational concepts from art, mathematics, psychology, creativity, evolutionary biology and more.


This brings us to a thorny topic that has bedeviled us for years- art criticism. Actually Nancy more than Bruce, because she’s the one who has been painting and teaching art.

Bruce has just been quietly writing and solving or attempting to solve mathematical statements. But math has its own issues of subjectivity, such as where one chooses to shine that bright and focused light of rigorous analysis.


The Problem Of Art Criticism


Just about all practicing artists have encountered art criticism in one guise or another, either personally or in published media, discussing the work of another artist.

Sometimes this criticism has profound personal effect, particularly when it occurs at a cuspal moment, like when you’re a fledgling artist putting your toe in the water with trepidation, or during your first big show in art school, or worse, when you are a noted artist and your solo exhibition is skewered by a prominent art critic.

And sometimes this effect is scalding, particularly when it comes from a trusted authority such as teacher when you are younger, or a professor in college or art school.


A precisely-targeted negative word can put a budding artist off of creating for years, decades, or forever.


When Bruce was preparing his PhD thesis defense, he was given this advice about standing in front of his thesis committee that has been given to many other PhD aspirants: “Just imagine them all naked.”

This might be more relevant for artists than scientists. Art critics of renown are often not practicing artists themselves, unlike a thesis committee of practicing scientists examining another scientist. They are self-proclaimed “Arbiters of taste.”

But art critics abound in the form of teachers, family, friends and other artists. Ask around. You’ll find plenty of people willing to critique your art if you ask for it…and sometimes when you don’t.


The Lessons Of Michelin & Zagat


Nancy and I are what are colloquially known as “foodies.” We like to eat superb food.

We live in a place of abundant organic foods and an ocean leaping with fish here in Santa Cruz, California, and Bruce has made it a point to cook beautiful, scrumptious meals and Nancy has made a point of eating them.


Everybody who eats is a food critic of sorts, but not all of them cook.


Over a century ago in France, the tire company Michelin stumbled upon a clever idea—Send professional food critics around France to find excellent food, and publish a restaurant guide to those places.

There was probably an inducement to find places that were far away from where people lived, requiring much driving and wear on tires.

The Michelin guide is still the gold standard of food criticism. Getting a coveted three star rating is the goal few chefs ever attain.


Zagat Emerges


Much later, an American take on food criticism emerged, the Zagat guide.

Originally aimed at business travelers looking for excellent food in unfamiliar cities, it was completely crowd sourced from “non-professional eaters,” a stapled-together compendium of ratings and discussions mailed to subscribers in manila envelopes.

These frequent travelers rated places they visited, and statistical patterns emerged. A vast majority of the time a high Zagat rating meant terrific food.

It was the wisdom of crowds and the power of statistics, perhaps more akin to how art finds a following in the world. Lots of people experience it and share impressions and notes.


Art Abides


Art that prevails in the long run is often different from what the art critics approved of early on.


Art that stands the test of time is not necessarily what the critics of the time loved when that art emerged.

For example, the innovative art of such luminaries as Courbet, Manet, Whistler, and Pissarro was rejected from the state-run Salon de Paris exhibition in 1863.

Undeterred, the artists created their own exhibition- The Salon des Refusés (Salon of the “Refused”).


Palais de l'Industrie

Palais de l’Industrie where the Salon des Refusés was held

The Battle Of The Salons


The Salon de Paris was an annual exhibition sponsored by the French government and the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1863 the Salon jurists rejected 2/3 of the submitted paintings.

Turmoil erupted in the artistic community. The din reached the ears of Emperor Napoleon III.

His Majesty, experiencing a rare frisson of democratic sentiment, decided to display the rejected works of art and let the public be the judge.

A stamp of approval from the Salon de Paris assured your artist career. Being selected and even where your paintings hung in the exhibition galleries was highly political and fraught with intrigue. One could easily imagine the clandestine exchange of soiled wads of filthy lucre behind the scenes.

In a few years, interest in the works of the rejected artists surpassed that of the “officially approved” artists and Impressionism was on its way.

One of Edouard Manet’s most famous and controversial works, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) was exhibited in the  Salon des Refusés.


Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe- Edouard Manet

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe– Edouard Manet



History Repeats Itself


A generation later, if Picasso had listened to his friends and critics, his masterpiece Les Démoiselles D’Avignon would never have seen the light of day. His dearest friends hated it and he struggled with it in his studio for months.

He almost gave up.

And when it finally emerged into the public eye, many critics didn’t like it either.



Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon


It was a breakthrough painting coinciding with the emergence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. There was no fixed point of reference.


Like centuries of painting before it, Les Démoiselles D’Avignon leveraged human perception, but in a new way that incorporated time in a fixed image.


You can read about it in our previous blog post where we also explore Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase.


Nude Descending A Staircase

Nude Descending A Staircase


We also explore Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past and Schoenberg’s exploration of 12 tone music.


Schoenberg 12 Tone Music

Schoenberg 12 Tone Music


Interestingly the post was written on the Ides of March 2020 as COVID-19, like a war horse bursting onto the scene with blistering speed.


The Importance Of Big Ideas


Just as Picasso, Duchamp, Proust, Schoenberg and Einstein were exploring the big idea of relativity and no fixed points of reference, later, in the 1950’s a Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, explored the big idea of monocoque (single shell design) and extrapolated it to architecture.

Utzon won the prize of designing the Sydney Opera House, now a masterpiece of innovative 20th century architecture. He had a falling-out with the project but, at the end of the day, his name is indelibly engraved as its architect.


Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia designed by Jørn Utzon



Rather than creating a variation of what had been done for centuries before, Utzon broke the mold and created a design never seen before–based on foundational principles from the perfect form–the egg–seamless and exquisite.


It wasn’t known, initially, if it was feasible to build it from an engineering perspective–but it won the design Prize and it was built and remains a wonder of the world.

The Sydney Opera House would not exist in its current design if Utzon had listened to critics and designed something in the vernacular of opera, namely a neoclassical columned pile of stone.


Back To Art Critique


Does this mean there are no principles or standards for art? Not at all, but there are subtleties involved.

There are observed principles in artistic creation that span movements, philosophies and centuries. They are rooted in the physiology and psychology of human perception, what patterns get noticed and how they move us, independent of the subject matter.

These concepts can be brought to light, taught, practiced. They are not right and wrong like mathematics, but rather more or less effective ways of evoking a response.

I remember the moment I first heard a professor say: Let’s have an art crit.

There’s a lingo in art as in pretty much every field of endeavor, and I quickly realized he was talking about an art critique.

I was taken aback. Having majored in Chemistry and studied Calculus, it was anathema to me that one would court the idea of critiquing someone’s art.


Art is subjective. It’s not a mathematical or chemical equation.


As we’ve seen historically, art critique reflects the particular biases, personal history, tendencies, judgment, personal aesthetics, and conscious and unconscious preferences and opinions of the art critic. It may reflect or be a reaction to the culture at that time.


Who Determines What’s On The Menu?


One of the myriad problems of art criticism is the question of: Who is writing the menu? The menu of what is acceptable and what is not.

Acquiescing to art criticism, there’s the sense that a judge “out there” knows the answers to what is good art and what is not. What is “real art” and what is derivative.

Will you allow someone else to write the menu of what’s acceptable in your art? 


The Trap Of Art Critique


What is wrong with the idea of art critique?

Beyond the aforementioned issues we’ve discussed is the problem of painting from the outside in rather than the inside out.

Looking for answers from others through critique or praise leads to a dead end. Stealing glances over your shoulder to see if you’re keeping up, if you’re being validated, if your work is popular and praised is a trap.


A Dancing Pony


Desperately trying to please your critics and your audience- you become a dancing pony.




Will they like my art? Will they hate it? Will I be seen as an imposter- a “derivative” artist. Mediocre?


Reflective Self Assessment: An Eye For An I


A rigorous and reflective eye needs to be involved in your art, and that eye first and foremost must belong to you.


You are the artist, the author, the composer of your art.


We’ve talked about the spontaneous and the considered in previous posts. Here we’re focusing on the idea of the considered, which is about making decisions in your art.

Creativity involves decision. In Latin, this is decidire, to cut through. In creating art, you must continually decide what to do. What you get rid of or don’t do in the first place is as important as what you keep.

The challenge is to develop discernment and be confident in that process and that decisiveness rather than depend on the approval or critique of others.

This is harder to teach than the idea of: “this is good technique and that is bad.”


The Trap Of Reductionism


As an artist and psychiatrist, one of Nancy’s central missions is to move past reductionism and externalization in art. Technique and art criticism focus on external criteria and in the latter case, on someone else’s opinions of your art.

Instead, we propose that you consider a different approach.

Imagine working with foundational concepts and principles with the possibility of taking your art somewhere new, through experimentation and evolving your art, rather than relying on repetitive techniques that lead to expressive cliches.


Rather than seeking art critique, consider moving inward, to a reflective self assessment of your art.


This changes the focus from external to internal, and furnishes you with your own compass so you can captain your creative ship through calm and storm.

It is harder than following orders, but that is the price of artistic freedom.

The end result may be more criticism than ever (remember how friends hated Picasso’s breakthrough painting) but at least it’s not a replica of what you’ve been told is acceptable- the art is yours.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. Ready to take your art somewhere new? The Artist’s Journey® Masterclass is open for enrollment.  Read about it and Register HERE. 









Spread the love