The best ways to handle criticism and rejection as an artist

Most of us don’t go into being an artist with any sense of preparation for criticism and rejection. We have a dream; maybe it started in front of the mirror in our bedroom. Some of us fantasize the fame and fortune we crave as our ultimate form of validation. We may even believe that we’re on a special mission and we’re compelled to fulfill it. However, we get brought right back down to earth and blindsided by the inevitable criticism and rejection that always comes, no matter how talented we may be. I would assume that none of us like being criticized and rejected, regardless of the bravado we may wear as a shield of armor. As someone who has been through this more times than I can count, here are my suggestions on how to handle the criticism and rejection that we all have to face as artists, and still thrive.

Start by self-critiquing your own work. Did you play and sing badly? Did you hit bad notes? Were the songs well rehearsed? Could you have been more professional? Are you ready for prime time? What did you miss? Do you know what your music is trying to communicate and are you pitching it to the right people? Record audio and video of your work and look at it as dispassionately as you can (this is not science, but always good to aim for as much objectivity as you can). Since there is always room for improvement, what areas do you still need to work on?

If a performance didn’t go well, were you perhaps in the wrong venue or playing the wrong style to the wrong audience? Remember the video of that wonderful scene from the “Blues Brothers” where Jake and Elwood are standing behind chicken wire singing “Rawhide” and everyone is throwing things at them? In this movie, here are these guys who loved the blues, yet by performing in a country bar, it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s not about the talent, but about the match between the artist and the audience.

Boy, did l learn this lesson the hard way many times. One of the greatest mismatches I went through as a performer was on February 4, 1977, when my band and I opened for 1950s nostalgia rockers “Sha Na Na” at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. What happened with it clearly being the wrong venue playing the wrong style to the wrong audience? The 6,000 member audience threw things, rioted, attempted to rush the stage and someone from the audience pointed a gun directly at me. The Chicago police forcibly stopped the show.

So whether you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time or not, be open and willing to always self-critique your own work, regardless of how successful you are or may become.

Some artists are simply too oversensitive to any form criticism, whether from themselves or others. The ego, necessary to being a performer, can also have the reverse effect of hindering us from improving our art through being defensive, closed to input and in denial of what we need to work on.

When someone criticizes and rejects your art, for most of us, our first reaction is to take it personally and have an internal reaction. Your emotions and ego get engaged, you feel upset, pissed off, hurt, etc. However, you have to be able to at least cope with this, and hopefully, learn from it.

Instead of being oversensitive and closed, ask yourself if there is any merit to the criticism? The reason I pose this question is because there is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. If somebody is coming from a constructive place, it’s at least worth considering their opinion. Even then, though, some well-intention critiques may not be that valid or helpful, but it’s still important to be open to what is being said because something may be able to be learned.

It’s a completely different matter, though, when the criticism and rejection are destructive. If someone doesn’t like you, your style or art, if you happen to push their buttons or walk into their ego and defenses, or if your work is ahead of its time, many will attack. Never forget that art that is ahead of its time is always rejected in its time, and that genius is not for the masses. Since most people don’t function on the genius level, they can’t grasp or resonate with an artist who does.

In those instances, the criticism and rejection may be personal, prejudicial and highly biased by nature. Instead of someone just saying that they just don’t relate to or understand your work, they can engage in attack. This way, the artist looks inferior and wrong while the critic looks superior and right. They’ll usually be clever enough to claim what they’re saying is because of your lack of talent, bad performance, derivative songs, etc., and not personal by nature.

Because what I did was so different, I’ve gotten some really nasty and hateful reviews in my time. One of the most vicious ones came in February, 1978, when David Witz wrote a deliberately scathing article of my band and I in the Chicago Reader titled, “The Importance of Fleeing Skafish.” In the piece, he spoke of how awful it was that “Skafish” was representing Chicago, and how horrible that was for the city, especially because my band and I had already played places like New York. He referred to me as someone who couldn’t decide if I was a fat ugly 12 year old boy or a fat ugly 12 year old girl. He issued an impassioned plea for everyone to stop coming to my shows. He mentioned that my band could only play one chord together.

It is worth nothing that the band he was referring to includes a bass player who has been a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago for over 25 years and has a Master’s Degree from the Julliard School of Music (one of the most prestigious schools on earth). That “one-chord band” also featured a drummer who at the time had a Bachelor’s Degree in Percussion from De Paul University. He is also the drummer that Iggy Pop snatched up as his touring drummer in the early 1980s.

Just like with David Witz’s highly personal attacks on me, you don’t have a chance as an artist – it’s not a fair fight. When that’s the case, you must remind yourself to consider the source and try to rise above such rejection. Even though it is personal by nature, try to not take it personally. Do your best to disregard what is said, because it is not coming from any semblance of objectivity.

Clearly, no matter who you are and what you do, no matter how great your art may be, everyone will not like it. They can’t. That’s because everyone is at different levels of consciousness and evolution on earth, therefore, something as subjective as one’s taste in art will also vary.

What’s always important, though, is how YOU react and deal with criticism and rejection as an artist. If you observe your reactions honestly, not defensively, you can learn about yourself, your art, and work toward improvement.

After being criticized and rejected, how have you reacted? Did you make excuses for yourself, like saying you just had a bad night on stage, or that the monitors weren’t right? That is not acceptable. To the person watching you perform, all they know is that the performance wasn’t very good. A great live performer is like a championship athlete, who no matter what, manages to get the job done. Did you engage in self-pity, based on your art and/or your life not going well? That is also not acceptable. Has criticism and rejection helped you to lose your focus as an artist, hold back your performing intensity, songwriting, musicianship, or singing? Worse yet is when one gets angry, acts out, or escapes through alcohol, drug use, and self-destruction.

If these are some of the issues you’re contending with, here are some suggestions:

Learn about yourself and how you react and work on healing those issues. Try to be OK with your art and believe in yourself. At the same time, accept criticism for what it is, especially when it’s coming from a centered perspective. Try to not get defensive because that turns you into a victim and a martyr, which will distort your entire perspective on art and life. Learn all the time, and don’t allow rejection the power to define you in a negative way. Instead, try to have a non-attached attitude, improve your art and make the journey on your terms.

Ask yourself if you really want rejection by someone else to define or interfere with your sense of who you are as an artist and as a person. In most instances, the internalization of rejection (without working on improving your art) will in one way or another adversely affect you. It will suppress, hold back and diminish your openness, light, power and expression. If you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s awfully hard to deliver as an artist and learn to get better, whether as a performer, songwriter, singer, or in any capacity.

When criticism and rejection is repetitive and coming from multiple sources, it can become overwhelming. In those instances, some artists try to compromise their art and its message as a way of seeking approval. It’s hard for me to put into words how horrible I think this is.

It is the artistic equivalent of changing your hair style because your neighbor made a snotty comment, hiding your sexuality because your family won’t approve of it, or dressing more conservatively because people will make fun of your appearance. As an artist, this sense of approval-seeking compromise will take the light, bite, emotions and power out of the work, and make it what your haters want, which is to suppress it, sanitize it and tone it down.

Sometimes, one can take the rejection and channel it into something positive. For example, when Michael Jackson’s album “Off the Wall” album didn’t garner as much acclaim as he wanted, he took that sense of “rejection” and deliberately channeled into his desire to create a huge blockbuster, and he did so with his next album, “Thriller.”

An artist can write a song about the rejection and channel their feelings in that way: The Sex Pistols joyously lampooned the record label that dropped them on the track “EMI.” In that sense, they got the last laugh.

It’s one thing to do your best to become immune to rejection, but another to not be open to constructive criticism and get toughened in the wrong way. Sometimes we go on the offensive, act out, and shut down to the joy that fueled our art in the first place. Toughness can also make one a really not nice person, which in my opinion, is never a good thing. It also adversely affects one’s art systemically, because closing down positive parts of you is not good for any part of the creative process.

Sometimes, an artist may try to counteract the criticism and rejection they may be experiencing through the media, the public, or through diminishing record sales by surrounding themselves with “yes men.” In need of approval, the artist may self-insulate and surround themselves with those who will tell them whatever they want to hear. Imagine how many people told Michael Jackson that he was here to heal the world and save all the children on earth. This type of situation is so dangerous because the artist might start believing what they are told! For me, “yes men” have no place in my life, and if you’re an artist, I would recommend that they have no place in yours, either.

Instead of “yes men,” surround yourself with honest friends and those who will tell you what they really feel. A truthful opinion with love is a priceless gift. If you write a song that is not any good, a valued person will tell you so, albeit in the nicest way possible. That sense of rejection is constructive criticism. Also, these should ideally be people who have something of value to offer. There is a difference between an acclaimed record producer giving you an opinion versus a snotty critic who for the most part, hates everything.

Through all of the different aspects of criticism and rejection and learning to deal with it correctly, here is a great way to not only survive it all, but to prosper: always come back to the real foundation of why you became an artist in the first place. That was because you loved it and you found magic in it. You experienced a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning and connection. You felt release, catharsis, freedom, excitement, and transcendence — and perhaps the best reason of all – was because you had fun. — Skafish

7 Replies to “The best ways to handle criticism and rejection as an artist”

  1. Hi Jim,

    I’ve experienced a range of reactions when reading this as well as some of your FB posts. I had a difficult time actually reading this as my screen kept rapidly scrolling, was finally able to get thru it & once again bristled a bit. I will pose a question: If the person that pointed the gun at you had pulled the trigger, would you let them off the hook because you believe that YOU were in the wrong place at the wrong time?

    “There are no victimless crimes I know of…” – Joni Mitchell

  2. Jules! I was referring to being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a figure of speech. Of course, there is always deeper spiritual reasons and causality, some of which we see, some of which we don’t. I am thankful that my life didn’t end, there — If it had, I would had to deal with that in my spiritual body and in future lifetimes, presumably. Thanks! Jim

  3. What I am getting at here is that there can be a real fine line between suggesting that someone take personal responsibility & victim-blaming. Our society has become so immersed in the language of “positive psychology” & “laws of attraction” that it has failed to examine the darker side of these concepts. One of the consequences of this is that people turn away from what they perceive to be ‘negative’, albeit real, and not hold people accountable as has been the case with war criminals.

  4. Jules! You may have misread what I was saying. Spiritually speaking, we are all responsible for what we do. I was speaking of wrong place etc. as a familiar way of referring to things not working out in the way an artist may have intended. That happened a lot to me, lol. And the darker side of these concepts does exist, of course. Jim

  5. It is not my intention to ruffle feathers here & I mean no offense. I DO, though, happen to know the source of much of the current focus on the ‘positive’, be it in psychology or spirituality & the underlying darker motives of it. Should you ever have any desire in discussing this further…I’m always open to lively conversation.

    Take care,

    *definitely NOT a Yes Wo/Man! 😉

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