The voices of artists on the front lines.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Overstreet
Reproduction is forbidden without permission of the author.
Contact Jeffrey Overstreet at

-from The Crossing, The Critical Issue, published in Winter 1999-

featuring: Todd Driscoll, Nancy Dyer, Fritz Liedtke,
Chad Sides, Jim Stark, and Rich Swingle


We asked a variety of artists how they deal with criticism–both praise and derision. Are they ever tempted to compromise to avoid bad reviews? How do they discern which critics to hear out and which critics to shut out? And how do they turn criticism–even when poorly communicated or downright nonsense–into a benefit?

Here are some of the anecdotes and reflections they shared with us:

Jim Stark:

There are many traps waiting for us. First a tender one—our close friends and family. They may praise our work even when we know it is inferior, or shatter our confidence by criticizing work which we feel is ‘right’. Colleagues can do the same thing. And our expectation of opinions can be even more dangerous. We can be tempted to plan our work to please the experts rather than the rest of the audience, substituting a display of technique for real truth, real viability, in the work.

At all times, we are our own worst enemies—we can make so many different kinds of mistakes! Aside from the mistakes we might make within the work, there are the blunders which can invalidate our work before we even begin. We might choose the wrong goals for our work at the outset, or indulge our own personal tastes to the detriment of the final product. We might give too much credence to praise or blame from those who are working with us, displacing our focus from its proper object. Worst of all, we might seek praise before excellence.

The best response we can hope for from the audience is a mix of laughter and tears. The best way we can respond to criticism is, once having taken its value to heart, to wake up the next morning having forgotten it.

Jim Stark wandered as a professional theatre gypsy
for years before settling with his wife
and two year-old daughter in Hanover, Indiana,
where he teaches theatre at Hanover College.
Now he knows his audiences by name.

Nancy Dyer:

When a friend is critical of my work, as long as it is done without intent to hurt, I appreciate their suggestions. That type of criticism helps me see what others see when they look at my work. I want to learn to look as an outsider at my work so that I can make my work as accessible as possible.

It hurts when someone reads something I wrote and hands it back with barely a word. Or when someone looks at a still-life drawing and says, ‘What is it?’ It is discouraging not to be understood.

I maintain balance by having a few friends around me who believe in me and my abilities and are always ready and willing to participate in my creative process, whether it’s viewing what I’ve done, acting as a sounding board for one of my ideas, or encouraging me to stretch my skills. I also remind myself when someone doesn’t appreciate my work as much as I’d like them to, that not everyone has the capacity to appreciate all forms of creativity. For whatever reason, God has placed a desire to create inside of me, so I must.

Nancy Dyer of Seattle is a graphic designer by profession.
She has always dreamed of being an artist and loves writing,
drawing still life pictures, and taking “art” photographs.

Todd Driscoll:

The kind of response most valuable to me is one which clearly indicates why the individual enjoys a particular photograph or why they do not. “I really like your work,” with no explanation of what is aesthetically pleasing or moving (i.e., the composition, lighting, etc.) does not benefit me as an artist. If, on the other hand, they merely criticize the work, but offer no reason for their reaction, it definitely doesn’t help me improve my work. I don’t mind criticism, but it must be constructive.

Todd Driscoll is a professional photographer and aspiring screenwriter in Seattle.

Chad Sides:

The biggest compliment anyone can give me is to tell me they enjoyed reading or hearing my poetry. I value this over praise of my speaking voice or any prose I write. It is because poetry is the only thing I don’t do for an audience. I write for myself and for God. I never sit down with ‘What will others think when they read this?’ on my mind. I just write until I feel a sense of completion.

I do appreciate constructive criticism from poets I respect because I know I can always improve, but this is usually done in a setting where I am also criticizing the other poet. If I can’t take it I shouldn’t be giving it…. Criticism given with an edifying spirit is easily swallowed; it must stem from knowledge, be delivered in love, and be accompanied by praise of the good. It also keeps the ego in check, if it’s not out of hand already.

Chad Sides writes poetry and works to help promote Christian musicians.

Rich Swingle:

I’ve been touring for three years with a one-person play called A Clear Leading. It tells the story of John Woolman, an early American Quaker who spoke out against slavery over a century before the Civil War.

The current version is the fourth, and each of those four versions has had numerous refinements. If it were software, this would be A Clear Leading 4.7. Those revisions have, for the most part, been inspired by outside sources. Most of them have come from invited sources: people I respect enough to ask for criticism. Many, however, were unsolicited. Through honing your craft and seeking the Lord’s wisdom, hopefully you build a greater understanding of which piece of criticism to use and which to cast aside.

On this last version, I felt I had it! I was receiving standing ovations, so I thought rewrites were history. Then I performed it at a Quaker college and was castigated because so much of the storyline is fictionalized. I took immediate steps in way of publicity, program notes, and epilogue so that people no longer suspected that every character and incident was a fact of history.

“Whew!” I was done…I thought. I had a piece that portrayed Woolman in a way that could have happened, though it wasn’t in any history books, and I was making that clear to audiences.

But I continued to receive feedback from Woolman scholars who showed me that I had elements of the story that were in opposition to known facts. I gave Woolman’s parents a slave: they didn’t have one. I gave Woolman’s love interest (and future wife) a brother: she didn’t have one. If this were a painting I could have covered those things up. But a play is like a machine: if you take away or alter a small spring or bolt, the whole thing doesn’t work.

So now I’m hard at work on version 5.0, gearing up for a New York production in January. Rewriting has already lead to improvements. I’d appreciate your prayers…and your feedback.

Rich Swingle lives in New York where he leads
The Lamb’s Theater, writes plays, and acts in them.

Fritz Liedtke:

Viewers make comments about my photographs in their body language, words and purchases (or lack thereof). Such comments may be encouraging and insightful. I learn much about a photograph from what others see and feel in it; their perspective broadens mine. And yet, disparaging comments—or the lack of comment altogether—can lead to doubt and questions about both myself and my work.

Ansel Adams says, “I do not believe that anyone can (or should) attempt to influence the artist in his work, but the artists should remain alert to comment and constructive observations—they just might have potential value in promoting serious thought about the work. … The photographer should simply express himself and avoid the critical attitude when working…. Only when it is complete should we apply careful objective evaluation to our work.”

It is difficult both to remain open to others’ comments and remain true to my personal vision. I believe that working for the sole purpose of winning others’ praise is a sort of prostitution, and is not true to the unique vision God has given me. I am responsible to do my work, just as you are responsible to do yours, and nothing less.

We long to share our vision and handicraft with others, and perhaps to expand their experience and vision. But we also long for approval and encouragement. I have to remind myself that even if nobody but God and me saw my work—though that would be terribly difficult—it would still be worth doing. Why? Because it glorifies God, and that is what my life is for.

Ultimately I must be concerned with the praise of God, with ‘fame’ in his eyes. As C.S. Lewis says, “…Not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) ‘appreciation’ by God. …This view [is] scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”

Fritz Liedtke is a photographer living in Portland, Oregon.
His article “On Singing Well” appeared in the premiere issue of The Crossing.