People make art for all sorts of really good reasons: personal expression, industry, therapy, generosity, hobby. Some make art for very bad reasons: self-esteem, exploitation, passion.
My goal as a filmmaker is to make art professionally…as my occupation…for a living. For those of you like me, those who make art ambitiously and commercially, I think it’s important to know if your art is any good.
You can know almost instantly if your work is popular or profitable. But knowing that your work is good…that’s more difficult to determine.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and painter…scientist and mathematician. (In Hollywood he’d be known as a hyphenate.)
Goethe is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature. His “Faust” has been called the greatest long poem of modern European literature.
At one point—the early 1800s—he wrote a bit of art criticism theory that he built on three essential questions:
- What was the artist trying to do?
- Was the artist successful doing this?
- And, assuming he or she was successful; was it worth doing?
I think this is a very useful approach to considering any piece of art. And as I try to assess the quality of my own work, I seek feedback based on these questions.
I want to know if my audience understands what I was trying to do with my film. Then, if they feel like I was successful doing it. Finally, I want to know if they think it was worth doing—should I have attempted the project in the first place?
So I ask people to watch my films and give me feedback. And based on their responses, I get a pretty sharp picture of how successful my work is.
Sounds simple. But I assure you—it is not. Here are a few undeniable truths about art feedback:
- Sometimes people lie.
- Sometimes people exaggerate.
- Sometimes people make up an opinion when they don’t actually have one.
- Sometimes people have had a really bad day.
- Sometimes people can’t clearly communicate what they think.
But don’t dismiss feedback. Just know that sometimes, the data will be flawed. Feedback must be qualified—because humans give it. We make art for people, don’t we? Well, it makes sense that we receive feedback from them, too.
Given that human feedback is often flawed, strange, unreliable…whom should we ask for feedback? Whose opinion should matter when it comes to the question of how good my art is? I recommend these people:
- Complete Morons
- People Whose Opinions You Trust
- Smart-Seeming Strangers
- Friends and Fans
- Close Friends and Confidantes
- Your Spouse
So—after all of this feedback—how do you really know…what you really know?
Are there things you hear consistently…from lots of folks? Pay attention to those. Something’s not working. You need to fix it.
Are there strange, one-off surprises? Those too can be useful. Offbeat people bring imaginative critiques. And their suggestions often give your work texture, depth.
Receiving feedback is not like getting a grade on a test. It’s not something we seek to perfect our work.
Feedback is dialogue for the artist’s inner monologue.
Is your work any good? An artists knows, because he talks to himself about his work. He considers and reconsiders what he is making. Then, only the artist can decide when his work is done. And he doesn’t know…until he knows. Knowledge that comes from the internal conversations he has…with himself.
Feedback makes the voices in my head tangible.
But there’s something else feedback does for the artist, something profound.
Ask yourself this question: after receiving feedback: are you full? Or are you empty?
If you’re full, you will keep working. Growing. Learning. Even when you discover that you’re not very good at the art you are currently making, the thought of getting better at it will thrill you.
But if, after receiving feedback on your work, you find yourself empty…sad, mad, lost. You should probably make art for another good reason. Not for occupation or ambition, because the pursuit of art professionally will eventually suffocate your soul. You will waste your life. And worse…subject the rest of us to lots of really, really bad art.
I wish you all the best in your art, whatever that art is. I encourage you to ask for feedback. Want to be good at your art…want it to fill your soul.
And let it.