I was writing in a local coffee shop when an old man walked in. He was grey and his hair was thin, and he stooped over to lean heavily on his cane. His clothes, however, were crisp and expensive and perfectly put-together.
He walked up to the counter. But instead of ordering anything, he fervently wished them good luck. He lived across the street, he said, and he had noticed that they were recently opened. He hoped their new business venture went well.
The barista corrected him gently that they’d been open for several months now, and would he like to order anything?
No, he said, but he’d like a takeout menu to bring back home with him.
The barista looked like a deer caught in headlights. They didn’t have a takeout menu.
The old man shook his head sadly, and started giving the poor barista advice on why they really ought to have a takeout menu.
“But we’re a coffee shop, not a restaurant!” the very confused barista protested.
The old man shrugged, obviously offended, and wished them good luck again in a tone that meant the opposite. He shuffled out of the shop without so much as buying a cup of coffee.
Their exchange struck me because I knew the old man, quite well. Not personally, mind you, but countless people like him have commented on my work.
The worst was a photographer who went through my entire Model Mayhem portfolio, and left “constructive criticism” on the photos. According to him, in some cases my pose was too static. In others, it was the photographer who didn’t know what they were doing. He also wrote me a long-winded private message assuring me that he thought I was one of the best, and that he’d love to work with me. It’s just that everyone has room for improvement!
Of course, he couldn’t pay my rate. But I should be more than willing to work for him for cheap or even free!
It’s the same story at gallery shows, and especially on social media. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that my work is too sexy, or not sexy enough. Or sometimes it’s things as inane as not having enough underwater images displayed. It doesn’t matter if my next Instagram post borders on the erotic, or if the next gallery show is exclusively an underwater one. These people invariably never buy prints.
The problem with these interactions is not the criticism. I think criticism is a necessary and unavoidable part of the artistic process. When I’m feeling particularly enlightened, I even feel that criticism is good and healthy.
The problem is these people are not my customers. Just like the old man in the coffee shop, they may mean well. They may even think they are helping me out with their feedback. But they are not my support—certainly not financially, but also not artistically, or even emotionally. To be blunt about it, they don’t “get” my art. They’re not my intended audience.
The same thing happened with my writing. I went to a new writer’s group, and I got a bunch of feedback on my work. Feedback is usually a good thing; feedback from other writers even more so. But this…wasn’t. Implementing any of their suggestions would have destroyed the point I was trying to convey with my writing in the first place.
But I felt arrogant ignoring their suggestions, so I sent the same work around to another group or readers. This time, I made sure they were familiar with the genre I was writing in and liked it, rather than just being writers. The second set gave me great feedback—they were full of suggestions and criticisms, but they were ones that I felt I could use to improve my work and make it stronger.
Thoroughly confused, I took all this contradictory feedback to my editor. He said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. Not everyone is going to have the same response to your art, because not everyone looks for and values the same thing. If you’re listening to criticism, make sure you share the values of the person you’re accepting criticism from. Otherwise, you’re likely to try to change your work away from what you care about in a misguided attempt to please everybody else.
So it turns out, all those problems people had with my modeling and my writing actually had nothing to do with my modeling or my writing. Instead, it had everything to do with a lack of shared values with the people viewing it. This is not to say that my art was flawless or couldn’t be improved. It’s just to say that these particular people were looking for a restaurant, not a coffee shop.
Which is why when I saw that exchange in the coffee shop, I had to laugh. Because I didn’t just know the old man. I knew that look of confusion and frustration on the barista’s face intimately. I had worn it myself countless times.
I knew that old man was never going to be a customer as soon as he walked in the door. He didn’t want a cup of coffee. In the same way, I can’t please everybody with my art. I’m an art nude model, not a glamour model. I’m a blogger, not a poet. And I think I’m finally okay with that.