Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Friday, June 17, 2011

(Un)Emotionally Involved: Taking the Heart out of Art

Note: I found out from someone that I did a really bad job communicating certain things in this note, so I'm going to clear a few things up beforehand (it's easier to do this, since changing things within the note would make the clarifications hard to find):

1. I do not, in ANY way, think that a person should be permanently detached from their artwork. It's a temporary shift in thought when you're trying to work on a piece or apply the criticism of someone else. I *am* attached to my art—it's very special to me, and one of the things that defines me as a person—but I try and pull back emotionally during the critiquing process, to try and think clearly about improving. After the product is finished, I am proud, and I do care very much for the piece as something I have accomplished.

2. When I say that emotion is worthless if it's not grounded in technical skill, I'm not by any means saying that you have to have perfect technical skill for emotion to be of any worth. The emotional simply shouldn't overshadow the technical aspect of a composition or performance (e.g., really, really hamming up a piano solo by swaying and closing your eyes, all the while misplaying several chords). Reading over this again, I stated this poorly and too harshly, so it deserves clarification.

3. The title might be misleading, so I'll just say this: emotion is integral in art, because it is much of what is being conveyed. Without emotion, art would lose a large part of its purpose, because it would have much less to communicate. I noted this in the entry, but perhaps not clearly enough.

Normally, I feel like I bridge the audience gap pretty well, but I lost some people this time, and I apologize.



(I guess you could try to take the art out of heart, but that would be a bit sexist, now wouldn’t it?)


Exhibit A:

Artist sends artwork (poem, novel, concerto, painting, etc.) to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist becomes angry, and argues back with emotional, subjective, and irrelevant points, without considering that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve.


Exhibit B:

Artist sends artwork to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist becomes sad, and bemoans the fact that the product of his soul has been criticized, without considering that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve.


These aren’t the only two scenarios possible in such a situation (there will be an Exhibit C shortly), but this sort of interaction is excruciatingly common. People become too emotionally connected to their artwork, leaving them tied down, bound up, and unable to achieve the distance from their work necessary to not only critique themselves, but also to accept the criticism of others. If every work of art you’ve produced is bound by strings to your heart, then every time your art is “hurt”, you’re going to be hurt, too- and once you become angry or sad about the attacks directed at your artwork by the enemies (how dare they!), you’re going to have trouble rationally analyzing the quality of their critiques and deciding how you can use what they’ve given you to achieve a better product.

Now, the solution is obvious, but for some, it sounds painful, ridiculous, or any number of other adjectives that shortly precede an insistent “No! I won’t do that!” But, even if we don’t like immunization shots or cough syrup, we know they’re good for us, and accept them— so, assuming I convince you that the solution to the current problem (emotartionwork?) is effective and worthwhile, then you should accept it. That said—

Cut the strings. Then, do what you couldn’t do before— back up, and take a good look at the collection of words, notes, or brushstrokes in front of you. The thing in front of you isn’t your child, or your girlfriend, or your husband; it’s a work of art that must be objectively considered against the standards that an art form possesses. If someone else criticizes it, you shouldn’t have any problem accepting the criticism and working to improve the product— after all, it’s not as if someone just walked up and told you how ugly and loud your girlfriend is, or that your child should probably lay off of the Oreos. There’s no need to be defensive.


Exhibit C:

Artist sends artwork to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist considers that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve, and accepts or rejects each point of feedback on the basis of whether each point seems to increase or decrease the quality of the artwork.


Much better.

Note that I’m certainly not saying that art must be devoid of all emotion. Ideas for art can be emotional, and emotions can be expressed through art. But, the process of creating art must be grounded in objective, technical skill, and as such, reactions to criticism should also be grounded in objectivity. Sure, some emotion can also be thrown into the creative process, but should never dominate.

Aside: Although this article is about composition, the same rules apply to performance. Sure, we like to see performers who seem to be enjoying what they’re doing on an emotional level; however, once you strip a performance of its technical groundings, the emotion is no longer of any value whatsoever. The performance of a violinist who wears the face of anguish or joy as she plays is worth nothing if she cannot keep rhythm and tune pitches. Why shouldn’t we hold composers, music or otherwise, to the same standard? Probably because composition is more difficult to grade by objective measures, but that’s not a good excuse.

Although I’ve focused on the artist in this article, the reviewer deserves a brief mention, since he also must not become emotionally involved. The reviewer may wish that he had come up with the idea of the artist,  or that he were as talented as the artist— or, alternatively, he may just not like the artist on a personal level. Should these things affect the criticism that the artwork receives? Of course not- but, bias slips in all the time, and it’s necessary to learn to counteract this tendency as effectively as possible.

Emotion-based bias is good to some extent when considering, say, yourself or your lover; but it’s not good at all when considering art. So, keep some distance, make your own useful observations, and consider the criticisms of others. Ironically, removing emotion from the creation of art facilitates the creation of art that poignantly expresses emotion— and, who can argue with that?

Take care,


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