Artists, creatives and critics

IMG_0243b copy

Almost everybody falls into one of two categories: creator or consumer. Do you spend more time making content or material, derivative or otherwise, than consuming it? Do you prefer to make or view images? Of the creators, there are positive, derivative and negative. The positives try to advance art, science and and knowledge by providing a point of view or product or device or service that hasn’t existed previously, whilst maybe or maybe not benefitting personally from the provision of said novelty. The line between positive and derivative is a blurry one, and perhaps doesn’t cleanly exist – in my mind, it’s down to whether the creator tries to add some element of originality or not; there’s no such thing as 100% uniqueness or 100% invention from nothing. We cannot create without some base of precedent or inspiration, no matter how remote or seemingly unrelated. But the more remote the connections that are made in the creation of something, the more the creator contributes by joining the dots, making the logical conclusions and helping the rest of us see what we might have missed.

The derivative, on the other hand, is merely a repackaging: there is nothing really original here. A good example would be the various consumer ‘crazes’ that sweep through Malaysia periodically – burgers, coffee, donuts, vaping, now ice cream. None of these products or services on their own are new; they’re derivative from a concept somebody’s brought back from overseas and offered to the local market. The first person to do it is arguably trying to introduce something that didn’t exist before, but the dozens of others who follow in their wake are not – and inevitably, the whole thing lands up lasting a few months to a year before the market hype dies down, and things go back to a more sustainable pre-frenzy level. One or two entities survive; those that are either the first, the best/best publicised, or simply have the longest staying power.

IMG_0912b copy

Lastly, we have the negative: these people cannot exist without the creative and the derivative. They are consumers in the very worst sense of the term: positivity goes in, negativity comes out. They exist mainly to tear down what other people have built – literally, metaphorically, verbally, and in pretty much any way they can. They are the pessimists, the trolls, the people who hide behind a veil of arrogant condescension on one site and then spout hate vitriol on another with apparent ‘truth’ twisted to suit their own purposes and prove their own self-worth. Without a positive or a derivative to attack and take down, they cannot exist: they must find something to criticise and destroy. They can only find some pale semblance of self esteem by bringing other people to a level lower than them – without somebody to degrade to make themselves feel better, they cannot survive. Despite outward appearances of confidence and arrogance, there’s really quite a lot of fragility there: the lower they have to bring somebody – for no good reason – the more they hate themselves, because their targets must be brought lower than them in order to feel any self worth. They are the trolls and argumentative people who pick fights on forums about minutiae instead of seeing the bigger picture.

IMG_5092b copy

Note that this is not the same as the critic, though a critic might well be a negative, too. Objective criticism is necessary and essential for the positive and the derivative to develop; without this external assessment, we cannot see our flaws and limitations – and therefore remain unable to work around them to reach greater levels. The key term here is objectivity; it is nigh on impossible to separate subjective, personal opinion from objective fact when it comes to anything creative or artistic. Quoting historical precedent is precisely thew wrong thing to do, because every single example that is a precedent now was the exception at one point: that is precisely the reason why they are remembered as being exceptional some time later. If anything, historical precedent determines what we should not repeat if we are trying to seek uniqueness.

The critic needs to be not just objective, but with sufficient knowledge across the discipline at hand and generally in order to be able to provide useful observations. It’s almost a case of the specialist again: you have to be a generalist to be able to see the big picture and put things into context, but also possess very specific knowledge to either troubleshoot or refine to a very sharp point. Not everybody is suited to be a critic; some people are too nice, some are too harsh, some are too emotional, and many simply lack the necessary knowledge and/or desire to acquire it. The worst kind hide arrogantly behind a veil of obfuscating verbiage that simply either impresses the layman into submission, or creates the false impression of erudition. And there are no supporting examples or explanations given, either. (See what I just did there?)

IMG_9871b copy

In a photographic context, the positive is the one who’s pushing the envelope trying to do things that haven’t been done – to visualise new ideas; to capture scenes or events or instants that have never been seen; to find a new perspective on the quotidian. The derivative are those whose subjects dominate the idea, (e.g. a straight product shot on white with flat lighting with no attempts made at creative interpretation of the subject) or where the whole idea has been done before – and the latest attempt is merely a duplication. This does not necessarily mean the result is going to be a bad photograph, but it’s not going to be remembered for breaking any new ground, either. The negative are those who do not photograph, are afraid or unable to put their work in the public domain, but are quite happy to criticise in a very personal and unobjective way. We should of course question whether and why our work was really so bad that the entire idea was missed completely.

The creative world needs positives, derivatives and critics – but not negatives. We need those who push forward the envelope and question why things must be done or interpreted a certain way, and even if we oppose or don’t understand them now, we may come to appreciate them later. They are the visionaries and the leaders and the mavericks who move understanding and access forward in leaps and bounds. They are those who find working links between ideas so tenuous and remote that the result is brilliant. We need the derivatives to support, gradually iterate and ‘fill out the envelope’ – who knows which incremental progression might trigger the next visionary. We need craftsmen because not every solution requires an artist; and if everybody was an artist, we wouldn’t appreciate art. We don’t need the negatives because they really don’t add any value, and frankly, leave the rest of us feeling pretty lousy. (I suppose in a better mood, they can also make us feel much better about ourselves – at least we’re not that misanthropic.) But we do need critics – the objective ones – to help us see where to go next. I think of the relationship between them as the engines, the maintenance crew, the lookout, and perhaps the sea anchor or barnacles…and I must constantly remind myself that without barnacles, we wouldn’t appreciate a clean hull. MT


Masterclass Prague (September 2016) is open for booking.


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!

We are also on Facebook and there is a curated reader Flickr pool.

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I believe a good critic can explain in detail what he finds good and what he finds lacking in a piece of art. He can examplify in which way a picture or a body of work could be improved. By giving this information he is willing to put his criteria of judgment up to contest. The recipient of the criticism (the artist) as well as a third person can understand what his criteria are and correspondingly accept the judgment as helpful or discard it because they feel differently about the target (audience).
    Typically “the negative” as described above is unwilling (or unable) to lay open his criteria of judgment, making it very easy to distinguish him from the true (and helpful) critic.

  2. I don’t understand what you mean by quoting historical precedent and why there’s something wrong there. I understand the definition of unique. One in the world, but I don’t see how citing or using what’s gone before precludes uniqueness.

    Derivative is okay with me. It’s copying and plagiarism that have nothing to do with creativity.

    I find I want fight back to some photo criticism I’ve read but then stop or at least try to stop and consider the point of view. One of the critical points of view that I find repetitive is that we are a product of our culture. No argument and this also states the obvious. What I see is that this point of view is dismissive of historical precedent. I’m not saying this is your point of view, only that this sort of criticism is trying to make a statement. And it’s the negative connotation I dislike.

  3. Michiel953 says:

    Ming, can I just say (and this might the concept that your entire article hinges on) that “objective” criticism does not exist. One can say the words, one can write them down, but they don’t exist as such. Intersubjectivity yes, objectivity no.

    There is no absolute truth, there are only – subjective – perceptions that turn into opinions. Once shared, that’s intersubjectivity.

    There is no more. Except for differences of opinion, and this is mine 😉

    • I’m looking for a better word than objective – but can’t find one. How about ‘selfless’ instead? Criticism is opinion and opinion about art can never be objective. But it can be with genuine intent to help the artist improve – in the critic’s own opinion – as opposed to mere trolling vitriol aimed to get the critic attention at the expense of the creator…

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    The nicest Harley Davidson I’ve seen,
    was a child’s rocking chair beautifully modeled as a simplified H.D.
    And on the tank
    was the logo
    “Hardly Davidson”

  5. Hey, barnacles can add mood and context to otherwise abstract boat images! 🙂

    More seriously, I’ve often wondered about informed/insider vs. mundane critique. Many forms of art are so far developed within their own communities that they lose meaning to the broader audience, at least until someone brilliant comes out and makes that connection. And the further we journey from easily understood ideas, the more difficult it is to draw that connection while staying on the creative cutting edge. Mostly this is harmless: watch designs that look weird and ugly to an “outsider” but are sold for huge sums to those-in-the-know and those-who-don’t-but-want-to-look-like-they-do. A more problematic case is architecture where we honestly see weird trends and buildings that are both ugly and don’t serve their purpose well. In several instances I’ve seen complaints from the public, i.e. the USERS being dismissed by architects as uninformed. Talk about arrogance.

    So, for a photographer, I guess the dilemma is choosing which audience to target and how to do it. I don’t think pure derivatives are that interesting for the non-photographer audience (depending on the subject of course), but attempts to create something new can easily result in losing that connection. It might seem like a problem faced by a small number of creative professionals, but in fact I run into it when trying to make my holiday photos slightly more interesting.

    • True, but they hurt when scraped against…

      Actually, it’s a simple question to answer: who is the target audience? If you are shooting for a client, it’s clearly the client. If you aren’t, then it’d better be yourself otherwise you might as well have no identity – you cannot please everybody because by definitely, everybody has very different tastes. So, I think it’s pretty simple: do you like your own images?

      • Kristian Wannebo says:


      • Yes and no (agree and like my own images 🙂 ) Usually there’s a message to convey to the audience, and it’s all too easy to imagine things when evaluating your own product. Subjecting one’s work to criticism, using different “objective” evaluation criteria, etc. are all immensely valuable for improvement, even for a non-commercial photographer. When experimenting with something new, I believe the process has to be slightly different: observing (or talking with) the audience and assessing whether the intended reaction was achieved. In some ways the mundane public may provide more candid feedback, at least if they’re neither your friends nor enemies, but informed critics are surely valuable in a different way.

        I just find it an interesting theoretical topic, and don’t expect to ever figure out what works best (or worry much about it).

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      It’s not only art being developed in the community, to use your word.
      It’s also art being ahead of time.
      Cf. e.g. the first Impressionists, Bach, Stravinsky, they were _very_ slowly recognized by the public – it takes time to learn a new art “language”.

      • That’s true, by definition: what is popular today probably won’t last long into tomorrow, because there is no reward in the understanding and there is nothing left to further understand. Perhaps this is why all the artists that have really stood the test of time were only ‘discovered’ much, much later…

        • I guess the challenge with architecture is that works that don’t stand the test of time will stand there anyway, often for 100 years or more. Bad paintings are easily forgotten.

  6. Martin Fritter says:

    Well, I don’t think there is such a thing as objective criticism. One would look for a critic who is well informed, often with specalist knowledge, articulate and passionate. A well developed and sincere critical community is essential to the health of any art form. And, one can read Susan Sontag’s critical writing on photography and benefit greatly thereby without needing to agree with most of what she has to say. (She’s very wrong, sez me.) Pedantically yours, M. (Also, I think I’ve mentioned before, I think your work with machines is fantastic.)

    • There isn’t, by the nature of the work being criticised, but at the same time the childish vitriol does nobody any favours either – and if we can strip that out a little… 🙂

  7. bill walter says:

    A good article. Instead of reading what critics say or write, I tend to rely only on my own personal critique, because for me, that’s the only one that counts. The first 2 photos have a Ralph Gibson feel to them, and that’s a good thing! I’m curious, what camera did you use?

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    So true !

    – – –

    And that last photo !
    ( “Negative”? To me it is rather positive!)

    – – –

    There is also the law of Jante, and not only in Scandinavia.
    E.g. “Don’t think you know more than we do, just because you’re going to high school.”
    ( )

    But in Sweden it is less present than in the previous generation.
    Perhaps because communities are less isolated now.

    • Last image: could be relativity/ glass half full/ glass half empty type thing?

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I prefer the lady who retorted “I don’t care if it’s half full OR half empty – either way, there’s room for more!”

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Could be.

        It’s just the kind of image I like at once and come back to and like even more.
        And I couldn’t figure out why you called it Negative!

        • Chaotic, messy, somewhat pointless…more a metaphorical negative than an aesthetic one.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            As a documentary, yes somewhat – or a bit more.

            Not when presented in this composition.
            And several contrasting patterns to guide eyes.

            Well, like most of us in parts of our (sub)consciousness.
            So it triggers vague associations and thoughts.
            A bit provoking (but not surrealistic).
            I like.

  9. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Well put, Ming – ever since I was a child, I’ve had a problem with “critics”. A “real” critic in my opinion is a person who is capable of drawing attention to matters that might perhaps need correction, and (also) making constructive and positive suggestions that can lead the person whose work is being reviewed forward – suggestions that encourage, that build, that help creativity thrive and grow.

    Purely negative criticism is a vile path for anyone to take. It projects a sneering, supercilious attitude – it’s mostly just destructive, not constructive – and it seems to be tied to the saying that those who can, do – those who can’t, criticise!

    When I read articles like yours, I read to see what I can learn, what I can enjoy & appreciate. And from to time I find such articles spray painted with quite vitriolic comments – comments which have provoked me to producing a response which hopefully help to heal any damage sustained by the person who wrote the article in question, and reduce the impact of the author[s] of the negative remarks. As my grandmother used to say – “if you can’t think of anything nice to say, just don’t say anything!”

    • Thank you. I think the distinction has to be made, and we do need the true critics – just not the virtue. But nobody ever seemed to explain the difference, so perhaps it was time we attempted…perhaps this is also one of the causes of the spread of vitriol.

  10. The images in this article are fantastic. I wonder if there’s a “negative” out there who would dare to criticize them.

    • Thanks – there are plenty, trust me. And art/photography are all subjective, after all – so there’s perhaps not good/bad, but like/dislike, and both are equally valid.

  11. richard majchrzak says:

    excellent article , words , photos

  12. gnarlydognews says:

    Very nice article and for a moment I was going to rip into you (like a true troll) with the: “The worst kind hide arrogantly behind a veil of obfuscating verbiage that simply either impresses the layman into submission, or creates the false impression of erudition. And there are no supporting examples or explanations given, either.”
    But then you redeemed yourself 🙂

%d bloggers like this: