CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

My latest column at Fine Art Views–enjoy!

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Kindness—and the benefit of the doubt—goes a long way with your peers and in your career.

In my last article, I wrote about respecting other people’s artwork, even if it’s not my thing. What if the person asks for your opinion? What do you say??

Let’s go back a few years… okay, a few decades. I’m a new mom, and my only friends are other new moms. (Most people run the other way when confronted with a frantic new mother and a crying baby. Hence, most of your friends will be other frantic new mothers and their crying babies.) I was in such a group.
Every new parent believes they’re baby is beautiful. No, not just beautiful—the most beautiful baby in the world.  And we know the right thing to say to other parents: “What a beautiful baby!”

That day, we were discussing what to say when presented with an absolutely ugly baby.

The responses ranged from, “Now that’s a baby!!” with a big smile, to “Cute shirt!” What we all agreed on was, you never say what you’re really thinking. That would be hurtful, and serves no one.
After all, we hope every baby is a wanted child, that every child is loved, and that every child, no matter what they look like, is a new human being in the world, with all that entails.  Besides, people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities—why on earth would we judge a baby by those criteria? No. We simply know that babies have a place in the world, to be their own person.
When it comes to the things people make (er…that aren’t babies, that is), it’s a whole nother kettle of fish.
Entire websites and books (regretfully, Regretsy.com, the truly wonderful curated collection of truly awful stuff on Etsy, is no longer active) generate plenty of caustic reactions to really bad art. Read a review of any movie in The New Yorker magazine that was made after 1956, and you wonder why anyone even bothers to make movies at all, so much so seriously wrong with them. Walk any art fair, flea market, online site, and marvel at the amount of bad art in the world.  It will instantly make you feel so much better about your own.
We can behave like old ffff…folks, and complain how young people ‘just don’t appreciate good art anymore’, or how kids today ‘aren’t taught anything about fine craft anymore’ (as if we ever were!)
And critiques are a long-standing practice of traditional art education. How can we know how to improve our art, if no one points out our weakness in our composition, the flaws in our technique, the naivete of our color palette?
That’s our lizard brain talking—our need to judge, our need to discover where we fit in, in the overall range of art from very, very good to oh-my-god-what-were-they-thinking?? And though critiques can be hugely powerful in improving an artist’s skills, we’ll never know how many ‘good-enough’ artists—or simply artists with more sensitive natures—have been devastated by unnecessarily-brutal art bashing in out-of-control critique sessions, to the point where they really were convinced they were not, and could never be, ‘real artists’.
Yes, good art stands the test of time. We all know it when we see it, right?  But so often, what we consider ‘great art’ was considered gauche, disturbing, or otherwise unpopular when they were originally created, and it could take centuries before opinion changed.
‘Outsider’ art, so-called ‘primitive’ art, ‘intuitive’ and ‘visionary’ art, folk art, Art Brut, naïve art, all were considered simply ‘really bad art’, until somewhere along the line, someone saw something deeper, more powerful, more engaging.
As for the teaching power of critiques, I believe there’s a difference between an opinion that’s offered (or forced on someone), and an opinion that’s asked for. There’s a difference between constructive criticism, and scathing sarcasm. There’s a difference between being wishy-washy, vs. offering good insights into how the artist can increase their appeal, and generating a stronger audience for their work.
Here’s my current situation: I’m newly exposed to artists who are self-trained, young artists who are fearless in the work they produce, artists who are inspired by very different memes and themes than the traditional landscapes and still lifes of my art history training. Video game characters, graphic novel illustrations, comic book heroes, internet memes, steampunk, Goth, the ‘maker’ movement, all contribute to a vibrant, design-driven, eclectic stream of work that simply boggles the mind that usually considers ‘traditional art’ the only ‘real art’. It’s tempting to reject it out-of-hand as immature, Day-Glo bright, or just plain weird.
But when I look at the people who make it, I see something else.  I see the same intense desire for self-expression, the same need to make something, the same dedication to practice, to growth, to connection with an audience, as I do.
So what’s the equivalent of “Cute shirt!” in our modern world today?
One suggestion: Find three things you like. And go from there. I got this idea years ago, from an article about home décor. It said, when looking at magazine spreads of beautiful homes, it’s easy to focus only on the decorating styles you love. But even styles you’re not fond of, can help you train your eye, and increase your design repertoire. Look for three elements you like: a color combination, a texture, a window treatment, a backsplash, or light fixture. Consider why they appeal to you, even in a layout that doesn’t.
It’s good advice. It helps me expand my sources of inspiration, and have new appreciation for different experiences, even in appreciating someone else’s artwork.
If I’m watching someone work, I notice how deft they are with their materials and tools. If I’ve been watching their work over time, I notice how their techniques become more sure, more polished. I note their use of color, textures, design, composition.
I ask about their motivation, their inspiration. I ask who their audience is. I ask what venues they use to show and promote their work. I ask what their professional goals are.
When they go through a rough patch—lots of likes on Facebook, but few sales—I ask how they’re attracting people to their website, their studio, their shows.
If I’m talking to someone working in more traditional media, working with more traditional subjects, I ask similar questions. Why do they focus on this subject over those? How did they end up choosing their particular medium? How did they get started? Where are they headed, and where would they like to be?
All of these focus on the intention, the dreams, the goals of the artist. If these align with the manifestation of their art, well, then, they are successful artists!
A last suggestion: If you sense that your feedback would be appreciated, frame it for easy listening. “I love this, and I’m intrigued by that. You have skills with x, y, and z. What you could do better is…” and then offer your suggestions.
There you have it. It’s not hard to be kind, and people might actually absorb more of your excellent advice if you are.
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3 thoughts on “CUTE SHIRT!: What to Say When You Don’t Like the Work

  1. Tha worst comment I feel is ” that is cute”. Some how I don’t think of my fiber art “cute”. When someone says that, I am pretty sure they don’t know anything about my type of art, or have any back ground in art.

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  2. IRL, I have a strong policy: Wait. Until. You. Hear. A. Question. to give advice. Absolutely, tell the artist three things that you appreciate about the work. But you won’t be catching me giving advice or criticism UNLESS I HEAR A QUESTION.

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