How to Talk to an Artist
Congratulations! You’ve made and/or kept a friend who is an artist. That’s great. Your friend is fun and/or serious and you like them.
But there will come a moment when you have to deal with their art. Maybe you’ll be invited to their art show or their play. Maybe you’ll read their story in a magazine or see their dance on TV. It’s exciting, yes. But I can understand you might be a little nervous, too. What on earth are you supposed to say to them afterwards?
You have some choices.
If you liked it, tell them you liked it. If you loved it, tell them you loved it. If you only loved one minute of it, tell them how much you loved that minute. If you want to win a lot of points with your artist friend, you can tell them long lists of things you liked.
But what if you didn’t like it?
This is a tricky one, of course. I’m sorry if you find yourself in this situation. But it does happen. Quite a bit, in fact. It is not as terrible as it seems. First suggestion — find one thing you liked. A moment. An image. Let’s say it’s a painting and it’s all different shades of orange and you can’t stand orange. You should not feel obliged to like orange. But see if you can identify a line you’re interested in — a brush stroke, or a shape. And that is what you talk about. You are permitted to make comparisons to your own experience, as in, “That triangle reminded me of an afternoon from my youth.” Artists like that sort of thing.
If you’re really upset about the orange, try NOT to say something like, “The color is terrible.” This will not be taken well by your artist friend. Try something like, “I’m curious about the color. Why did you choose Orange?” The answer might surprise you and you might learn something about your artist friend that you didn’t know. You might even change your point of view about the orange.
“But I hate the orange!” You might say. “When do I tell her my opinions? I have criticisms. She needs to know about the orange! When do I share my critique?”
The answer is: You do not share your critique. No matter how much you hate orange and no matter how convinced you are that this painting would be so much better if it were not orange. If you want to keep your artist friend, do not tell her she should paint it green.
(You might be permitted to let slip your hatred of orange in one way and one way only. That is something like, “I usually hate the color orange but I love this painting.” You might even be able to get away with something like, “I love this painting so much, I’d love to see a whole series. Like in more colors.”)
The only way to reveal your feelings about orange is if your artist friend specifically asks you, “Do you like the orange?” If she does this, feel free to share your feelings.
“But why,” you may ask, “Is my artist friend so sensitive about her work? Why can’t I tell her all my suggestions?”
This sensitivity can best be explained metaphorically. To artists, their work is like their children — so you must approach talking about their work in much the same way you’d talk about kids. You do not, for example, tell a parent that their son is ugly. Even if you think it’s true from the bottom of your heart. Even if all your other friends agree with you, you still do not tell your friend that they have an ugly child. You do not criticize your friend’s child’s looks, their personality or their life choices. If you do not like how your friend is raising her child, you do not tell her she’s doing it wrong.
This is basic politeness.
Therefore, you should not tell an artist that her work is ugly or disjointed or whatever your particular opinion is.
“But! But!” You say, “I want my artist friend to do well! If she just painted that painting green instead of orange, I’m sure she’d sell it for a million dollars!”
Your desire to support is noted and appreciated but unless you are prepared to commission your artist friend for a million dollars to make you a green version of her painting, still, you should keep your opinion to yourself.
“But — a million dollars!” You say.
Yes. But you’re forgetting that there are other people in the world. And that all of those other people have opinions that they are as committed to as you are to yours. The artist has likely been told (by someone else) that the orange is the best part of the painting so she should keep the orange and ditch the shapes. Or that the scale is all wrong and she should make it small instead of big. In short, in a world of opinions, the only opinion that matters is the artist’s. And (possibly) the small group of people she trusts to give her the kind of feedback she wants.
“But I want to give my artist friend feedback! How do I become one of those people that gets to give her feedback?”
Your artist friend will start to trust you with her work once you’ve given her so many insightful compliments and asked so many insightful questions that she has to know what you think. It may take years. Or never happen at all. Try not to be offended. You wouldn’t trust all of your friends to take your kids on vacation. Doesn’t mean you don’t like your friends.
“But what if my artist friend specifically asked me to be honest. Like, they said, “No, honestly, what did you think?”
Do not fall into this trap. You may think this is your opportunity to say everything that you felt was wrong with the piece. It is not. I would suggest going a few rounds with the, “No, honestly, it was great.” Before you let loose with your feedback. And even then — just give up one thing. Maybe tell them about the orange since it bothers you so much. If your friend likes it, they will ask for more. And you may get to tell them everything you think.
“Okay. Okay. But what about advice? Can I give advice?”
Again, think of the artist’s work as their child. Let’s say the child is really smart and you think they should go to Harvard. You could say, “You should send your kid to Harvard.” But this is not, in fact, very helpful. Lots of people want to send their kids to Harvard. If you said, “I have some pull with the admissions committee. Can I talk to them about your kid?” That would be helpful. Likewise, don’t tell a painter she should get a show at MOMA. She knows. What you can say is, “I know someone who knows someone at MOMA. Can I introduce you?” That would be helpful.
“But what if my thoughts about my artist friend’s painting/play/song/blog/podcast/novel/sculpture/dance is REALLY the best thing? It’s the thing that will save it! How can I NOT TELL THEM?!?”
I understand your pain. Believe me. I have watched so many plays, convinced that I had the perfect solution to what I saw as the problem and I wished and wished and wished that someone would ask me so I could tell them. But many of those plays were incredibly successful without my feedback and sometimes the very thing I would have “fixed” is the thing that becomes a hit. One learns how to let it go.
“But my friends and I are the kind of people who are radically honest. She tells me when I look fat and I tell her when her hair looks terrible. I can tell my artist friend my critical thoughts about her work in that case, can’t I?”
Maybe you can. To each his own. If your relationship is based on criticism already, okay. Go for it. You go to her show and tell her all the things you think are wrong with it — as long as she gets to come to your job and tell you all the things that are wrong with your work. If you’re up for some feedback about your filing system from someone who knows nothing about it, I see no reason why you can’t return the favor. It’s not my style or the style of my friends, but everybody’s different.
“But she said, “What did you think?” after her show!’
Yep. That means “Tell her what you liked about it.”
It’s exactly the same as someone showing you their newborn and saying, “What do you think?” This is not an invitation to rip the baby apart. Of course you have to admire the baby and confirm that, yes, it is the best baby in the world and yes, definitely has his father’s eyes or whatever.
“Uh-oh. I’ve already done a lot of the things you’ve told me not to do. Am in trouble with my artist friend?”
Your artist friend understands that you don’t understand how these things work and if they’ve kept you around it’s very probable that you have redeeming qualities that they value enough to put up with your boorish behavior. Also, most artists accept apologies.
And maybe your artist friend is particularly thick-skinned. If you talk with them about how to talk about their work, you may find your artist friend is different. But to be safe, I’d stick with compliments and questions.
“But what if the painting/podcast/novel….etc is truly terrible? Shouldn’t someone tell them?”
Making a piece of terrible art is not like having spinach stuck in your teeth. If your artist friend has made something truly terrible, it’s very probable that she knows, long before you do. But terrible is almost always subjective. If you want to keep your friend, find the one thing that isn’t terrible and celebrate it with her. That’s the best way to talk with your artist friend. Celebrate the wonderful bits.
Leave the criticism to the critics.
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Originally published at artiststruggle.wordpress.com on August 29, 2016.