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« Free Reads -- Blogads? | Main | Artist Quote of the Day »

January 30, 2003

Art Survival Tips

Friedrich --

I notice that as the years have gone by I've developed a certain number of art-going tricks. One I'm especially semi-proud of helps me get over some of the snottiness I can be prone to. A lot of people get pissy about art things, come to think of it. They read a new book or look at a new painting and think, sheesh, piece of shit, what the hell's becoming of the world, what is it here that's being foisted on the world, etc.

I used to be prone to reacting in this way too. Actually, I still am: Your mind's on the greats, and you feel you're defending standards, and what's before you is so transparently ... not great. But why not be a little kinder? Though I'm not sure that "trying to be kinder" would have occurred to me had I not had to read lots of fiction by friends and go to lots of art and music by friends. And with friends, of course, you tend to be a little kinder. You make the effort.

So it came to me: why not, at a concert or play or art show, pretend that the person behind it is a good friend? If, when I read or see something by an actual friend, I really am kinder, maybe pretending the artist is a friend can make me kinder too. And it works. I've found that, if I pretend the artist is a good friend, my mind will always relax and shift into a more open state. I start seeing the point of the work before me more accurately and generously. Instead of doing nothing but harumphing, my inner monologue might go something like this: "OK, what if she's a friend, what if she were a friend... Well, OK, she's doing something media-driven and didactic, and trying to update it with a kind of street rhythm that doesn't turn its back on rap. That's clear. I'm not crazy about this kind of thing myself, but she is, and why not? Plus, she's playing the contempo harsh-and-confrontational game. And why not? Me, I generally think this kind of thing is a pain, but hey, it's something some people seem to like to do. And I can certainly see a few new twists that she's making happen here, and the craft level's kind of impressive. I certainly don't know how she did it, in any case...." Etc., etc.

So when I go to an art show or theater piece these days, I always remind myself to pretend a good friend did it. And I have a much better time than I'd have otherwise. Unless, that is, what I've gone to is a big corporate commercial thing, in which case I let myself razz it to my heart's content, if that's my reaction. Who cares about the feelings of a committee? Who even wants to bother seeing a committee's point of view? But if it's a performance? Or a poem? A painting on a wall? No one had to make it. It's all voluntary. There's a sweetness and hopefulness to the very fact of its existence. Why not give it the benefit of the doubt?

What kinds of art-going tricks have you developed over the years? But maybe you don't contend with the degree of built-in grumpiness I do.



posted by Michael at January 30, 2003


But surely friends don't let friends get away with bad art?

Posted by: James Russell on January 31, 2003 6:30 AM

I think it's more helpful (and enjoyable) to think of bad art as art that hasn't found its way yet. When I was in art school the best part of hanging out with a group of would-be artists (some very accomplished, some very much not so) was to realize that if you paid close enough attention to people long enough you would eventually begin to see that they were all getting at something. In some cases, the people I would have labelled hopelessly bad and untalented eventually found the right "channel" and produced very touching work.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 31, 2003 11:01 AM

I don't think this would work for me. I would still see it as bad, and pick it apart - or applaud it if it were good. The only difference is how I would present my critique. I would be inclined to be gentler, and find more good things to say. Hell, I'm inclined that way anyway. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. For instance, one of the last books I reviewed for HNS was just so boring. I had a very hard time finding something nice to say about it, but I did. Even so, I received a letter forwarded from the author griping about my review. It was obvious that I had hurt her feelings, but it was her first book, and read like it. I felt bad, but I stand behind my criticisms.

I guess you weren't discussing criticism as much as trying to understand the work of art. Well, I think it works the same way. Either you can understand it or you can't. Pretending the artist is a friend won't help you. Now, if the artist actually IS a friend, then you have an insight others don't, and therefore an understanding that strangers won't have. But, I really don't see why pretense should affect your openness to art.

Posted by: Alexandra on January 31, 2003 11:37 AM

I typically pre-compile a list of sugar-coated responses that I can invoke upon need. Approximately 7 are required based on a regression matrix based on the "seven degrees of separation" in that if you have 7 different responses and you sprinkle them in order as you go, you won't appear to be repeating yourself, and thus get caught at canned happiness.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 31, 2003 11:40 AM

Hey James, You may have a feistier group of friends than I do. I've seen all too many friendships come to an end (sadly and unnecessarily, as far as I'm concerned) over such things. How do you manage such moments? Do you volunteer criticism? Wait to be asked? How much truth do you find your friends can stand?

Hi Alexandra -- You're right, I'm not discussing criticism per se, where (like you, I suspect) I think the writer's main allegiance has to be with the audience (which doesn't mean he has to be completely unsympathetic to the artist).

I think you've made my point more clearly than I did, though, when you write "I would still see it as bad, and pick it apart - or applaud it if it were good. The only difference is how I would present my critique. I would be inclined to be gentler, and find more good things to say. Hell, I'm inclined that way anyway. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings." For me, pretending that a painting or poem was made by a good friend has exactly the effect you're writing about there -- it inclines me to be gentler, and to find more good things to say. It budges me out of judgmentalness (if that's a word, and into which I can be too prone to fall) and into making more of an effort to see what may be there that's of worth. Not that my trick has to work for anyone else, but I do find that while it doesn't change my judgment, it humanizes my reactions a bit, which dooesn't strike me as a bad thing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 31, 2003 11:46 AM

Hey Yahmdallah -- The real masters of the totally insincere enthusiastic response are people in Hollywood. We civilians have a lot to learn from people exiting screening rooms. From a five minute stay a couple of centuries ago, I still recall a few beauties: "Wow, you've really done it this time!" And "It's so great the way you've put it all up on the screen!"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 31, 2003 11:49 AM

Michael, you aren't alone! I don't do the trick you speak of in exactly the same way ("pretend they're a friend" is a good one, I'll have to try it), but I've tried to open up a bit, too. My father was an artist, and I grew up with art books and the process of art ("oh, your father is in the garage (studio), don't bother him") and have had to tone down my attitude towards art internally when I encounter it.

It just wasn't good for my disposition!

And finding what dimension(s) it's stengths are in help me approach it with a better attitude too.

Posted by: David Mercer on February 2, 2003 3:51 AM

I ask B.S. questions about the artists choices. "Did you feel that the nature of this work demanded such a large format?" Gets me off the hook quickly.

Posted by: j.c. on February 2, 2003 1:00 PM

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