We've all experienced it. The uncomfortable smiles, the "Umm, interesting"s, the "Wow, that must have taken a lot of work"s. I tend to give the hapless would-be critic a generous leeway, knowing that most people don't have the vocabulary to respond to a piece of art, and are all too aware of their inadequacy. They mean well, and that's enough.
I have had a few notable backhanded compliments in my, ahem, career. One of my favourites came when the mother of a young intern said to me, after inspecting the premises of the newspaper office where we worked, "You know, you put out a pretty good little paper. It's almost professional." I choked on my coffee - after eight years in the field, at much more prestigious publications, I'd better damn well be professional. I still say, when I know I've done something really well, "It's almost professional."
I once had an artist friend who thought he had it figured out. His standard, one word fits all, response to art he didn't like was "Congratulations." Sincere enough to convey respect that the person he was addressing had managed to get a show, mealy-mouthed enough to convey no opinion. A neat dodge.
Yesterday I received a new contender in the faint praise department. A man whose father is a nationally recognised poet, step-mother a novelist, and a creative professional himself (so he should have known better) said, upon seeing the hippy-dippy quilt: "Wow, that would look great in my kid's room." Unable to control himself, he followed that zinger up with: "You should sell those."
Urghhh. I don't expect expert critical analysis, I don't require unconditional praise, I don't even really need to know if you like it or not. Positive comments are lovely when they come, but the most precious of all are the comments that reflect a moment of attention, maybe even a moment of connection or communication. To be understood is the most meaningful gift an artist can be given.
What about you? I would love to hear your favourite responses to your art. What words have brought tears to your eyes (of laughter, amazement, frustration or pride)? Does it matter to you what people say?