The Faint Praise Department

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?


  1. - Scene: Visiting Family -

    Mom: What are you working on now?
    Me: Voila, needlework!
    Mom: That's... interesting. What does it mean?
    Me: The quote comes from this, and maybe some symbolism and etc.
    Mom: Oh. Oh-kay.
    Me: Gah!

    - End Scene -

    It doesn't bother me that she doesn't share my taste in craft; I don't love all her work either! But I try to pack family-visit projects that won't trigger that conversation yet again. (Either less-'interesting', or gifts.)

  2. I think my all time favorite interaction happened @ the Vancouver Folk Festival. An Asian woman looked through my rack of clothing, which is ALWAYS a major mish-mash of styles , colors, textures of recycled super duper hand made weirdness in clothes form...and she looked at me and said " Wow, you have done a lot of work, haven't you?"

    I am of the mind that if you can't say something nice at some kind of a big gathering like that, just don't say anything. I was sitting in the sun for three days straight, hundreds of people visiting my rack.. many just move on, why would someone need to actually say something curt. I responded by saying, "Well, me and my magical elves." . She gave me a weird look and walked off. I though "Hee hee".

    Then, about an hour she came BACK with her husband (a Caucasian man), and I said "Wow, nice to see you again! I have to say, I thought you didn't like my work, and that I had insulted you a little with my reply. Now I am embarrassed. I am sorry I was rude." Her husband said, laughing, " No, no, no, she came to find me to tell me about your work, and then she asked me, 'what are elves?' " and then they bought something.

  3. Anonymous5:09 PM

    I try to convince myself that it doesn't matter what others think, especially those who are not particularily creative themselves but I haven't quite got there yet. the most frequent comments go something like "oh that looks easy, can you show me how to do it"?. so far I haven't strangled anybody.

  4. Very interesting.
    I come from and live in a very traditional middle class world where artist were/are considered just a little more than mad e non productive people. So I found myself more that once in the position of having no words to comment the work of an artist. I have said all the above, to my shame.
    And since I started to let out my creativity in my very small attempts at art, I received the same comments.
    I remember a friend who was painting (with very embarassing results) but she said something wise to my daughter who was showing her a drawing: It doesn't matter if I like it, what matters is if YOU like it.
    In conclusion, I think that 'congratulations' is a fantastic way out!

  5. Heather! right on for another provocative blog post! I was talking with a fellow artist about it, and she told me something really great:

    "What other people think of you is none of your business!"

  6. Hmmm...if I had a loonie for every "You should sell your work" I'd have a nice little nest egg by now. Before I stopped teaching crafts, I used to reply "You couldn't afford it, but I do sell my expertise instead. Want to learn how?" Unsurprisingly nobody ever took me up on the offer.

    My favourite line was once when I was demonstrating spinning fine cotton on a charkha: "Bet you have a spool of thread up your sleeve!"

  7. When I was in my mid-30's I went to pottery classes for a few months but my stuff kept disappearing after firings. In fact the instructor put my pots away on the kids' workshop shelf, where I eventually found them all. I gave up on pottery.

  8. Something similar happened when I was trying to learn pottery. The whole batch got crispy-fried in the kiln! I have one piece left from all my pottery lessons, a tray that I still use sometimes. I have more pieces from my kids when they were little. Treasures.

  9. I had a customer say "I can't believe you can make a living doing this".


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