Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 4.15.53 PMDo what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway . — Eleanor Roosevelt

When you look at a piece of food on your plate and decide not to eat it, do you know why?  You may be able to answer that question by saying you don’t like the taste, or you are not in the mood, but that doesn’t really address the root of the question, “Why?” Can you tell me why you don’t like the taste?  Can you tell me why you are not in the mood?  I doubt it.  Taste is cultivated by repeated exposure and a series of complex associations the brain makes, which are still not fully understood.  The same applies to art.

Art is not something you can convince someone to like…no matter how much you talk about it or try to explain it. It’s not like buying a used car.  Conversely, if there is a piece of art that speaks to me, there is very little you can do to dissuade my affection for it.  I’m not talking about buying art.  People can be persuaded to buy things regardless of whether or not they like them or need them. I’m talking about really loving a work of art…and, no one yet has been able to explain that. Every art dealer in the universe would love to figure out the formula for what makes some people to respond to some art and not others.  It’s not unlike falling in love.

And yet, even though there is no relevant answer to the question, it is what almost every artist I have ever encountered wants to know, “What you think of my work?” And, if they haven’t asked me outright, I know they’re thinking it.  It amazes me, because when you stop to think about it, it doesn’t really matter what the response is.  Regardless of how anyone answers the question, it won’t change the fact that you make art, and it won’t change the art you make. Although it’s true that artists need feedback, the most valuable feedback comes from other artists.  The question of whether or not I like it, and it’s companion question, “Why?” are questions artists should avoid at all costs.  However, it’s important to understand what you are really asking.  Let’s take a look.

“Does this dress make me look fat?”  The question asked.
“I feel fat in this dress, can you please tell me I’m pretty ?”  The real question. I’m also looking at these 2023 pink prom dresses online for they look really elegant and I’m also planning purchase some for me!
“Did you like the dinner I made tonight?”  The question asked.
“I am really proud of the dinner I made, will you tell me it was good?”  The real question

“Do you like my work?” The question asked.
“I need someone to validate what I am doing, will you?”  The real question

So, let’s examine this situation from both sides.  If the person responds,” Yes, I love your work,”  you are happy, you continue to make art, but you become fearful if you want to change or grow because the person said they like THIS art. You can’t keeping making the same piece over and over again or your would be miserable…so it’s loose/loose situation even if they respond positively.   If the person responds,” No, I hate it.” You are unhappy, you continue to make art, but you question yourself…wondering what you could change  to make them happy.  Unfortunately,  doing so would make YOU unhappy, and on, and on you go down into the vicious circle of self criticism and self doubt, an artists’ worst enemies.

Do yourself a favor.  Give yourself a gift you deserve.  You’ve worked hard to allow yourself to be an artist, give yourself permission to enjoy it and don’t ask/don’t tell.


14 Responses to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

  1. Julia Schwartz said:

    Jun 12, 11 at 11:31 am

    This is so timely. My work has recently gone in a new, more abstract direction and I will be showing this new work in a solo show in August. I am really energized, I love what I’m doing! I had my studio visit to choose the work and the person curating the show is also really excited. But those questions will come up I’m sure. And can I keep going on my own path, despite occasional creeping self doubt?

  2. laurel huggins said:

    Jun 12, 11 at 2:15 pm

    Good advice…I’ve told artists, before they’ve shown, that the time before putting your work out to the public is precious…it’s a time without an audience, once work is shown, it takes a strong artist to stay true to their conviction to create from who they are, not trying to anticipate what someone else would like…
    Years ago, when I was showing with Karl Bornstein, I pointed to a large painting that was hanging on opening day…to me, this one painting was a culmination of all that I had painted before, in this medium…and I told him that this was my last show of the lacquer pieces. He begged me to keep painting them…that I would be making making massive amounts of money…I told him that art to me was a journey…and if I wanted to do something for art, it would be in the form of a product, which, years later, I did a line of products for Neimans…and kept my painting for myself.

  3. John Monteiro said:

    Jun 13, 11 at 4:28 am

    I don’t ask for opinions, because they are only distractions. I do offer what methods I use to create my art and sometimes where that inspiration came from. I leave it up to the viewer to reach their own conclusions without any prompting from me. When I’m handed the credit card, all of my questions are answered. I do an eclectic mix of subject matter. This in itself creates a “swoon” for the viewer. They seem to be overwelmed and want to take time to view the entire exhibit. I’ve had folks return several times asking questions about different pieces before settling on one or two. When your going to pay for something that is in the five figure range, you have the right to take as much time as you like.The folks that call me eight months later, asking me if I still have the piece they like and want to buy it, always amazes me. My work can be viewed a Click on artist than my name, John Monteiro. Thank you

  4. Brenda Mercado, M.F.T. said:

    Jun 13, 11 at 11:36 am

    Thank you for the words of encouragement.

  5. Michael Floeck said:

    Jun 17, 11 at 7:45 pm

    I like a lot of this text such as: Regardless of how anyone answers the question, it won’t change the fact that you make art, and it won’t change the art you make. I recently donated a 3×4′ purple and white abstract oil to an elementary school silent auction and was told it was “too abstract” for the crowd attending. Actually I liked hearing that because I felt I was not doing my work for the masses but because it meant something to me, and still, no one bought it so I got to keep it.

  6. Peg Grady said:

    Jun 17, 11 at 8:31 pm

    Giving yourself permission to make the kind of art you want to make is a difficult thing to do until you realize that that’s the only way you can feel any sense of joy in creation. Thank you for this essay on giving yourself permission to make the things you want to make and not seek validation from the public.

  7. Jackie Morton said:

    Jun 17, 11 at 8:35 pm

    i just came back from an opening and discussion about this subject. I don’t market my art. I make it and in order to be successful financially I will have to don a different hat, that of a marketer. Will that happen? I feel I do work that does not follow what fashion dictates; is not in the manner of “whomever”. The work makes some folk uncomfortable but hopefully they will not be bored with it. At this time I am free to follow what is in my heart, hands and soul. It costs me but I think there are many great artists whose work never sees the light of day, publically so I am not alone. I am not saying my work is great but it has something to say (wordlessly). It is unfortunate that this happens but for some of us, we don’t speak in words…we are not salesmen (women). I need an agent.

  8. MarilynSanders said:

    Jun 17, 11 at 9:17 pm

    This good advice is something one needs to grow into. After working 30 years, it’s a delicious experience, to ask myself if I’m satisfied with an image. Though it’s valuable to show work & hear comments, it doesn’t influence my print decisions. I think this is the only way to develop one’s personal aesthetic. Interesting to me that collectors who may have turned down an image may later
    return and even pay a higher price because a particular photograph stays with them & they want it.

  9. Karen mortensen said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 1:47 am

    An emotional response will always defy logic so there is no point in explaining. It is of course always nice to receive accolades but could never really affect how I express myself through art.

  10. Stan Bowman said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 5:03 am

    Waiting for comments about your art can easily get into being an approval game. When we start something new, unexpected, and put it out there, even in our own studio, we are waiting to see what the reaction of others is, to gauge interest. Basically it comes from a place where we want to feel good and we look to others to respond to our work with interest and approval to give us that feel good feeling.

    This is really a totally natural human response and it happens almost unconsciously, and saying this is not good thing to do is really not helpful. Rather I think putting yourself first and foremost is the way to go, letting your own response be dominant, but without ignoring or disparaging other responses. I do like hearing what others think of my new work but I seek to place my response first, to recognize how the work pleases me. I am my own best supporter and like it that way.

    Of course then there is the economic factor which is do others like my work enough to purchase it. And then we gauge the success of the work by whether someone will write a check for it, and that can get in the way of our feelings about the works we have created. But this is really another issue.

    On one hand our works of art start with how we feel about them and the pleasure we take in having created them. It starts with our response to our own creativity. But when it is out there for sale and someone is considering it the issue is their response to it, not ours. And getting a sale may be more about the potential buyers personal attitude about money and buying art, maybe more so than about the buyers appreciation of the artwork. It is about how an artist or gallery presents a work to a potential buyer, whether they are working with them to help them hurdle what may be their barriers to making a purchase. Selling art can be, is, an art form in itself. And in the end this has little to do with the art itself, it is about commerce.

    Hope you don’t mind my ramblings.

  11. Edgar Sanchez Cumbas said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 5:30 am

    Ironically I am in the same situation. I have had a slew of old collectors contacting me to purchase older narrative work from 2001-2006 before my work transitioned to abstract expressionism. Some have actually bought the old work and the new work. In this case it makes me feel good to know that no matter the style, some people understand my visual language and the message is still translated. I agree, a strong conviction and passion will carry through any stylistic changes an artist will make.

  12. Jack Halbert said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 9:10 am

    I personally don’t care who likes my paintings or not! This includes everyone including you, critics, teachers, artists, judges. I really can’t be bothered!
    Hi Sylvia!

  13. Terri said:

    Jun 18, 11 at 1:11 pm

    No. No. No. Not at all. I don’t care if you like my work. Sometimes I’d rather you don’t like it, not a single bit. You see, great work doesn’t hve to be liked. It must MOVE the viewer –to have some sort of emotional or psychological response.

    I don’t make art to be loved, or to be popular. It is what I am, what I must do and I don’t give a flying you know what or why you don’t like or do like it. What I go through, my process, is subjective ONLY to me. How you see it, how you relate to it is purely subjective to you.

    Where we might meet in through my content or my use of color. Perhaps when you read my statement about the body of work. If it moves you, in any sort of manner; if it provokes you to actually think; if you remember it and your reaction to it –I have done my job.

    The rest is simply gravy.

  14. Abigail said:

    Jun 26, 11 at 2:15 pm

    So true! I wish more people would see it this way instead of pretending that there is such a thing as ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’. There are many different kinds of art to suit so many different preferences, affinities etc. There’s such complexity to why people like certain kinds of art and a lot of it can be intensely subjective and not fully understood.

    I love how you’ve written this because the whole point of deciding to be an artist is simply to create. Reading stuff like this brings me back to that most fundamental impulse.