Two responses to my artwork and writing I hear often: “My, you’re prolific,” and “How clever.” I try to appreciate these observations. Since creating any art takes chutzpah and faith, making a lot of it is a measure of dedication, devotion. Calling something “clever” usually means it’s inventive, something a viewer or reader never considered. These statements seem fair and safe too. I’m on my 352nd post on Signals to Attend, my 234th on derelict satellite and approaching my 1000th haiku on Haiku Streak.
And, yes, it’s also true my work is often deliberately odd.
So perhaps I ought to feel good. After all, as Samuel Johnson said, “Where there is no difficulty, there is no praise,” and at least my work embraces quantitative and qualitative challenges. I create a lot and try not to repeat myself.
I don’t mean to be ungrateful. Nonetheless, I sense something lurking behind comments about my prolific cleverness. What artist would want to be notable purely for production, and doesn’t “clever” also connote “merely intellectual,” “synthetic,” maybe “calculating,” “clinical,” or “gimmicky”?
Such safe praise comes close to faint praise, an idea first expressed in Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” when he wrote:
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer
As Mr. Pope points out, the most insidious aspects of faint praise are its power to illuminate the gap between good and great and its emphasis on the critic’s superior judgment. Ennobled by its admiration instead of censure, faint praise receives credit for being nice, yet the risk is negligible. Its actual effect is also negligible, except that it allows others to feel good without helping anyone else reach higher—and hidden—standards.
In the context of my living room, I’m a great artist, possibly the greatest since my wife writes letters only occasionally, my son does most of his painting at college, and my daughter has a job at a sleep-away camp this summer. When I leave this place, however, I see my limitations. Though I’m not inviting abuse—I’d prefer to preserve my aspirations—I expect to hear honest assessment when I participate in a class with that purpose. While I agree with Marcus Aurelius that any beautiful thing derives its value from itself and asks for nothing more, I want to learn, particularly from the instructor, where I’ve succeeded and where not. I’d like to develop as an artist, and safe praise doesn’t help.
In education, we’re taught to offer students “shit sandwiches.” A response to their work should begin, we’re told, with something nice, then turn to something not so nice, and end with some encouraging path to improvement. Yet, insincere praise—and my students seem too smart to miss insincerity—is worse than censure. It begins and ends in disrespect. Your work isn’t all it might be, it seems to say, and, what’s more, you can’t handle hearing that.
Maybe open-face sandwiches are better—“Here’s what looks flawed to me, let’s discuss some strategies for achieving all you hope.” We like praise best from those who are praiseworthy, and any reader’s honest, earnest, and inspired effort to help someone achieve his or her best work certainly seems praiseworthy to me.
Okay, perhaps I’m misinterpreting compliments about how much I write and how smart it is. If so, I’m sorry. I may be in a lose-lose situation here because I’m not exactly sure what I hope to gain from sharing my writing in workshop or offering my art up for critique. I don’t mean to be peevish. Yet, my mother taught me, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all,” and safe praise, coming so close to nothing, leaves too much to imagine.
Clearly, I’m imagining the worst, so do your worst. In this case as in most cases, honesty is truly the best policy.