Asking For It

statusTwo 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.



Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Criticism, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Laments, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

9 responses to “Asking For It

  1. Ah yes, the eternal injunction to offer what you term “shit sandwiches” is alive and well in a society where honesty, even ignorant and innocuous honest questioning, is definitely NOT the best policy. So often in social situations I struggle to decode what is acceptable or unacceptable, and often fall short. Maybe offering a question about what is intended, and considering the reply as an entrée into intelligent discussion where both parties are learners and questers, in criticism that might be the best way to approach a less confusing way of communicating about all art. Maybe preferring to be humbly curious might be better for all concerned than wanting to have the definitive correct assessment. I too distrust the word “clever” as It seems dismissive. G

    • dmarshall58

      I take the questioning approach when I lead workshops but sometimes find participants reluctant to venture a response. They assume I’m asking the question for a reason, that I’m secretly trying to expose some weakness or elicit a specific observation from them. Sometimes I act on my concerns and ask about what concerned me and sometimes I’m just asking, but, in either case, people seem most concerned about preserving writers’ feelings. I’m for that too–within limits. It’s not true kindness–or even true respect–if you don’t think a piece worth questioning. Thanks for your comment– I always love seeing your name here! –D

  2. Peter Newton

    Ira Glass on the Secret of Success in Creative Work, Animated in Kinetic Typography | Brain Pickings … via @brainpicker
    This 2-minute audio-visual says it all. Check it out. –Peter

    • dmarshall58

      Yes, and I think maybe Ira Glass is wrong that it’s taken him longer than anyone else to figure it out. It’s taking me longer. I wonder if I’ll ever figure out why my taste is so much better than what I produce. But perhaps it’s more that I’ll never be able to apply my taste to my own work and assess it at all. I can’t see it clearly, which is why I’d like to receive some honest and direct feedback. That said, he’s right that there’s nothing to do but keep practicing and practicing, which I do… and do… and enjoy doing.

      Thanks for alerting me to this piece. –D

  3. I’m so exhausted by the rampant insincere praise this society has somehow come to expect (and on the other side of the same coin, the insincere sympathy, empathy, conviction, creed, whatever happens to be PC or popular at the moment…) that I’ve pretty much given up even bothering to state my opinion at all. Except here. Your honesty is refreshing.

    • dmarshall58

      I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it’s particularly frustrating that mine sometimes suffer when I sense people are sparing me somehow. It makes me believe there’s something devastating wrong with what I’ve created if there’s no feeling-preserving way to talk about it. –D

  4. Personally, I’m not sure labels help much – to me, they feel like solving NY Times crosswords puzzles – just letters in boxes, self-addressed stamped envelopes.

    I chose to reply based on content, ask questions that possibly suit only me, and mostly discuss the thoughts when it strikes me. I feel like praise thus springs from the type of reply, the amount of consideration I give the gift wrapping the thoughts, and the present of my time to the author. Value speaks loudest from action, I believe.

    That being said, imagine the tweet or facebook post with the barest of written information only. Even lighter still is the ‘like’ or ‘thumbs up’ on a sentiment in reply. Psych studies tell us that these behaviors are making us less happy, and yet we continue to do them – to seek to connect in some way. It’s a bit mystifying this new public image we all share, and how we choose to interact to satisfy our own needs for attention, respect, and love.

    Somehow it seems right to leave it at that. If I were to have tweeted it, maybe it would have been a single character tweet: “?”

    • dmarshall58

      Maybe the greatest misfortune is that we desire feedback so much. That we think “Like” or “Unlike” is enough speaks to our desperate solitude. It’s not so satisfying to scour FB for notifications (or this blog for “Likes”), but that’s our mode now, the way we speak to our continuing human need for companionship and support. –D

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