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Opinions about Art [Apr. 18th, 2011|11:24 pm]
Adapted from a comment I made elsewhere. I often think about posting these kinds of things, but then think, "Naw, everybody already knows that, right?" But then I think, well, there was certainly a time when *I* didn't know it, and it was kind of a revelation. So I'm curious: for how many folks is this idea new, and for how many is it obvious and second-nature? Is it interesting to see it spelled-out like this?

I think it's really valuable for young artists to learn to distinguish opinion from judgment, and popularity from excellence. Liking something is a matter of taste, which is purely subjective. And de gustibus non est disputandum, as the maxim goes. On the other hand, recognizing quality, and being able to articulate why something is good or bad, requires knowledge of the art. And whether you agree or not, there's usually some dialogue that can be had.

These reactions are independent of one another. You can enjoy something without thinking it's very good. And you can recognize excellence in something even if you hate it.

The tricky thing about feedback on art is that a lot of people can't (or at least don't) separate those reactions, and will express their opinions in critical terms: saying "it sucks", when actually they mean "I don't like it". (And saying "it's great" when really they mean "I love it".) Having people appreciate your work will gratify your ego. Having people give you critical insight into what's good and bad will improve your artistry. Both of these are desirable things, but the latter is much rarer. (And correspondingly more valuable, if you care about quality.)

I can still remember, over the course of various writing workshops in college, coming to the realization that there was nothing -- absolutely NOTHING -- that would be liked by everybody. And how incredibly freeing it was to realize that some people were just not in my target audience, and that it was okay for them not to like my work. That it was no reflection on the quality of my work, it was purely a matter of taste.

So if you want to make art and be happy with your work, I think that's one of the first steps: understanding the difference between "I like it" and "it's good".

[User Picture]From: oxfordtweed
2011-04-19 10:06 am (UTC)
Oh, god. I do critiques and relines on an art forum when I'm bored, but lately, it's just been an exercise in extreme patience. People go as far as to take, 'your anatomy is wrong. Here's how you fix it...' to mean, 'this is bad and you should feel bad,' and then proceed to flame those of us giving the critique that they asked for in the first place.

The best one I got was to be told that I don't know what I'm talking about, because his 'tattoo artist friend' loved it.

Of course his friend loved it. He was his friend and didn't want to upset him by telling him that there's no way a lion could ever bend his legs like that. DX
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-04-20 03:25 am (UTC)
Yeah, it's tough. Often you have to pad the criticism with praise on both sides to get it past the defenses and actually be heard...
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[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2011-04-19 01:33 pm (UTC)
That's true.

Although there is a skill associated with writing stuff that's popular within a target audience, also, and getting feedback about whether people like my work (regardless of whether they think it's good) can help hone that skill, in addition to gratifying my ego.

That said, it's important to know which one I'm doing. If I let feedback train me to express myself popularly when I was setting out to express myself clearly and compellingly, I run the risk of confusing the former with the latter... aka "losing my voice." This happens to a lot of commercially successful artists; the whole "selling out" narrative is predicated on this.

> So I'm curious: for how many folks is this idea new, and for how many is it obvious and second-nature? Is it interesting to see it spelled-out like this?

Not new, but sufficiently third-nature that I often have to stop and explicitly ask myself whether I'm enjoying a piece of art or whether I think it's good or both, and in either case why that is. (I also sometimes have the experience of thinking that it's probably good, but not being sure.)

I find that analyzing why I think something is good teaches me more about art, and analyzing why I enjoy something teaches me more about me. Both are valuable.

> I often think about posting these kinds of things, but then think, "Naw, everybody already knows that, right?"

When we don't, we learn something. When we do, we get to feel smart that we already knew that. Win-win!
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-04-20 03:27 am (UTC)
> When we don't, we learn something. When we do, we get to feel smart that we already knew that. Win-win!

Good point. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2011-04-19 04:04 pm (UTC)
And how incredibly freeing it was to realize that some people were just not in my target audience, and that it was okay for them not to like my work.

I wrote fanfic for a good ten years and it made me completely miserable, because I was told by the people who decided I needed mentoring that it had to be done a certain way. (In fairness, they had been told the same thing when they started.) When I did it "right" it made me inexplicably sad. I rarely finished anything and never submitted or posted it. After a while I quit.

Then one day I realized, this shit I'm making is bad, and I should feel bad. If I'm gonna make shit, I will at least make shit I can look at and not want to kill myself. (To sum up: shit.)

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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-04-20 03:24 am (UTC)
I would love to hear more about this.

And now you write good shit, so clearly SOMEthing's goin' right.
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2011-04-20 03:14 pm (UTC)
What sort of thing would you like to hear about?

Also, thank you. At least now when I do something horrible, it's my own. :D
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-04-20 03:26 pm (UTC)
Like, what were these "rules" that had been passed down, how/why did they make shit bad, speculation on where they came from if you've got it, that kind of stuff.

My knowledge of Fandom In Ye Olden Days Of Yore is vague and fuzzy and mostly picked up by osmosis, and I'd like to know more than I do.

Plus hearing about how other authors write is always interesting. So stories about things you tried to write and were dissatisfied with and how that all happened: I would be fascinated by them.
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2011-04-20 04:03 pm (UTC)
Ohhhh, man, that's a hard one. (And I apologize because this may sound super moany. Ask more questions if you like.) There weren't hard-and-fast rules, but like any small(ish) group, there were ways of doing things, because that's how they were done, and asking why would get you an Odd Look. Sort of like if you asked, "But weren't there Indians there when Columbus arrived?" in grade school. Lots of self-perpetuating cliches. You'll see echoes of it today when a fanfic writer goes on a rant about How Real Men Really Behave, or one of those "have you ever written" checklists, or I'm Not a Misogynist But Women Ruin Everything. (A current equivalent that irks me is the insistence on being able to compartmentalize every story into pairings.)

There were a few times when I'd ask a question and be told something like, "[SUPERSTAR BNF] taught me that." End of discussion. And it was probably something that SBNF wrote in a margin of a manuscript in one story she was beta-ing ten years ago, but, like St Paul's Post-It to the Guys at the Deli, was now gospel.

I wrote one with a couple of OCs who were a gay couple. The story didn't have much in the way of sex in it (it was an adventure story). It wasn't anything the least bit innovative, but the beta had some bad moments. "Wait...what is this? Is it slash? But they're actually really gay but there's no sex and they do stuff!"
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[User Picture]From: srotu27
2011-04-19 04:38 pm (UTC)
It is a fine line. Having worked with writers for many years, people who are new to it often take any critical feedback (no matter how lovingly it's delivered) as "it sucks and you're wasting your time." Or, if they're egocentric, "I'm telling you it sucks because [I'm jealous of your talent]/[I'm a jerk]/[I don't "get" you and what you're trying to do]." Because I work in a field where I'm cultivating professionals with an entirely different skill set into writers and speakers, it takes a special kind of conversation to bring them around and hear what I'm actually saying. And I can tell you that I didn't love everything I ultimately published--- sometimes there are business reasons that something works, sometimes the smartest person in the room is not the best person to communicate the idea--- beyond issues of skill, there are gaps to be filled and people whose expression of a thought, no matter how imperfect, are there at the right time with an approach that works.

I appreciate the distinction you're drawing also because, as a fan of rom-coms and other populist fare, I'm frequently accused of lacking taste. Which I think is both unfair and inaccurate. I don't say that any recent rom-com is Oscar-worthy or life-changing, but it can be a great improvement in the genre or an innovator in that field, or particularly well-executed, or I can just enjoy it, without claiming that it's art. I sometimes encounter people who need to argue that everything they enjoy is art because they enjoy it. I disagree with that, also. Although there are people of exceptional taste and discernment, I think, for the most part, someone else has to confer that honor upon you. If you adopt it as your own, it smacks of hubris.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-04-20 03:41 am (UTC)
Absolutely. I enjoy quite a lot of music that is overproduced bubblegum pop. I know it's got a lot more surface polish than artistic depth to it, but I still like it. There's room for both populist and refined fare in our lives.

"I only enjoy art, by definition" sound like a strategy for justifying culling instead of accepting surrender.
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[User Picture]From: srotu27
2011-04-20 05:41 pm (UTC)
Apologies if you already got this--- phone is being... challenging.

Thank you, as always, for the excellent link. That article was made of win.
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[User Picture]From: snowninja7
2011-04-19 06:13 pm (UTC)
I find the distinction obvious. However, there's often a problem properly distinguishing (verbally, or in text) which aspect you're critiquing. People (myself included) tend to (lazily) blur their feedback forms together.
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From: walrusjester
2011-04-20 06:27 pm (UTC)
Fascinating topic. I've been trying to pull a coherent response together. I keep coming back to this sentence of yours:

"On the other hand, recognizing quality, and being able to articulate why something is good or bad, requires knowledge of the art."

I don't exactly disagree, but I think there's an embedded assumption that's worth teasing out. Knowledge of an art is certainly crucial to understanding that art - but that knowledge will also shape the outlines of "quality." Are you positing that quality is a freestanding thing which one can discern and then apply, regardless of one's taste? Or are you suggesting that quality is a sort of ur-taste that shapes our further decisions on good/badness? Or something else entirely?

Or do I just need to go re-read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"?
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[User Picture]From: jcbatz
2011-04-21 01:49 pm (UTC)
In my point of view, your reaction to the work is separate from the work itself. For instance, Kris and I started watching The Hurt Locker the other night and chose to stop after about 30 minutes. It wasn't because it is a bad movie. It is a very well crafted and well made movie. We just didn't want to experience the kinds of human suffering we were bound to encounter if we continued watching. The Hurt Locker is not a bad movie.

We do, as artists and critics, need to detach taste from appreciation. We need to be able to recognize good examples of styles we do not like. Considering your experience at Carnegie, there were good pieces you didn't like because you didn't have a frame of reference to see the quality. That isn't intended as an elitist statement at all.

I don't have a frame of reference to enjoy The Maltese Falcon. To me, it is boring and slow and predictable and Bogart falls into a lot of situations that I wouldn't have because I "know better." I don't like mysteries but I can appreciate ones that are done well. I can see quality in a well prepared steak even though I would not eat it. Taste for the thing and experience with the thing are different.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2011-04-21 04:19 pm (UTC)

Opinions below are the commentator's and do not represent those of the blogger

Art must be a conversation. I'd say when it's doing something right it's trying to give you a different perspective on things. But that communication comes in context. There's an inescapable cultural context--language aside, it still matters that Shakespeare was English.

Unless you're creating an entirely new kind of art--and I'm not even sure such a thing is possible--your context also includes all the stuff that has been done before in that medium. And a really good artist knows the background of this particular area of art, even if she's not directly commenting on it through her work, she's at least got this sense of the history present in her work.

There are two reasons for this. One is the "re-inventing the wheel" issue. A painter knows what kinds of substrate, pigments, binders, and solvents to use to get a certain effect. Certainly you could just start from scratch trying different things, but most people will just choose from what's in their art supply store based on experience and education. Certainly a good artist will experiment a bit with different media to see what effects can be accomplished, but they're not going to chuck out the entire history of painting in the process.

This also applies to how one draws anatomy or achieves perspective. Even when you're not using classic techniques, you can tell that a good artist knows those techniques and has chosen something different. See also, Picasso.

But that's inheritance, not conversation. The other thing that happens is that as people choose one way of expressing what they want to express over another, they're making that decision in the midst of a general culture, and even with a certain community within that culture. The choices they make about the content, the media, and the style of their expression are a response in some way to other choices.

That connection can be part of a visceral reaction. You might say, "Hey, there was a reference in that episode of Castle to Firefly, and I like Firefly, so that pleases me." But more critically you know it was pandering to the fanbase and added nothing to the story, and the connections between the two are really mostly limited to the lead actor.

More likely, however, there's a critical enjoyment to a work that is comfortable being part of the conversation. The ways in which a piece relates to other art help build up a sort of noosphere* around the piece itself which become part of the greater sense of the work.

When an artist is actively rejecting those connections, that can be ok. But what's awful is when a piece has these relationships but the artist is obviously not in control of the references, and the noosphere of associations is discordant and ugly.

*Wow, I can't believe I got to use that word in a natural way.
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