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Artizenship, part 10: Hitting Under Par

What do we do, then, as upstanding artizens, when we’d like to participate, but want also to be proud of the final result? What do we do when we encounter “bad” art?

The other day I was invited to collaborate on a communal project. I was curious to learn more: the invitation was enthusiastic and genuine, and the work appealed to my own talents, interests, and goals.

When I visited the project’s website, however, my interest quickly faded. The website looked hastily constructed, in a form that rebelled against function. The free template had been untouched, save for an updated, and clashing, color scheme. I imagined seeing my name below the turnkey photo of river-bed pebbles: would I be proud of this? Would I want to show this off?

Critical Construct

I’ve written much about how an artistic community thrives on diversity and weirdness; but until now I have failed to mention that within our individual weirdnesses, it is inevitable that our many and diverse standards of excellence will eventually clash—like hot pink text against an electric blue background.

What do we do, then, as upstanding artizens, when we’d like to participate, but want also to be proud of the final result? What do we do when we encounter “bad” art?

I don’t mean to incite an existential questing into who or what makes art “good.” (I mean, what even is “art,” anyway?) And, I want to set aside—at least until next month—the shoddy work of artizens-in-poor-standing, who knowingly contribute subpar work.

Rather, let’s focus on art that is sincere, though perhaps amateurish. More rhetorical questions, then: how do we maintain a standard of excellence while encouraging creative experimentation, with all its necessarily bad first, second, third drafts? How do we speak honestly about someone’s work when it seems unpolished, while respecting the artist and their efforts? Is there a way to respectfully, constructively say “perhaps this is not good enough to publicly represent the community”?

“Here, just, let me…I’ll do it.”

The inclination, at least for me—especially a 10-year old me in a social studies class—is to do all the work myself. Or withdraw: I’d rather abstain entirely then have that uncomfortable conversation.

I’m sure I’m not the only one so inclined. Just as I’m sure that neither approach strengthens a community.

I think about the informal writing workshop that I run at my apartment: we’re constantly wanting more honest critique for our own work—“tear it apart!” we say when we begin our discussion—meanwhile we’re afraid to be so honest for each other.

I think too of the talent competition contestants who say they’ve been told they’re wonderful singers or dancers all their lives and then tank in front of Paula Abdul on live television. Couldn’t someone, sometime, have told them—before auditioning—“I love you and I love your enthusiasm, but dang, your B is flat”?

The Best Policy

When delivered with the same sincerity of the artist’s brush, honest criticism can present a tri-fold respect: the acknowledgement that one can do better, the simple but powerful treatment of each other as equal colleagues, and the confidence that one can gracefully accept criticism—of course, that one is up to each of us to live up to.

But there’s more. It would be an unfortunate mistake to assume professional or high-standard artists have nothing to learn from amateurs; it would be a mistake to assume there’s any real difference.